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The Pamphlet Collection of Sir Robert Stout: Volume 20

Mr. Plimsoll's Appeal for Sailors. A Sermon

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Mr. Plimsoll's Appeal for Sailors. A Sermon,

On Sunday (March 30), at St. George's Hall, Mr. Voysey took for his text, Genesis iv., 9., "Am I my brother's keeper?"

He said—Occasions are continually arising in which a demand is made upon our sympathy and our help; and it is no light cause for pride and thankfulness to know that English hearts are, for the most part, sound at the core, and English hands are ever-ready to succour the distressed, and to defend the cause of the poor. From the Queen on her throne, to the humblest and most obscure of her subjects, the call of suffering and wrong meets with a kind and ready response; and I know of no sign more hopeful than this for the future of our race and the welfare of our country.

If once this passion of philanthrophy takes hold of men's hearts, it must lead them first into all duty, and then into all truth. If we love each other in thought, word, and deed, we shall come to understand the loving-kindness of the Lord. No seed grows so fast, or bears such abundant fruits as the germ of love in an honest heart. It may be alone for a time; it may be hidden deep in the breast, but its springtime must come at last, and it will cover the ground around it with refreshing verdure and lovely flowers. One loving thought born in a single breast will, in time, overspread a class, then a nation, until it is found alive and flourising in all that nation's laws.

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The day has passed, we hope for ever, when men and women hearing of the sufferings of their fellow-creatures, would shrug their shoulders and with a faint ejaculation of pity on their lips would "pass by on the other side." We no longer regard the woes of large classes of our countrymen, who happen to work and suffer at a distance from us, as out of reach of our sympathy and help. We cannot use the many articles of commerce and manufacture without a tender interest in the lives of those who labour in their production. We cannot even warm ourselves at our own fire-side without thinking tenderly and gratefully of the poor miners, who spend all their days deep down in the dangerous darkness, many of them lying on their backs in a mere hole, and hacking away at the black rock over their heads. We cannot partake of the most ordinary breakfast without being reminded of the perils of the sea, through which those men have passed who brought these necessaries to our shores. We cannot handle even a knife or a needle, without remembering that the men who give them their exquisite polish, sacrifice at least one-third of the average length of human life. Look where we will, handle what we may, we cannot forget that our necessaries and luxuries are provided for us at the cost of not merely much painful toil, but also great physical suffering, and much loss of life. Never again can we ask, like Cain, in a spirit of murderous indifference, "Am I my brother's keeper?"

It is, therefore, with no little confidence that I would address you this morning, on an appeal which has recently been made to this country at large by Samuel Plimsoll, the member for Derby. His little book only fell into my hands last week; and on me the effect was irresistable. I confess myself carried away by his persuasiveness, and more than convinced by the accumulated facts which he records in support of his appeal.

In few words, his cry to his fellow-countrymen is, "Come to the rescue of our merchant sailors;" and so strongly am I impressed page 3 with the necessity of their case, I feel bound to say a few words to enlist the sympathies of those who may not have read the book or followed the discussion of the question in Parliament. But before doing so, I must make a few remarks upon the position into which Mr Plimsoll has brought himself by his act of philanthrophy. He has exposed himself to more than one action for libel; he is involved in a controversy with the Board of Trade; he has already had to bear the taunt of having taken up this holy cause for the sake of fame. In regard to the last, and by far the most distressing of his troubles, I can only say, that I for one, knowing nothing of him whatever but from his book, do not believe it possible for such a base motive to have produced such good fruit. There is a charming frankness about the appeal which will carry its author beyond the reach of detraction. There is also the fact that he has given pledge of his honesty of purpose by exposing himself to the terrible consequences of an enfringement of the law of libel, i.e., supposing him to be condemned. But with these legal contests we have nothing to do, and can neither form nor express an opinion upon them. We have, moreover, nothing to do now with defending Mr Plimsoll's integrity, or enlisting sympathy for him. That is not what we have to do; and I feel sure it is the last thing which he desires. His book is not a plea of self-vindication; it is the advocacy of a neglected class by a man evidently for the time much more reckless of his own interests than designing. But I will pass at once to the appeal which he has made, and the facts on which it rests.

As we all know, passenger ships and ships of war are regularly and strictly inspected by Government surveyors before they can leave a port. But such is not the case with what is called the mercantile marine. Inspection is not compulsory; and therefore, in some cases, and those quite the exception, ships are sent to sea in a dangerous condition through being badly built, or thoroughly out of repair, or being overloaded, or insufficiently manned. Though these exceptions are few, the result is a fearful waste of page 4 human life, and the plunging of about 500 families every year into the woes of bereavement and destitution. These are the bold bare facts of the case which Mr Plimsoll proves by numerous illustrations, and on which he asks us to help him to secure prompt Government inspection for this branch of our merchant service.

Our author says more than this, however; he explains to us the various inducements to wicked practices, to which dishonest and covetous men are exposed. He tells us how some ships are insured at sums far exceeding their cost, and, then as a natural result, the owners are enriched by the loss of the vessels. Fearful, if true, are the revelations on this head. He states that the under-writers at Lloyd's have agreed to refuse insurance to certain ships built by certain ship-builders, or owned by certain ship-owners. He shows what temptations there are to overloading—to altering the build of a ship that it may carry greater cargo, but with greatly diminished safety—and lastly to gain profits by the shortening of the crew; a proceeding which in severe weather is almost certain to be fatal to the vessel, and in any season is a great hardship to the few men on board who have to work, when exhausted, for their very lives. Repairs, of course, cost money, and its more precious equivalent, time; so that if a ship cannot discharge her cargo, and refill, and set sail again at the shortest possible interval, the owner cannot secure a reasonable profit. So, in some instances, she is sent to sea almost in a state of rottenness, and that, time after time, till she sails her last voyage, and is never heard of again—founders with all hands. But then a fraudulent owner will make a large sum of money by her being lost.

The poor sailors have no redress, if they once contract to serve on board a ship, and if finding out afterwards that she is badly out of repair or overloaded, they try to get rid of their bad bargain, they are instantly imprisoned.

Sailors have been known thus to save their lives by surrender to the police as the only way of escape left to them. There is no page 5 hardship in the law itself—it is absolutely needful for the general good—the hardship lies in its application to sailors who are unwilling to go to the bottom of the sea with their eyes open. If the merchant vessels were properly under Government inspection, no sailor would ever need to pay three months' imprisonment as the price of his life.

If I wanted to excite your feelings I could read pages from Mr Plimsoll's book which would fill you with indignation and horror. But I do not desire to do this. I only wish to call your attention to what he has said; and to kindle your sympathy for a class of men (and that, of course, includes their wives and children) who are defenceless, and who are at the mercy of those who have no mercy. You can read for yourselves the tales of woe, and master for yourselves the degrading details of the system of fraud; but what is done under the mere impulse of mental agitation is not done wisely nor done well. Calmly look at the narratives, strip them of what seems to you superfluous colouring; and then act upon your conviction of what you ought to do. After reading his book I could myself come to no other conclusion than that if the half of the sad tale were true, or merely possible, we ought to do our best betimes to prevent it, or render its repetition impossible. The remedy is only too simple—Government inspection—just the same safeguards as are now provided for passenger ships, and ships of war. That is all. Our tender-hearted Queen once wrote to the Directors of Railways wishing that they would take as much care of the lives of her subjects as they took of her own. All we crave from our Government is to do for poor merchant seamen what they have already done for passengers, and for the Navy. If we are at a loss how to promote this end Mr Plimsoll himself has undertaken to guide us. He says (p. 114) "Will you help me to put these things right? If you will, whether man or women, write me just a line to 111, Victoria-street, S.W., to say so, and I will then say how you can best do so."

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Those who have time can give time; those who have influence, can give influence; those who have money, can give money if it be wanted. I intend to make enquiries this week about the last-named item, and if money is wanted, I will ask you to contribute next Sunday to this object, hoping that meanwhile you will have read the book for yourselves, and given it the calm thought for which I have asked.

Before I conclude with a short extract from the book itself, let me say one word of caution against the tendency of what goes by the name of political economy, and the principle of non-intervention. No doubt much of political economy is true, and much needed for these times, as a wholesome discipline, and a corrective of much laziness, which had been fostered by the hope of getting somebody else to bear our burdens for us. But political economy does not cover the entire range of human duty and human feeling. It is rather a description of things as they are, and not of things as they ought to be. It makes no provision for the finest instincts of our nature, but leaves us to the perpetual study of our self-interest. The principle of nonintervention and letting things get right of themselves is a profoundly unwise one; it is next door to the murder spirit of Cain, which says "Am I my brother's keeper?" It debases those who act upon it even more than it injures those who suffer by it.

If we see a wrong—a patent flagrant case of oppression or cruelty, and save ourselves the trouble and danger of interference by the happy thought that if we interfere we shall probably do more harm than good, we are not only undermining our courage and our native chivalry, but are gilding over our sloth and our cowardice with the tinselled counterfeits of virtue. Oh dangerous, most insidious error! Better to make a thousand blunders in political economy than make your soul mean; better to interfere and get bitten for our pains—yes, bitten by the venomed tooth of slander—than to leave your weak brother to perish, or the tyrant to have page 7 his cruel will. If we want to be noble rather than to be called so, we must earn it by nobility of soul, and there is none in the miserable calculations of self-interest. If we want to be good rather than to be admired or successful, we must act loyally to our heart's highest call first, and count the cost afterwards.

If Mr Plimsoll is such a man, time will soon clear the clouds from his fair fame, and the gratitude of a growing world will be his reward. These are his last words:—

"Help them then, I pray you, and you too shall be helped by the recollection of your brotherly aid when that hour comes when you will need the help of Him that sticketh closer than a brother. Consider how, not only are the sailors' lives sacrificed, not only are many, very many, of their wives made widows, but what a clouded life all then wives lead from well-grounded and constant apprehension, which, deeply depressing at all times, knows no other variation than the quick agony into which those apprehensions are aroused, whenever the wind rises, even to a moderate gale.

"Whoever you are who read this, help the poor sailors, for the love of God. If you are a man of influence, call a meeting and confer on this appeal, if you are not, and will write to me, I will try to show you how to help. If you refuse—but this I cannot think—if you refuse or neglect to use your influence, before another year has run its course at least five hundred—five hundred men!—now in life, will strew the bottom of the sea with their dead, unburied, unresting bodies, and desolation and woe will have entered many and many a now happy home; but if you do render your help, we can secure such life-preserving activity in precautionary measures, that the sailor will have no fear; and then the storms of winter may come, but with good tight ships under them, and sound gear to their hands, their own strong arms and stout hearts can do the rest; and as, after a storm and tempest, which, but for your fraternal care, would have overwhelmed them in death and sent bereavement and anguish into page 8 their humble homes, they reach their desired haven, weary and worn it may be, but still safe—chilled to the marrow, but still alive—the blessings of those who are ready to perish shall be yours; nor shall there be lacking to you those richer blessings promised by the Great Father of us all, to those who visit the widow and fatherless; for that to the high and the noble, and the sacred duty of visiting them in their affliction, you have preferred the higher, the nobler, and the yet more sacred duty of saving women and children from so sad a fate."

Eastern Post Steam Printing Works, 89, Worship street, Finsbury, E.C.