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Toeing Plimsoll’s Line

The unexpected consequences of writing a book

Illustration by Fran Pulido of woman by window thinking what to write with book birds flying past window.

On a chilly Saturday night in a seaside town in February 2013, I found myself wearing a dress with a bustle and standing in a church reciting to a full house in my best northern accent a Victorian poem told from the point of view of an old sea dog. Beside me a man in tails, with white gloves and a gavel, was compering proceedings. For a moment it flashed through my mind what a bizarre and unforeseen thing this was for me to be doing. But I was taking part in the first Plimsoll Memorial Music Hall Evening held in Folkestone, to commemorate the Victorian maritime reformer Samuel Plimsoll, who lived his last years in the town, and is buried there.

How I came to be holding forth in this unlikely setting was an unexpected consequence of having written a book. An invitation to talk about The Plimsoll Sensation: the great campaign to save lives at sea at a Folkestone literary festival had led to a conversation about how more should be done locally to remember the man who gave his name to the loadline — the line of maximum submergence on the side of a merchant ship. For a few years the idea resurfaced, but it did not float until I took it upon myself to organise something.

I began by emailing Folkestone dignitaries, historians, and newspapers. Locals responded with enthusiasm, and, a lot of emails later, there is now an annual wreath-laying on Plimsoll’s grave, and a service with maritime standards and bell-ringing attended by local mayors, followed by a Plimsoll Memorial Lecture, and rounded off with tea and cakes in the church hall, all on the Saturday closest to Plimsoll’s birthday, 10th February.

At the third of these yearly commemorations, the writer Horatio Clare (who went on to win the Stanford Dolman Travel Book of the Year award for Down to the Sea in Ships) was the guest speaker. The music hall evenings (two consecutive ones) were also part of these festivities, complete with sea shanties and an amateur company belting out ‘My Old Man Said Follow the Van’. The grand finale of both was a rendition, by performers and audience together, of a music hall song I found in the depths of the British Library: ‘A Cheer for Plimsoll’. Until then it had probably hardly been sung since it was written and composed in 1876.

All authors, when they write books, hope to be on the road, talking in public at some point. But this particular book has had a long afterlife, with reverberations I would never have anticipated, even beyond the bustle and gavel episode.

The problem for me was that I wrote the book, in part, because I could not bear to let Plimsoll’s whistleblowing fight for justice be forgotten. Plimsoll, and his undersung wife Eliza, took on the fat cats who loaded ships as deeply as they liked in order to make as much profit as possible. Drowned sailors and their families paid the price. The package of safety measures for which Plimsoll battled for decades, inside and outside the House of Commons, included the loadline that bore his name. The hard-won campaign ultimately saved countless lives at sea – the Plimsoll Line is now an international standard – and yet the man who was once a household name and a national hero has faded from public consciousness. I think individuals (all too rare) who change the world for the better deserve to be remembered. So all opportunities to resurrect his reputation had to be taken up; it was not just about promoting the book.

The Folkestone initiative led to an exhibition in the foyer of the Town Hall, which it fell to me to mount. I assembled all my accumulated Plimsoll memorabilia, printed a six-foot-high photograph of the Plimsoll figurehead (it came from a ship named after him in 1873), scripted a narrative, and used toy boats in a bowl to demonstrate how the Plimsoll Line worked. Quite separately, there was the business of being recruited by property developers to write marketing copy for their new ‘Plimsoll Building’ behind Kings Cross. (It was so named to compensate for the demolition of the ‘Plimsoll Viaduct’ that Plimsoll had built when he was a coal merchant.)

The book, too, consolidated my connection with my immediate neighbourhood in unexpected ways. It happens that the trigger for my investigations was that I live in Plimsoll Road and became curious about the street name’s origins. Now the singing of ‘A Cheer for Plimsoll’ has become a traditional part of our annual street party. The members of the local women’s singing group have learnt it, and a neighbour has written all the words on huge rolls of lining paper, which are held up by children while everyone joins in the chorus. Even better, a musician who lives on the same street composed an original work: a ‘Theme and Variations on a Cheer for Plimsoll’ which premiered at the party and is regularly performed on strings by musical Plimsoll Roaders. And this year, in a story tent, local residents talked about their own histories; I talked about Plimsoll’s. And the six-foot photo of the figurehead came out on display again.

When the bells ring, and the flags are waved, and the neighbours sing, it brings a lump to my throat that someone long gone – someone that I care about but few others now do – is being honoured again. It is moving when historical research has repercussions in the present day, especially when they affect people personally — as another development did. I had tracked down and befriended some of Plimsoll’s descendants, but one strand of the family I couldn’t find until, a few years ago, a neighbour reported that he had heard on Radio 3 a caller claiming to be Plimsoll’s great-granddaughter. I followed this up and, as a result, long-lost cousins, who were Plimsoll’s direct descendants, were brought together for the first time at our Folkestone events.

The memorials, the exhibition, the corporate commemoration, the neighbourhood festivities, the reunions, were all beyond the horizon when I began my research. But then another idea sailed into view. Samuel Plimsoll was a huge supporter of lifeboats. So to raise money for the RNLI, and again to remind us of a man who changed the world for the better, I launched a fundraiser: Plimsolls for Plimsoll Day. Like Jeans for Genes, the idea is to wear your plimmies (or trainers) to school or work on 10th February, and pay £1 to the lifeboats. Some schools have already been involved; we provided a helpful fact-sheet, including the information that plimsolls were named in Sam’s honour because, being canvas above and rubber below, they could only be safely immersed in water up to a certain point, like a merchant ship. (My plimsolls bear a facsimile of Sam’s signature, so they are not only named after him but signed by him.) On Twitter last year we invited participants to Tweet Their Feet.

Opportunities often arise from publishing books. But bustle-wearing and shanty-singing, and discovering a whole new community of friends, and reuniting cousins, and sharing photographs of my feet on social media were not what I foresaw. More may be to come. There is talk of renaming a railway line The Plimsoll Line. The newly mustered Folkestone Memorial Campaign may yet erect a permanent monument in the town. The RNLI fundraiser, with luck, will grow. And I haven’t given up on the hope that this tale is worth telling on screen. The destination is uncertain, but I am still aboard.

Be careful when you choose the subject for a book. You can never be sure where it might take you.

Nicolette Jones’s The Plimsoll Sensation won the Mountbatten Maritime Prize and a US Maritime Literature Award. She is a writer and journalist and reviews children’s books for the Sunday Times.

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