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The Plimsoll Line – Insurance Fraud Blog

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Back in October you may have read an article I wrote about the Lutine Bell, housed in the Lloyds of London building, which was rung to signify the fate of a ship for insurance purposes. Well upon further investigation it appears that this bell must have been ringing on an incredibly regular basis in the 1700s as there was an inordinate amount of insurance fraud going on.


Sir Francis Drake - Top Pirate!
Sir Francis Drake – Top Pirate!


In 1588 the English fleet, led in part by Sir Francis Drake, successfully repelled an attack from the Spanish Armada. The Spanish were forced to try to return home by sailing around Scotland and through the Irish Sea. With few provisions and little water, over a third of their ships never returned home.

Rather than return home to raptures of adulation, Queen Elizabeth I decreed that the English sailors should stay aboard their vessels ‘to guard against further invasion’. The reality was in fact that the Lord Chancellor realised he could save a pretty penny if the sailors stayed aboard, as they would not need to immediately be paid. Disease became rife, and more sailors died from typhus, dysentry and hunger after the Spanish attack than during the conflict itself. These came to be known as ‘coffin ships’.

Over the next couple of hundred years, the term ‘coffin ship’ became used in a wider context as more and more ship owners realised that their ships were worth more on the seabed than they were afloat. Sometimes quite unseaworthy vessels were ‘given a lick of paint’ and completely overloaded in the hope that they would sink, therefore enabling the owner to claim on the insurance, normally with little or no regard for the fate of the crew. In the 1700s well over a thousand merchant ships sank in weather that was little more than blustery, leading a certain Samuel Plimsoll to attempt to rectify the situation.

In 1867, Plimsoll was elected as the LiberalMember of Parliament for Derby, and endeavoured in vain to pass a bill dealing with the subject of a safe load line on ships. The main problem was the number of ship-owning MP’s in Parliament.

In 1872 he published a work entitled “Our Seamen”, which became well known throughout the country. Accordingly, on Plimsoll’s motion in 1873, a Royal Commission was appointed, and in 1875 a government bill was introduced, which Plimsoll, though regarding it as inadequate, resolved to accept. However the then Prime Minister, Benjamin Disraeli subsequently dropped the bill, probably due to pressure from all the ship owning MP’s, prompting Plimsoll to lose his temper in the House, shouting ‘villains’ whilst shaking his fist at the Speaker. He later apologised, however many people shared his views and subsequently a year later the Merchant Sipping Act was introduced which included a ‘Plimsoll line’, showing the buoyancy on a ship’s hull, which in 1930 became universally accepted as the International Load Line.

There is no doubt that through his endeavours, Mr. Plimsoll saved no end of sailors’ lives, and was instrumental in combating insurance fraud at the time, so Samuel Plimsoll, we at salute you! The business insurance comparison site!

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