During the Middle Ages, the shipping routes in the Mediterranean were policed by fleets from the Maritime Republics, two of which were the Genoese and the Venetian city states, to the extent that other sovereign states would pay for the privilege of protection from pirates in their seas; the City of London in 1190 paid the Doge of Genoa for this privilege. Similarly the Hanseatic League along the coast of Northern Europe operated a trade monopoly. These three alliances each required that ships load to a load line.
The load line symbol for Venice was a cross marked on the side of the ship, while Genoa had three horizontal lines and when Lloyd’s Register of British and Foreign Shipping in 1835 began incorporating load lines into their Regulations, the Lloyd’s mark used is a circle with a horizontal line through it (ultimately with the letters L, R respectively at the end – denoting the Lloyd’s classification).
In the 1800s, as trade increased, ships became larger and faster, steam combined and /or replaced sail, navigation was easier, the world ‘was shrinking’; ship owners and shippers were all too keen to exploit these commercial opportunities both locally and globally.
In the latter half of the 19th century there was an increased loss of ships at sea due to overloading either of cargo or emigrants, these ships were referred to as “coffin ships”; meaning these were unseaworthy and overloaded vessels, often heavily insured, in which unscrupulous owners risked the lives of their crews and all persons on board.
Samuel Plimsoll (1825 – 1898), who had been born in Bristol – the great North Atlantic seafaring port of the 1600 and 1700s – had become an MP and social reformer, after becoming destitute early in life, restoring his fortunes; through this experience, he learnt to sympathise with the struggles of the poor, whereby he resolved to devote his time to improving their condition.
Plimsoll, elected a Liberal MP in 1868, endeavoured to pass a bill dealing with the subject of a safe load line on ships. The main problem was the number of ship-owning MPs in Parliament. Plimsoll persevered and a Royal Commission was appointed in 1873, and in 1875 a government bill was introduced – however Benjamin Disraeli, the British Prime Minister, announced that the bill would be dropped. Samuel Plimsoll lost his self-control, applied the term “villains” to members of the House, and shook his fist in the Speaker’s face.
Well that must have been quite an interesting day in Parliament, don’t you think? Plimsoll eventually apologised, but the point had been made: many people agreed with him, including other Members of Parliament, who shared his view that the bill had been stifled by the pressure of the ship owners, and popular feeling forced the government to pass a bill becoming the Merchant Shipping Act (1876).
The safe limit to which a ship may be loaded generally became known as the Plimsoll Line. The Line is actually a series of lines painted on the outside of the ship, showing the various safe levels to which the ship can be loaded.
Typically the loading levels are marked for loaded and unloaded draught in sea and fresh water, winter and summer, and tropical or northern waters. The reason for the differentiation is that the different conditions affect the buoyancy, as does the salinity, depending on the density: warm water is less dense than cold, and therefore provides less buoyancy; likewise fresh water is less dense than salty seawater.
Ship side picture of Plimsoll Line, courtesy of www.brighthub.com
There are other marks which have been brought into use in the past one hundred and thirty years as our knowledge has increased. For the technically inclined the Summer load line is the primary load line and it is from this mark that all other marks are derived – please see Wikipedia for further details.
Together with Lloyd's Register (LR) and American Bureau of Shipping (AB), Det Norske Veritas (DNV) is one of the three major companies in the classification society business. Here you will see the markings DNV, S is for the summer load line – obtained from BrightHub.
In the 1830s an athletic shoe with a canvas upper and rubber sole was developed as beachwear by the Liverpool Rubber Company (later to become Dunlop). The name plimsoll was coined, as the coloured horizontal band joining the upper to the sole resembled the Plimsoll Line on a ship’s hull, or because, just like the Plimsoll line on a ship, if water got above the line of the rubber sole, the wearer would get wet.
A rubber sole protects us, while the painted load line and regulatory enforcement of these hieroglyphical lines and cryptic initials ensure that we sail safely having gained our engineering knowledge following the principles of Archimedes Principle on flotation applied by the generations 2,200 years later.
Thank you Mr Postman for visiting today .. we will remember our sailing exploits, or playing around in the bath as kids displacing water in all directions around the bathroom - the dirt rim was called a tide line I seem to remember; also our first plimsoll shoes, as they were called when I was at school, and which we used at home a great deal .. I seem to remember having to whiten them.
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