Strange facts and Plimsoll lines

Given the failure of Dr Troppo to become a regular on this site, (he always seemed a bit dodgy) I thought I’d ask a question for light relief.

Why are those shoes with canvas tops and rubber sole called Plimsolls (in Britain anyway)?
The answer, and an interesting story from the Economist are over the fold.   If you just want the answer and not the story – skip to the end.

The sailor’s friend

Jul 6th 2006
From The Economist print edition

PLIMSOLLS, the rubber-soled, canvas shoes worn by schoolchildren and celebrities alike are a familiar piece of footwear. But how many people know that they are named after Samuel Plimsoll, an Englishman whose tireless campaigning ended Victorian shipping malpractices and saved thousands of sailors’ lives?

In her scholarly biography, Nicolette Jones lifts the lid on the life of an extraordinary man from an ordinary background. Plimsoll was born in 1824, the son of an excise man. After working for a decade as a brewery clerk, he made a disastrous foray into the coal trade that bankrupted him, and at the age of 32 was arrested for assaulting the tollkeeper on London’s Waterloo Bridge. Despite this undistinguished start, he rose to become Liberal MP for Derby, took up a cause that stirred the nation, wrong-footed a prime minister and, for a while, was the most popular man in the country.

In the mid-19th century one British mariner in five died at sea. Mortality among sailors was higher than in any other occupation and between 1861 and 1870, 5,826 ships were wrecked off the British coast with the loss of 8,105 lives. Vessels were either overloaded and unstable, or were in such a poor state of repair that they inevitably sank. Unscrupulous shipowners could profit by deliberately over-insuring these “coffin ships” knowing that they were likely to founder.

The cruel loss of life and the impoverished widows and children left behind inspired Plimsoll to take up the sailors’ plight. In an era of popular agitation for social reform his campaign for maximum load lines for ships to be written into law became a “milestone in the progress of people power”. Plimsoll and his cause caught the public imagination: he was lauded in the Times, caricatured in Punch and Vanity Fair, and supported by Queen Victoria. However, he encountered antagonism in the House of Commons, where MPs with vested interests played a long-winded stalling game.

Eventually, after six turbulent years, during which his health suffered, his sanity was questioned and libel cases piled up against him, Plimsoll’s legacy was secured when the 1876 Merchant Shipping Act was passed. It required the hull of every cargo ship to be marked with the level of maximum submergence¢â¬âa mark that to this day is called the “Plimsoll line”.

Ms Jones’s strength lies in bringing to life the sailor’s friend and the political climate in which he battled. “Ambition and altruism, in fine balance, were at Plimsoll’s core,” she writes of the man who, once he had taken on his cause, would be “restless and distressed on stormy nights”. The author clearly outlines the infighting and backstabbing of the political process, taking the reader from courtroom conflicts to a spectacular breach of protocol in the House of Commons when, on learning of Benjamin Disraeli’s decision to abandon the Shipping Bill for that session, Plimsoll lost his temper, furiously railing against the shipowners with “murderous tendencies” represented in the House.

Elegantly written, “The Plimsoll Sensation” is a testament to the might of public opinion and the conviction of a passionate man. And those canvas shoes? They were named plimsolls in 1876 by a salesman for the Liverpool Rubber Company. Why? Because submerging them above their rubber trim results in disaster.

This entry was posted in Uncategorised. Bookmark the permalink.
Notify of

1 Comment
Newest Most Voted
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
17 years ago

Well here we have a special type of plimsolls called Dunlop Volleys, which were originally a tennis shoe, not that any self respecting tennis player would wear anything so rudimentary these days. however they are still highly prized by roofers for their grip, although they need to have extra innersoles added in summer to beat the heat of an iron roof. Crabbers like them too.