The steam ship London departed the East India docks on Thursday, December 28, 1865, and headed downriver to Gravesend where passengers were taken onboard. She was bound for Melbourne, Australia. The trip started on an ominous note when the ship put into Plymouth to take on more passengers. Attempting to take on a pilot, the seas were rough, and the pilot boat capsized. Both the pilot and his assistant drowned.
The weather that had been good for the early part of the trip turned ugly. By January 6th a gale was blowing off Plymouth. The Australian skipper, Captain John Bohun Martin, became concerned with the rising seas and turned the ship to head back for Plymouth. Conditions went from bad to worse when parts of the mast were lost. The broken jib boom smashed everything in its path including a lifeboat. In just a few hours the second lifeboat was lost. The sea tore off the engine room hatch, water pouring in disabling the steam engine. Despite the efforts of the steam-powered donkey engine pump, crews could not keep up with the seawater washing the deck. The London grew lower in the water until by 4 AM four port holes were taking on water. The seas worsened and the ship sunk bow first taking with it 244 passengers. Those few that managed to stay afloat were picked up by the Italian ship Marianople.
A Board of Trade investigation determined the ship was overloaded by 345 tons of railway iron. The investigation revealed that coal stored on the deck blocked the scupper holes that might have allowed the seawater cascading onto the deck to drain off. It took another ten years for the obvious danger to be addressed.
It all started with a fellow named Samuel Plimsoll. Plimsoll was a coal merchant and member of the British Parliament who became aware of the growing problems with the loading of ships. He was aided in his understanding of the dangers of improper ship loading by ship owner James Hall. This concern led Plimsoll to request a Commission of Enquiry, which occurred in 1873.
Mariners have been concerned about overloading for generations. The Venetians painted a cross on the hull to help prevent overloading. By the 19th century, an increase in shipping and the alarming number of shipwrecks prompted Lloyds Register in 1835 to start demanding something be done to require ships in their register of ships to be marked to prevent overloading.
Sailors were too worried about an overloaded ship sinking in heavy seas. Some refused to sail on ships they believed to be unseaworthy. Defiant sailors were imprisoned for refusing to sail on a ship they believed to be unseaworthy. In 1855 a group of sailors wrote to Queen Victoria to plead for clemency when they were convicted of desertion for refusing to sail on ships that they believed were dangerous. In fact, at the time it was determined that nine out of twelve prisoners in the jails were sailors imprisoned for twelve weeks because they refused to sail on dangerous ships.
Thanks in large part to the yeoman efforts of Samuel Plimsoll, parliament passed the Merchant Shipping Act of 1876 which made it compulsory for British ships to be marked. In 1894 the position of the marking was fixed by law. By 1906 any ship entering a British port was required to have Plimsoll line marking.
Since the density varies around the world due to the levels of salt in the water and water temperature, Plimsoll lines are at different levels on different ships, and also why they are made up of so many different lines indicating different types of water. The circular symbol with a line passing through it in the middle is directly below the deck line. Summer Load Line – this is the line marked “S” and is in line with the center of the disc. It denotes the depth to which the ship can be loaded when it is floating in salt water in the summer zone. While the ship is being loaded the captain or mate checks on the line to be sure the ship is properly loaded. The Plimsoll mark also makes it easier for the Coast Guard to quickly determine if a ship is overloaded.
In 1906 the British commanded that all vessels, whether foreign flagged or British, in British waters have load lines. The rest of the maritime nations soon followed, The USCG archives state “…similar load line requirements were individually adopted by other maritime nations until they were internationally standardized in the Load Line Convention of 1930. The present International Convention on Load Lines (ICLL) was drawn up in 1966 and entered into force on July 21, 1968. It is periodically amended via the Load Line Protocol of 1988 (in force since February 3, 2000). The Convention and its Protocol are administered by the International Maritime Organization (IMO), a specialized agency of the United Nations. Vessels of countries signatory to the Convention are required to have an ICLL certificate for international voyages. As of May 2016, 161 countries (representing 98.5% of world tonnage) are signatory to the 1966 ICLL, and 103 countries (representing 95.3% of world tonnage) are signatory to the 1988 LL Protocol.”
In her book, THE PLIMSOLL SENSATION, (published by Abacus, Little Brown Book Group, London) author Nicolette Jones recounts the observations of veteran sailors watching from the shore as London set sail. One said, “It will be her last voyage”. When asked why he said, “she is too low down in the water: she’ll never rise to a stiff sea”. His prediction turned out to be horribly accurate.
It took the loss of thousands of lives for the problem of ship overloading to finally convince the governments of nations all over the world that overloaded ships were needlessly killing people. It was the voice of one man, Samuel Plimsoll that resulted in what has become a worldwide marking system that has saved countless thousands of lives on ships that were dangerously overloaded. Thank you and God Bless Samuel Plimsoll.