Lifeboat No. 2

Found August 1886, off Howth, near Dublin

In a soda water bottle, written on scraps of an envelope:

July 21st, 1886, Britannia, Liverpool, Captain Dawson, sinking fast, heavy sea from Rio [de] Janeiro, passenger lost, pray for us, lifeboat No. 2.
Left June 28, frightful weather, sinking.

The background to this message is unclear. There was a Cunard ocean liner named Britannia, but this had been sunk in 1880 after being sold by Cunard to the German Navy. A White Star liner named Britannic [sic] was involved in a major collision during fog in 1887, and 12 passengers were lost, although the ship survived. And the Pacific Steam Navigation Company’s Britannia grounded in Rio de Janiero in 1895. None of these vessels would seem to be Dawson’s Britannia.

[Cardiff Times, 7 August 1886]

Down to Plimsoll’s Mark

Found 12 January 1877, on the shore at Occumster, Caithness

In a bottle:

My Dear Wife and Son.
We are laid-to in the North Sea, about one hundred miles westward of the Holman, with our main hatch stove in and gangways gone. The sea is fearful; it is washing in and out of the main hatchway, and washing the linseed out of the hold. It happened at four a.m. this morning. My dear, we have the boat swung out all ready for lowering, but we dare not for the sea. There is no water in the after hold, and the engine is going ahead to pump the water out, but I am afraid it is to no purpose. I don’t think we shall live the night out. Pray to God to forgive us our sins, for we have many. My dear wife and son, it is a painful thing to write to you both and say that I expect every moment to be my last. The ship was too deep—down to Plimsoll’s mark. Ships ought not to be allowed to load so deep. Good day, and God bless you all; and I hope He will protect you. Tell John to be a good boy, and keep honest and sober.
Your affectionate husband JOHN COOK, Chief Mate S.S. Wells, of Hull, 130 Day Street, Hull.
P.S. Kind love to all.

The Wells left the Baltic Sea port of Memel (now Klaipeda) for its home port of Hull on 17 December 1876. When it did not arrive, “the gravest fears” were entertained for the ship and its crew of 22 men. This message confirmed those fears.

After it was published in newspapers, the ship’s owners sought to assure the public that the Wells had not been overloaded, and had in fact been carrying less cargo than usual since the addition of its Plimsoll Line. The message, they said, could not have drifted to its finding place, and must therefore be a hoax.

However, wrapped around the cork of the message’s bottle was found a small piece of newspaper torn from the Newcastle Journal in Newcastle upon Tyne, from the edition dated 29 November 1876 – the date the Wells had sailed out of the Tyne. This was regarded as “rather curious confirmation” that the message was genuine, and that the Wells was indeed lost.

[Shields Gazette 4 January 1877, Middlesbrough Gazette 24 February 1877]

You can read more about the Wells and the Plimsoll Line in the Messages from the Sea book.

All Hands Will Perish

Found February 1879, on the sands at Craster, Northumberland

In a bottle:

The Mary Jane, of Dover, bound from Glasgow for New Zealand, was wrecked 300 miles off the coast of England. It is supposed all hands will perish. There is a heavy sea, and crew in small open boats.
T. SNAITH, captain.

The Berwickshire News and General Advertiser said this message stated the Mary Jane “was wrecked 300 miles off the coast of New Zealand”, not England, and therefore concluded it must be a hoax as it could not have drifted such a distance. But this seems to have been based on a transcription error, as in the first publications of the message, in the Sunderland Echo and Shields Gazette a week earlier, the ship “was wrecked 300 miles off the coast of England”, and there was no suspicion of a hoax.

[Sunderland Echo and Shields Gazette, 18 February 1879, Berwickshire News and General Advertiser, 25 February 1879]

We Are In Great Distress

Found 5 March 1861, at South Shields.

In an oil bottle, written in pencil on a parchment leaf from a pocket book:

Feb 8, 1861. Brig Juno, of Yarmouth. Dear Friends. — We are in great distress. We have been working at the pumps night and day. When you find this card we are no more. Our fore and main masts are gone. — J.F.

The Dublin Evening Packet published this message under the headline “Melancholy Intelligence”.

[Dublin Evening Packet, 8 March 1861]

Washed Away During Gale

Found 26 September 1895, in the harbour at Poole, Dorset.

In a bottle, on a foreign telegram form:

Owner, ship Sarah Jane, Liverpool. Ship sprung a leak on 17th August off St. Ives. Ship sinking, and boats washed away during gale of 2nd inst. — James Goodenough, 20 New-street, Isle of Dogs.

This message was fished out of the harbour by a revenue cutter. The writing was described as being “in clear running hand” and “evidently that of a well-educated person”. Police enquiries found there was no New Street in the Isle of Dogs. A Board of Trade inspector identified a vessel named Sarah Jane that traded between Birkenhead, across the Mersey from Liverpool, and Millwall, on the Isle of Dogs. However, there were no reports of that vessel having encountered difficulties, so the message was labelled by the press as a “cruel hoax”.

[Aberdare Times, 5 October 1895]

Fearful Hurricane

Found 28 April 1880, at junction of rivers Weaver and Mersey, near Runcorn.

In a bottle, written very legibly in pencil:

H.M.S. Atalanta, March 16. Fearful hurricane, dismasted, going down fast, off Lizard. H. Smith, boy.

The Atalanta was a British Navy training frigate, commanded by Captain Francis Stirling. The ship left Bermuda for Portsmouth carrying 281 men and boys on 31 January 1880. It was never heard from again. In April, the Navy sent the Channel Fleet to search for the Atalanta. No trace was found, and it was thought the ship must have sunk in the area known as the Bermuda Triangle, where heavy weather had been reported at the time of the disappearance. However, the Lizard, mentioned in this message, is a peninsula — notorious for shipwrecks — in southern Cornwall. If the message was genuine, the Atalanta had sailed for some 3,200 miles from Bermuda, and had sunk with 250 miles of its destination.

On 5 May 1880, a small piece of wood was found at Dalkey near Dublin bearing a short message: “HMS Atalanta going down, with all hands on board, in latitude 48.60. Signed J. Steward.” The given latitude runs around 50 miles south of the Lizard. There were four Smiths on board the Atalanta, although none with the initial H. One RW Smith was named among the list of the missing as “boy writer”. There was no one named J Steward on board, although there was a JJ Cooper listed as “boy steward”.

[Liverpool Mercury, 29 April 1880, London Evening Standard, 26 April 1880 and Portsmouth Evening News, 8 May 1880]

Please Let My Dear Wife Know

Found 14 November 1897, on the beach at Dartmouth Harbour, Devon.

In a white spirit bottle:

Going down now at Flamborough Head.
S.S Princess of Sunderland, Nov 13 1893.
Should any one pick this up please to let my dear wife know, lives at 25 Lawrence Street, Sunderland. Engines are broken down.
God help us. Going down every minute. Good bye all, my wife and little ones.
May God for give me all.
Mustard A.B.
Princes of Sunderland
Nov 13 1893

The “Gale of 1893” was a violent storm that wrecked numerous vessels and took around 200 lives over the course of 48 hours around the British Isles. The Princess was returning to its home port of Sunderland from Bilbao with a cargo of iron ore. By the time it reached the North Sea, the storm had reached hurricane force. According to one report, “the sea was running mountains high, and the hurricane was accompanied by blinding showers.” The ship was spotted in distress by the coastguard at Flamborough Head, a chalk cliff promontory on the Yorkshire coast. The coastguard attempted to fire a safety line using rocket apparatus, but the ship drifted north onto rocks and was smashed to pieces. A piece of the ship bearing its name was washed up on the rocks. All 19 crew members died. Three smaller ships were wrecked on the same rocks during the storm.

The Princess was Sunderland-built and was owned by John Sanderson, the Mayor of Sunderland. All of the crew were from the Sunderland area. Robert Mustard was an able seaman (A.B.). The message was found almost exactly four years to the day after the wreck, having drifted for more than 500 miles around the English coast, by Dartmouth bridge engineer George Humphrey. It was passed via Customs House authorities and the Board of Trade to Mustard’s widow.

[Sunderland Echo, 20 November 1893 and Shields Gazette, 16 December 1897]

May the Lord Comfort My Mother

Found January 1893, Holderness coast, Yorkshire.

On a plank of wood:

Caller Ou run down by unknown steamer–Dawson–No more time, sinking. May the Lord comfort my mother.

The Caller Ou left Hull 14 month prior to the message being found and was never seen again. Dawson was an apprentice on the vessel. The unknown steamer was never identified.

[Sheffield Evening Telegraph, 16 January 1893]

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