Dictionary of National Biography, 1901 supplement/Plimsoll, Samuel

PLIMSOLL, SAMUEL (1824–1898), 'the Sailors' Friend,' born on 10 Feb. 1824 at Bristol, was the fourth son of Thomas Plimsoll of Bristol by his wife Priscilla, daughter of Josiah Willing of Plymstock. He was educated first by the curate at Penrith, where his parents resided in his early youth, and afterwards at Dr. S. Eadon's school at Sheffield. On leaving school he became a solicitor's clerk. Later on he was clerk and afterwards manager in a brewery, and in 1851 he acted as an honorary secretary for the Great Exhibition. In 1853 he came to London, and established himself as a coal merchant, and in 1862 published pamphlets on the export coal trade and on the inland coal trade of England.

After some unsuccessful attempts to enter parliament in the radical interest, Plimsoll was returned for Derby in 1868, and from the first devoted himself to the question of mercantile shipping. In 1870 he opened his campaign by proposing a resolution condemning unnecessary loss of life and property at sea, and insisting upon the compulsory load-line as the reform to be advocated. This resolution, and also a bill which the government had introduced on the same subject, were withdrawn owing to pressure of business; but Plimsoll kept the question, before the public. In 1871 he introduced a bill on the lines of his resolution, and again had to withdraw it. In 1872 he published an attack on shipowners entitled 'Our Seamen.' This work raised a storm of controversy, and resulted in such an awakening of public feeling that an address was passed calling for the appointment of a royal commission. Under the chairmanship of Edward Adolphus Seymour, twelfth duke of Somerset [q. v.], who, having himself been first lord of the admiralty, possessed technical knowledge of shipping, a powerful commission sat in 1873 and examined many witnesses, including Plimsoll himself. The report of the commission did not support his favourite idea of a fixed load-line, but nevertheless he introduced another bill in 1874, and was defeated by a majority of only three. The government was now obliged to deal with the alleged grievances, and brought in a merchant shipping bill in 1875. This was so materially altered in the course of debate that Disraeli resolved to withdraw it. In protesting against this action, on 22 July 1875, Plimsoll violently attacked the class of shipowners, and caused a scene in the House of Commons. He admitted that the expressions he had used applied to members of the house and refused to withdraw. He was ordered to retire by the speaker, Henry Bouverie William Brand (afterwards Viscount Hampden) [q. v.], and Disraeli moved 'that the honourable gentleman be repri- manded.' Finally action was postponed for a week, and Plimsoll apologised to the house. There is no doubt that this exciting incident had the effect of attracting public attention, so that the government was obliged to hurry through a measure which now stands in the statute book as the Merchant Shipping Act, 1876.

In 1880 Plimsoll gave up his seat at Derby to Sir William Harcourt, and never again entered the house, although he unsuccessfully contested a few elections. His interest in the British sailor remained as keen as before, and he expended large sums of money and a good deal of his time in promoting further reforms and in insisting upon the efficient administration of the existing laws. For the latter purpose he visited the ports of foreign countries to inquire into the condition of our merchant ships and their crews. In 1890 he published a pamphlet on cattle ships, and in the same year became president of the Sailors' and Firemen's Union. He held this post for several years under the distinct understanding that his duty should be limited to presiding at the annual congress and advising as to parliamentary action. From the financial affairs of the union and their policy in trade disputes he expressly dissociated himself. He contributed many articles to the 'Nineteenth Century' and other periodicals, and published several pamphlets, chiefly on mercantile shipping.

After a long illness Plimsoll died on 3 June 1898 at Folkestone, where he had resided for some years. His writings and speeches were severely criticised for their violence of language, their exaggeration of fact, and the want of technical knowledge displayed in them. On the other hand he possessed an unusual amount of enthusiasm, which he was able to impart to others.

Plimsoll was brought up a congregationalist, and never left that body, but he was equally attached to all denominations of evangelical Christianity.

Plimsoll married his first wife, Eliza Ann, daughter of Hugh Railton of Chapeltown, near Sheffield, in 1858. She died in Australia in 1882. There were no children by this marriage. He married his second wife, Harriet Frankish, daughter of Mr. Joseph Armitage Wade, J.P., of Hull and Hornsea, in 1885. By this marriage there were six children, of whom a son, Samuel Richard Cobden Plimsoll, and two daughters survive him.

[Hansard's Parl. Debates; H. W. Lucy's Diary of Two Parliaments; private information.]

E. O.