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Canada's Own Plimsoll - Montreal's Most Extraordinary Lawyer - Reginald Plimsoll - Mr. Montreal

By William Tetley, Q.C.

Samuel Plimsoll, the social reformer, who fought against overloaded, unseaworthy ships, in which seamen were sent to sea, was a dour, serious man. In 1868, he got himself elected to the British Parliament and presented a private member`s Bill against “coffin ships” as he called them. Prime Minister Disraeli shunted the Bill aside and Plimsoll therefore wrote a book, entitled “Our Seamen” and so shamed the government, that it eventually adopted his recommendations. Now even today, ships may not be loaded over the “Plimsoll line” and the whole seafaring world is the better for it. It is not well-known that Montreal had its own Plimsoll – Reginald Plimsoll QC - a grand nephew of Samuel, who was quite unlike his introverted grand uncle. The Montreal Plimsoll`s appearance, conversation and habits, not only set him apart from every lawyer in town, but every citizen as well.

Reginald Plimsoll was visible and recognizable from a mile away. Slim and six feet four inches tall, he always carried an elegant silver topped walking stick, wore a wing collar and hand-tied bow tie, a bowler hat, spats in winter and chequered woollen suits in bright, almost gaudy colours. He advised all and sundry that he had seven different such suits, one of which he wore each day, so that they never wore out. He solemnly counselled young lawyers to follow his example.

He was extremely well-read, spoke in sonorous but delightful tones and was simultaneously optimistic and in his later years was eternally out-of-pocket. Reginald Plimsoll was born in Montreal in 1886, graduated from McGill in law in 1912, and clerked with none other than the eminent international lawyer, Eugène Lafleur (who amongst other things was chosen to arbitrate a section of the boundary between the United States and Mexico in 1911). Plimsoll then practised as a junior lawyer with such notables as Robert Taschereau and Thibodeau Rinfret, who both became Chief Justices of the Supreme Court of Canada. Plimsoll served in the artillery in the First World War and afterwards practised law alone in Montreal.

He was baptised into the Church of England of Canada, in the Cathedral in Montreal, but as he informed me, he converted to Roman Catholicism, which he practised with enthusiasm and sincerity, like everything else he did.

Reginald was known for his conversation, which was unsurpassed, and for his effortless ability to cadge drinks, lunch or dinner, which was also unsurpassed. Yet he was very good value as a guest, because of his erudition and cheerful, informed conversation.

He lived alone in a small room in a run-down hotel in Montreal and he also conducted his law practice alone out of a tiny office in an ancient building, but the door proudly bore his name in large gold letters and underneath were the names of a number of unknown, but high-sounding, corporations, (also in gold lettering). If his maritime law practice existed, it was invisible, but this was no matter to Mr. Plimsoll who always spoke and carried himself with great dignity.

He was extremely well-read and could talk with authority on any subject but in matters maritime, he was able to speak with justifiable pride of his grand uncle, Samuel Plimsoll.

I first met Reginald Plimsoll, in 1952, in my first year of practice, when I was trying to build a maritime law practice and was trying to teach myself maritime law, a subject our large Montreal law firm had never done before. I therefore borrowed Admiralty law reports from the Bar Association Library each week, making notes and checking off each tome on the inside back cover, as read it. I soon realized that someone else was doing the same thing, and this was confirmed when I received a telephone call from Mr Plimsoll. “Mr Tetley, I see that we have the same reading habits. May I introduce myself? I am Reginald Plimsoll Q.C.” We met and his knowledge of maritime law was very considerable, although I never knew anyone, who was his client and I never saw or heard of him in the Admiralty Court.

Mr Plimsoll often telephoned with advice and the conversation was always formal. Mr Tetley, this is Reginald Plimsoll Q.C. speaking“. “Yes, Mr. Plimsoll.” And then would follow some observation on a recent judgment or maritime matter, which was inevitably useful.

Once in 1959, Mr Plimsoll`s phone call was especially valuable. I had been attempting to recover damages from shipowners for cargoes of canned goods, which had gone from a cold climate (Vancouver) through a warm climate (the Panama Canal) and then back to a colder climate (Montreal). The cargo always suffered rusting (or “sweat damage”) from the moisture in the warm climate that formed on the cold cans, despite efforts to ventilate the holds. The claims were in the order of $250,000, which was an astronomical sum in those days, (the 1950`s). The shipowners always refused payment on the grounds that sweat was a “peril of the sea” and I was concerned as my cases were coming up for trial.

Mr Plimsoll phoned and was his usual self-assured, formal self. “Mr Tetley do you know the corner of Guy and Ste Catherine Streets?” (Two of Montreal`s main thoroughfares.) “Yes. Mr. Plimsoll.”…. “Do you the know the southeast side of Ste Catherine Street at that intersection?” …”Yes, Mr Plimsoll.”… “Go to the third door from intersection and you will find a bookstore. Enter and on the top shelf on the left hand side you will find a tome on ship ventilation and the avoidance of sweat damage.”…”Yes Mr. Plimsoll”…”It is by Captain Garoche an experienced ship surveyor in France.” …”Thank you, Mr Plimsoll.“

I found the book in its place, bought it and learned that Garoche had written that sweat damage could be avoided by ventilating, when the dew point outside of the ship`s hold was lower than the dew point in the hold. Wet and dry thermometer readings had to be taken periodically by the ship, in consequence, in order to decide whether or not to ventilate. This was generally unknown to shipowners and not at all by courts anywhere in the world.

I used the information to prove that “sweat” was not a “peril of the sea”, but something shipowners could avoid and were therefore responsible for. I was able to win and subsequently settle many large sweat damage claims.

My wife and I often invited Mr. Plimsoll to cocktail parties at our home and he would regale any one within earshot. He arrived sharp at 6:00 p.m. and left just as sharply at 8:00 p.m., so that we always made his invitation for 6:00 to 9:00 p.m or even 10:00 p.m. Once at a party, whilst talking to Mr. Russell Merifield, Q.C., Plimsoll realized that Russ Merifield Jr., who was a law student, was the bartender. Bartending was a profession for which Plimsoll had great respect, because he believed it would always be in demand. Addressing Russ Sr. formally he said: “May I congratulate you on your son, Sir. You shall never want.” Russ Jr. did not take Plimsoll`s advice and today is a senior lawyer with the government in Ottawa. Plimsoll did not have quite the same respect for his own profession, which seemed to have its financial ups and downs. Mr Plimsoll was admired by Maurice Duplessis, long-time Premier of the Province of Quebec, who named Plimsoll, Assistant Fire Commissioner for a number of years and then promoted him to Rentals Commissioner, with a higher emolument. Mr Plimsoll noted philosophically that the order-in-council naming him Rentals Commissioner was written in Duplessis` singular style. It began ” Whereas Reginald Plimsoll Q.C has resigned as Assistant Fire Commissioner…” which was the first indication that Plimsoll himself had, that he had resigned and now had a new job. Duplessis, of course, believed in rewarding his faithful, but they could not have more than one sinecure at a time.

Mr. Plimsoll, a staunch conservative, repaid Duplessis, by being a straw candidate for the Union Nationale (Duplessis` party), at every provincial election, in ridings where Duplessis did not wish to defeat a sympathetic incumbent. Plimsoll was therefore the losing candidate for years in Ste Anne riding, always won by the ebullient Frank “Banjo” Hanley, the longtime independent member for the riding and a favorite of Duplessis.

Mr Plimsoll advised solemnly that he was the only politician, who never visited his constituency between elections, while he enjoyed talking of his election campaigns, which never cost him more than precisely $100.75. He would visit his constituency only once during the campaign and would sit in the front row at High Mass in Ste Anne Parish Church on the Sunday before the election. With a flourish, he would put a $100.00 bill on the collection plate and after Mass he would buy each of five little boys from the congregation, an ice cream soda, which could be purchased in those days for 15 cents each.

Towards the end, Mr. Plimsoll entered Julius Richardson Hospital in Montreal and was confined to a ward holding seven other elderly gentlemen. When I visited him he was sitting up in bed, with a crucifix on one bedpost and a rosary on the other and was entertaining his roommates and passing hospital staff, all of whom were paying rapt attention. His subjects were always learned and this time it was from the London Economist, of which he was, of course, a constant reader, but not a subscriber. Reginald Plimsoll died on May 26, 1963, but not unnoticed. St Patrick`s Cathedral was filled with admirers and friends from all walks of life, unlike the funerals of many of his well-to-do contemporaries at the Bar. The Montreal Star, too, was not to be out-done. On rare occasions, it published obituaries on the left-hand side of the editorial page, where normally the editorial appeared. Six days earlier, a very respected, senior partner of a large Montreal law firm had died, and the two obituaries were published a few days later. Plimsoll`s obituary, however, was the one on top, and bore a title of which he would have been proud, “Mr. Montreal”.

William Tetley QC, practiced law from 1952 to 1970, in what is now Fasken Martineau, DuMoulin, was in the Quebec National Assembly and Bourassa Cabinet from 1970-1976 and from 1976 to the present has taught law at McGill University. He is Counsel to Langlois Kronström Desjardins of Montreal and Quebec City.

E-mail: william [dot] tetley [at] mcgill [dot] ca (William Tetley)
Web: http://www.mcgill.ca/maritimelaw

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