Living on Raw Penguins

Found 24 November 1878, Wellington, New Zealand.

In a sealed bottle:

H.M. screw corvette Firefly, Captain Harmer Jones, wrecked November 2, 1878, on the Auckland Isles. All lives saved except three A.B.’s and second engineer. Signed, H. Jones, commander, H. Leslie, first-lieutenant. Send relief at once. Provisions all exhausted. Living on raw penguins. The lord help us.

Found on a beach behind the New Zealander Hotel by the son of the hotel owner Frank Mountain, this curiously detailed message was regarded as a “silly hoax”.

[New Zealand Press, 26 November 1878]

Dying Blessing

Found 26 December 1889, Whanganui, New Zealand.

In a corked bottle, written in pencil:

Ship County of Carnarvon, September 3, 1889.
Anyone who should find this bottle will earn the dying blessing of three men, who do not expect to live an hour, by letting our friends and relations know our fate. We are sinking fast. All hands but us three were washed overboard last night. We were dismasted, and the binnacles and everything washed away by one sea. Every sea washes over the deck fore and aft. I don’t know where we are, but by the skipper’s reckoning at midday yesterday we were about 1000 miles from New Zealand. We have been sinking fast ever since the squall struck us. May God help us, for we may sink at any minute – George Wright. The other men with me are Vincent Wallace and James King.

The County of Carnarvon, of Liverpool, left Newcastle, New South Wales, for Valparaiso, Chile, on 5 June 1889 with a crew of more than 20. In September, a battered boat bearing the ship’s name was found on the beach at Taku, New Zealand. Locals said the boat had come ashore during a heavy storm. The colonial government despatched the steamship Hinemo to search for survivors, but none were found.

[Newcastle Morning Herald, 7 January 1890]

Lifting of the Body

Found February 1883, on the beach at Trondra, Shetland Islands.

In a bottle, on a torn piece of paper:

This bottle was thrown into the water at Stirling, in the river Forth, on the 15th July 1882, by one of the men who were concerned in the lifting of the body of the Earl of Crawford. The body is now, I think, rotted into clay. We lifted it with the intention of selling it, but it was published so soon that we buried it to get it out of the way.

Further text appeared to have been torn off before the message was placed into the bottle. Alexander William Crawford Lindsay was the 25th Earl of Crawford. He died in Florence, Italy, in 1880 and his body was returned to be buried in a private chapel at his family home at Dunecht House, near Aberdeen. In December 1881, it was discovered that the body had been stolen – apparently some months beforehand. It was eventually found in July 1882, buried in a shallow grave, by a rat-catcher named Charles Soutar. Although Soutar denied any involvement, and was not considered capable of having carried out the crime alone, he was charged with grave-robbing and sentenced to five years in prison.

[Dundee Evening Telegraph, 12 February 1883]

To the Foaming Deep

Found January 1861, on the beach at South Shields.

In a bottle:

North Sea, Feb. 2, 1860 — Dear Friends, — When you find this the crew of the ill-fated ship Horatia and Captain Jackson, of Norwich, is no more. We left Archangel on the 8th of January, all well; on the 2nd of February we hove to under close-reefed topsails, after scudding before the gale for 10 day; we have not been below for six days. A Norwegian brig hove to for our assistance. Four men got into the jolly boat, but after leaving a sea struck her, and sank her, and the four men were lost. Our crew consisted of eight men, master and mate, second mate, and two boys. When I am writing this, I have just left the pumps. We are not able to keep her up — 8 feet of water in the hold, and the sea making breach clear over her. Our hatches are all stove in, and we are worn out. Our master made an observation to-day. We are in 60 North lat. ; wind, N.E. I write these few lines, and commit them to the foaming deep in hopes they may reach some kind-hearted friend who will be so good as to find out the friends of these poor suffering mortals. I am a native of London, from the orphan school — John Laing, apprentice. We are called aft to prayers, to make our peace with that great God, before we commit our living bodies to that foam and surf. Dear friends, you may think me very cool, but, thank God, death is welcome. We are so benumbed and fatigued that we care not whether we live or die. John Ross, John Thompson, James Lee, Jos. Brig took the boat on the 21st of January.— William Ham, chief mate; Thomas Wilson, second mate; John Laing, and Frederic Maff, apprentices.

Although this detailed message was widely published around the UK, no further information regarding the Horatia (or Horatio, according to some newspapers) was found.

[The Times, 9 January 1861]

Inside a Cod

Found 13 February 1897, Buckie, Moray Firth.

In a lemonade bottle, inside the stomach of a large cod:

Schooner Lucio foundered eighty-six miles off Dunnet Head. God help us. — J. Clunas, Ghent, Lerwick.

A catch of 5,000 cod was being gutted at James Gerry’s Buckie fish-curing yard when this “remarkable discovery” was made. As reported by the Sheffield Independent: “On one large cod being opened a lemonade bottle, tightly corked, and bearing the name of Messrs. J. Hassack and Co., Elgin, was found in its stomach.” Inside the bottle was a leaf of paper that had apparently been hastily torn from a pocket book, bearing a message from J. Clunas. Dunnet Head is on the north coast of Scotland, near to John O’Groats and around 75 miles north of Buckie. The references to Ghent and Lerwick suggest the vessel could have been sailing from Belgium to the Shetland Islands.

[Sheffield Independent, 15 February 1897]

Clinging to the Mast

Found 15 March 1897, on beach between Hartlepool and Seaton Carew.

On a piece of strong paper:

Foundered off Holy Isle, the S.S. Elsie. Six lives lost. Four survivors clinging to the mast…

The remainder of the message was torn away, with only a single further word visible: “soon”. The Holy Island of Lindisfarne is a tidal island off the Northumberland coast, around 80 miles north of the beach where the message was found.

[Hartlepool Mail, 16 March 1897]

Nora Will Get Over It in Time

Found April 1867, off the west coast of Africa.

In a bottle:

Ship Dover Castle, Jan. 13, 1867.
Mr Alfred Dawes begs to inform his friends, at 23, East Cliff, Dover, that the ship is about to go down; he begs that his friends will pay all his bills, and trusts that Nora will get over it in time. The ship is two days’ sail from the Line, outward bound. Anybody who gets this will oblige Mr. Dawes by putting it in The Times newspaper. And now as I have not much longer to live, believe me yours, A. DAWES.

The message was picked up from the sea by Kroomen (West Africans recruited into the British Royal Navy) and passed via George Blackshaw at the Company of African Merchants’ Factory in Liberia to the Times in London.

[The Times, 3 June 1867]

A Harbour I Will Never See

Found February 1865, near Silloth, Solway Firth, Cumbria.

In a bottle:

My dear wife — My vessel, the Caledonia brig, of Belfast, is about to go down. I am running her for the Isle of Man; but a harbour I will never see. My men are all reconciled to their Heavenly Father’s will. My dear wife, I am leaving you in sore distress, with a heavy charge, but I know that the Lord will fulfil his promises to you; you have long sought Him. I have my Shipwrecked Mariners’ Fund cards all with me. I now leave you, my dear wife and children, to the Lord. Them that find this letter hoping they will send it to Belfast to the News-Letter Office. — John Nisbett.

A year later, at a meeting of the Shipwrecked Mariner’s Society in Belfast, it was announced that, “a widow named Nisbett, residing in Belfast, whose husband was a subscriber to the society, obtained relief for herself and children to the amount of £13 9s 3d, and will have a small grant annually while the children are unable to provide for themselves.” Mrs Nisbett had provided the Society with her husband’s letter as proof of his death.

[Belfast News-Letter, 27 February 1865 and Londonderry Standard, 17 February 1866]

Titanic Sinking

Found July 1912, off Block Island, Rhode Island.

In a bottle, on a wireless blank bearing the Titanic imprint:

April 16 — Mid ocean — help — on a raft — Titanic sinking — no water or food — Major Butt.

The sailors who found this message initially regarded it as a “ghastly joke”, but the fact that it was written on RMS Titanic stationery brought them to believe it was authentic. Archibald Butt was a well-known US Army officer, and a military aide to US president William Taft. He had boarded the White Star liner in Southampton, and was returning home after six weeks in Europe. The Titanic was sunk after colliding with an iceberg just before midnight on 14 April 1912. There are various accounts describing Butt’s bravery in organising the lifeboats as the ship went down. Butt was one of the 1,521 passengers and crew who lost their lives. His body was never recovered. The date on his message suggests he had been adrift on a raft for more than a day.

In October 1912, a bottle was found in a fjord on the west coast of Iceland containing the message: “I am one of them that were wrecked on the Titanic. — Harry Wilson.” There was no Harry Wilson on the Titanic’s passenger or crew lists, although there was an Algernon Henry Wilson Barkworth, and also a Helen Wilson — both of whom survived.

A third message purporting to be from the Titanic was allegedly found in the summer of 1913, at Dunkettle, near Cork in Ireland. The message read: “From Titanic. Good Bye all. Burke of Glanmire.” 19-year-old Jeremiah Burke died on the Titanic, along with his cousin, Nora. His mother had given him a small bottle of holy water to take with him. The message washed up in that bottle just a mile from his home village of Glanmire. It was speculated that Jeremiah could have thrown the bottle overboard while still in the Irish Sea, intending it to be a simple farewell to Ireland, with no knowledge of the disaster to come.

[Chicago Day Book, 31 July 1912 and The Scotsman, 12 October 1912, BBC News website, 26 October 2011]

Thirteen Shipwrecked Refugees

Found 18 September 1887, Fremantle, Western Australia.

On a rusty tin band, fitted to the neck of an albatross:

13 naufragés sont réfugiés sur les îles Crozet, 4 Août, 1887.

13 shipwrecked refugees are on the Crozet islands, 4 August, 1887.

The Crozet Islands make up a small French-owned archipelago in the southern Indian Ocean, some 3,500 miles from Fremantle, where this message was found by a lad walking on a beach. It was punched into a rusty tin band, nine inches long and two inches wide, wrapped around the neck of a recently-deceased albatross, which had apparently flown the great distance over several weeks before expiring on arrival.

Australian authorities sent a search vessel to the Crozets, but found no trace of shipwrecked sailors, and the message became regarded as a hoax. However, in January 1888, a French search vessel found a letter on the uninhabited Pig Island. The letter stated that 13 shipwrecked men from the ship the Tamaris, having exhausted their provisions, had left the small island on 13 September to head to the larger Possession Island. No trace was found on Possession or any other Crozet island.

“Whether they were drowned in their effort at escape remains as yet unknown,” commented the Pall Mall Gazette. “But this much seems too unfortunately certain, that the life of the noble bird was sacrificed in vain.”

[Pall Mall Gazette, 9 May 1888]

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