Sneakers and Maritime Safety
When Wilhelm said this morning that there’s this review in this week’s Economist of a terrific new book about the Plimsoll line, I didn’t immediately rush to Amazon.com. I mean, maritime safety is important, but it’s not something I obsess about. (Sorry Sarah.)
“May I read you the review?” said he. “Of course,” said I, thinking, I’ll just keep reading my email while he reads.
About one paragraph into the review I was at rapt attention.
Plimsoll, a bankrupt who had been arrested for assault in his youth, later pulled himself together and became MP for Derby, a post which he used to campaign for maximum load lines on ships.
“In the mid-19th century one British mariner in five died at sea. . . . between 1961 and 1870, 5,826 ships were wrecked off the British coast.”
“Here’s the beginning of another review, this one by Geoffrey Moorhouse in “Guardian Unlimited”:
“A storm at sea is enough to put the fear of God into anyone; and there's nothing like being caught in a Force 12 to concentrate the mind on first and last things, to the exclusion of anything in between. This is as true as it ever was, even in an age of satellite navigation, aerial rescue services and stabilisers.
“. . . in the 19th century . . . too many vessels were not fit to be on the high seas and, more often than not, they were disastrously overloaded by owners who didn't give a damn about the welfare of those who sailed in them, whose lives were thought to be expendable for the sake of profit. These were the infamous ‘coffin ships’, and never was an epithet more richly deserved.”
Eventually Plimsoll was successful and in 1876 the Merchant Shipping Act requiring “the hull of every cargo ship to be marked with the level of maximum submergence – a mark that to this day is called the ‘Plimsoll line.’”
And the sneakers? In 1876 a salesman for the Liverpool Rubber Company named them plimsolls “because submerging them above their rubber trim results in disaster.”
The book is The Plimsoll Sensation: The Great Campaign to Save Lives at Sea, by Nicolette Jones. It’s of interest in part because the author “brings to life . . . the political climate in which [Plimsoll] battled. . . . The author clearly outlines the infighting and backstabbing of the political process.” Those of us who are readers of Anthony Trollope’s Parliamentary novels should find informative a report on English politics in the late 1870s, when Plantagenet Palliser was the Prime Minister.
The book is published in England. Those of us in the US will have to wait a while before we can pick it up at Barnes and Noble.