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Remains of the Dundee Whaler

Found 8 March 1909, on the beach near Coldingham, Berwickshire.

In a bottle:

Captain or anyone who receives this message shall receive the remains of the Dundee whaler Snowdrop, collided with iceberg. No hope. 14th November 1908.

The Snowdrop left Dundee on 23 April 1908 to hunt whales in the Davis Strait, between Greenland and Canada in the Arctic Circle. The ship was the smallest whaling vessel in its fleet, with a crew of just ten, including the ship’s owner (and harpooner) OC Forsyth Grant, its captain and expert Arctic navigator James Brown, and a 17-year-old Eskimo named Inear. The ship was last reported safe and well on 8 June 1908. Nothing else was heard until the arrival of this message, which confirmed suspicions that the Snowdrop had been lost in the Arctic.

Then, on 16 September 1909, with the ship missing for over a year, a telegram was received from Indian Harbour, Labrador. The telegram reported the arrival there of a young man named Alexander Ritchie, an able seaman, and a member of the crew of the Snowdrop.

Ritchie explained that the ship had been lost in the Frobisher Strait on 18 September 1908, but the crew had escaped into a boat, which had drifted for several days before reaching Baffin Island. There, the crew had found an Eskimo village, where they spent the winter “on the verge of starvation” but cared for by the friendly natives. In the spring, Ritchie had crossed the hundred-mile part-frozen strait between Baffin and Labrador by foot, dogsled and boat in order to seek help.

The schooner Jeanie sailed to Baffin Island to rescue the crew, and returned to Labrador on 25 September 1909. However, one man was missing. John Morrison had set off with Ritchie to cross the strait, but had suffered severe frostbite and gangrene that required one foot and part of the other to be amputated, with the procedure carried out by Eskimo women. When the Jeanie arrived to rescue them, the crew had not seen Morrison for several months. A three-day search was fruitless, and it was surmised he was “in the interior with natives”.

The crew of the Snowdrop returned to Dundee in October 1909, 18 months after they had left. (The photograph on this page shows the crew arriving home.)

There were several attempts made to find Morrison during subsequent whaling trips to the Arctic. A year later, in October 1910, the Dundee Courier reported the tragic news: “Poor Morrison is Dead!” While in the care of the natives, the gangrene had returned, and a further amputation had been performed, from which he had not recovered. It was thought that Morrison had died in December 1909, two months after his crewmates had returned home.

[Scotsman, 11 March, 17, 20, 27 September, 4, 18 October 1909, Dundee Courier 5 October 1910]


In Dangerous Position

Found 26 October 1881, between Drogheda and Laytown, east coast of Ireland.

Enclosed in a tin case:

Barque S. Vaughan, October 22, 1881: Whoever takes this up, please send the following message to S. Vaughan, Liverpool – Anchored off Laytown; masts cut away; one anchor and one chain gone; in dangerous position; send tug as soon as possible; am afraid will not hold out much longer. A. Dickson, master. Be kind enough to send this off at once, as I am very anxious if she parts the other cable we will have a hard time; could the lifeboat come off and stand by us together, and take us off in case we drive ashore.

An example of a message in a bottle – or, in this case, tin – being used as a practical call for assistance, this message was found four days after it had been sent. Newspapers reported that a trawler with a lifeboat in tow proceeded to help the S. Vaughan, of Windsor, Nova Scotia. A few days later a telegram was sent to the owners to advise that the vessel had been brought ashore, presumably with A Dickson and his crew, although their status was not recorded.

[Edinburgh Evening News, 28 October 1881 and Belfast News-Letter, 4 November 1881]

Oh, Such A Gale

Found October 1881, South Ronaldshay, Orkney.

In a bottle:

Barque Minner Watson, N.S. [Nova Scotia], latitude 59 degrees 10 mins, north, longitude four degrees 45 mins, west, October 17th; three days off, fearful weather, leaking very much, never expect to see home or friends again. God bless all.
Our last day. Oh, such a gale and sea. The poor ship is nearly a complete wreck. Heaven have mercy on us.

[Edinburgh Evening News, 28 October 1881]

Farewell Forever

Found January 1888, near Sable Island, Nova Scotia.

Picked up by the captain of the government steamer Newfield:

Newfoundland, Nov. 12 1887. DEAR PARENTS: I come to bid you farewell forever. I will soon be in the other world; not alone, however, for we are 890 passengers in terrible despair. Only one-half hour to live, and then farewell. Do take courage and think no more of me. L. Linther of St Nicholas, Meurthe.

Saint Nicolas de Port is a town in Meurthe-et-Moselle, Northern France. There is no record of a passenger ship being lost in November 1887.

[New York Times, 22 January 1888]

I Expect My Turn Will Come Next

Found 17 June 1889, near Gananoque, Ontario.

In a bottle:

Captain of the Bavaria; help, the ship is sinking; all have been washed overboard but me. I expect my turn will come next. About 100 yards off Galoup [sic] Island, Lake Ontario.

The Bavaria was caught in a tremendous gale on Lake Ontario on 29 May 1889. It was on tow behind a steam barge with two other lumber schooners when its line sheared, and it was swept away at the mercy of the storm. The other boats survived, but the Bavaria did not. A witness later reported seeing the Bavaria’s Captain John Marshall clinging to the bottom of a capsized yawl, and another sailor clinging to timber, but the witness could offer no assistance. After the storm subsided, the Bavaria was found at Galloo Island, waterlogged but intact and upright. All eight crewmembers were missing and never recovered. John Marshall was married, and from Williamsville, Ontario. He was described as a brave and efficient sailor.

[New York Times, 18 June 1889]

Look After My Boy

Found 8 May 1871, Shediac, New Brunswick, Canada.

Picked up on the shore in a bottle:

March 21, 1870. – City of Boston. – Ship sinking; over half full now. Good-by all. Look after my boy. Be gone in two hours. THOMPSON.

The City of Boston was a Glasgow-built passenger steamship of the Inman Line. It sailed from Halifax, Nova Scotia for Liverpool on 28 January 1870 with 107 passengers and 84 crew. It never reached its destination and was never heard from again. A violent storm may have been responsible, although the ship’s loss was also linked with the Scottish-born criminal Alexander Keith Jr, “the Dynamite Fiend”, who conspired to blow up passenger ships with time bombs in order to collect insurance money.

There were two Thompsons on board the City of Boston — a cabin passenger named John from Halifax, and a steerage passenger named William from New York.

[Boston Advertiser, 9 May 1871]