St. Martins – Samuel Plimsoll
St. Martin’s Church Cheriton hosted on Saturday 8th February 2013 what will hopefully become the first of many future years of memorials to one of Folkestone’s unsung heroes. A church full of about 130 people sung the same hymns that were sung at the great man’s funeral, were taught a music hall song about the man that was sung during his lifetime and listened to various addresses and readings delivered by Folkestone’s Mayor, to the author of the recent biography on Plimsoll, Nicolette Jones. A collection was taken for the RNLI and Kent Merchant Navy Association and this was followed by a wreath laying ceremony at Plimsoll’s grave. A display of old photographs and illustrations was on display in St. Martin’s Church and a further celebratory Music Hall Evening was put on in the evening by the United Reformed Church near Radnor Park. The collection taken at both events on the day meant that the RNLI and the Kent Merchant Navy Association each received £428.
In fact, Plimsoll Day is actually on the 10th February in line with the anniversary of his birth (10th February 1824). And whilst memorials have taken place at St. Martin’s Church before from a small graveside wreath laying a few years ago and across the years with the local school and Sunday school children paying their tributes, it is this years’ service that hopefully has gained enough momentum to see a more regular and larger commemoration take place annually.
There is not enough space here to warrant a full biography; and those who would like to find out more should read Nicolette Jones’ acclaimed book ‘The Plimsoll Sensation.’ But briefly, Samuel Plimsoll, was born in Bristol, and whilst Liberal M.P. for Derby devoted a great deal of his time and efforts on improving the conditions of the poor, most notably the seamen who sailed on overloaded and heavily insured ships, known as ‘coffin-ships’ as they were risking their lives for the often unscrupulous ship owners who would profit from their ships’ demise at sea without too much consideration for the loss of life. The Load Line, or Plimsoll Line, which was introduced to prevent this behaviour, is what Samuel Plimsoll will be best remembered for; but also the common plimsoll shoe is named after him (having its own rubber ‘Load Line’ above which the wearer would get wet!) and later in life he visited America and did a lot to remove the anti-British bias from American schoolbooks which still existed, with the 1812-14 war between America and the British Empire in which British troops burnt down the White House and government buildings in Washington, still fresh in the memory of many Americans.
Samuel Plimsoll’s connection with Folkestone only occurred towards the end of his life, when being diagnosed as diabetic in 1892 he nominally retired from public life and moved first to 31 Clifton Gardens and then to 35 Augusta Gardens in 1895 to his death on 3rd June 1898 after falling into a diabetic coma.
Whilst in Folkestone, Plimsoll attended first the Tontine Street Congregational Church and when the congregation outgrew the church warranting the building of a second Congregational Church in the town near Radnor Park (now renamed the United Reformed Church), Samuel Plimsoll was to have laid one of the foundation stones in July 1897. Sadly his ill health meant his wife fulfilled his duty that day, but he was a worshipper in the Radnor Park Congregational Church during the last year of his life.
It has been suggested that the reason Plimsoll lies in St. Martin’s churchyard is that it was the only local churchyard with a view of the sea, and shortly after his death, all the ships in Folkestone’s harbour are reported to have flown their flags at half-mast. Then on the day of the funeral, sailors from local vessels arrived at Plimsoll’s home in Augusta Gardens, removed the horses from the hearse, and drew the coffin themselves to the graveside.
There is talk that with the creation of new streets and space with the proposed harbour development that Folkestone may also pay tribute to Samuel Plimsoll in the naming of another street after him (as we already have Plimsoll Avenue near Creteway Down), or a plaque on the Leas bandstand, or even some permanent artwork or sculpture. Either way let us hope that this year’s Samuel Plimsoll memorial service is the catalyst and that Plimsoll Day continues to be commemorated in Folkestone, and that future generations do not forget ‘The Sailor’s Friend.’
© Vince Williams 2013