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- December 2007 edition of the Naval Historical Review (all rights reserved)
The Plimsoll Sensation: The Great Campaign to Save Lives at Sea.
By Nicolette Jones.
Published by Abacus Books 2007. ISBN 978-0-349-11720-1.
Reviewed by Sandy Saunders
This book chronicles, in great detail, the campaign conducted by Samuel Plimsoll in the United Kingdom (UK) in the latter half of the nineteenth century, to establish a set of principles directed at the safe loading of ships of the British Mercantile Marine. The main objective of this campaign was to improve the safety of the sailors manning these ships. It is recommended reading for anyone with connections to the sea.
The adoption by the British Parliament of these principles, after many years of delaying tactics, led to the mandatory marking of a Plimsoll Line on a ship’s side, to indicate its safe loading, or freeboard, for various sea and ocean areas and conditions. This marking system is still in use to this day.
This is a well written and scholarly book, thoroughly researched and referenced and should prove a boon to avid researchers. It reports in detail on the period of time when the UK was struggling to adapt to the sweeping changes in social conditions occurring in that country, resulting from the ongoing Industrial Revolution.
One of the less desirable changes being experienced was the search for ever-greater profits from business, with little regard to social or moral considerations. In ruthless pursuit of this aim, merchant ships were routinely sailed by mercenary owners, grossly overloaded, with very little freeboard and badly stowed cargoes.
In many instances old and unseaworthy ships, heavily insured by the owners, were employed in the trade, their loss resulting in a handsome profit for the owners.
The loss of life among the ships’ crews at the time became a national disgrace, particularly as any crew member who, on joining the ship, opted not to sail, was promptly imprisoned.
The author meticulously reports on many of these episodes and the truly horrendous annual loss of life by seamen sailing from the many ports in the UK.
She also very adroitly makes the telling of this sad episode in British Mercantile history an exposé of the appalling social conditions pertaining at the time. In this regard the story line is very reminiscent of the reporting of this same period of history by Charles Dickens, in his many books.
The book includes details of the many years spent in attempting to have legislation to prevent these evil practices passed by a Parliament, dominated and controlled by the emerging business class, a political programme full of delays, deferments, obstruction and chicanery. I am sure this will come as no surprise to readers who follow political history.
The Bill when finally adopted and passed into law by the Parliament, while perhaps not achieving all the desired aims, made the British Merchant Marine an infinitely safer place to follow a maritime career.
The changes were also, in time, adopted by Foreign Flag ships, a change ‘encouraged’ by not allowing such ships to enter British ports until they complied with the rules.
An eminently readable book for Australians, as a number of the ships that foundered on their way to Australian ports, were carrying migrants, as well as cargo. The book also is a mine of information for the avid maritime researcher, and a timely reminder of the enormous contribution by Samuel Plimsoll to safety at sea.