The Life-and-Death History of the Message in a Bottle

100-year-old messages from the sea reveal clues to the fate of missing vessels and poignant farewells from stricken sailors.

Sea-mail by Šarūnas Burdulis / CC BY-SA 2.0

One Thursday morning in late June 1899, an 11-year-old boy named William Andrews was playing on the beach at Ilfracombe in Devon, England. There he spotted a small tin floating in the water. The quarter-pound tin was marked “coffee and chicory”, and was tied up with a piece of cork for buoyancy. Inside the tin was a note, written in pencil on a page torn from a pocket diary. The note was signed by able seaman R. Neel and addressed to Mrs. Abigail Neel in Cardiff, Wales. It read as follows:

This was just one of hundreds of messages in bottles, boxes and tins washed up from the sea onto British and other shores in 1899, and one of thousands found during the busy Victorian and Edwardian steam and sail seafaring eras. These messages from the sea told tales of foundering ships, missing ocean liners and shipwrecked sailors, and contained moving farewells, romantic declarations, and intriguing confessions. Some solved mysteries of lost vessels and crews, while others created new mysteries yet to be solved.

The message found by William Andrews was passed to his local newspaper. It was published in the next day’s edition and, over the next few days, in scores of other newspapers across Britain. Messages in bottles were popular news items for the press of the day. Major newspapers such as the of London and the often printed such messages, as did hundreds of national and regional newspapers across the world. Some published them in regular columns, often headlined “Messages from the Sea”.

“Of all the tales of the sea,” remarked the in 1893, “none are more pathetic than those which every now and again are related in curt language in the news columns of the daily press of the finding of messages written by those who far away at sea, the victims of some disaster, recognize the hopelessness of their position, and see on the horizon the dawn of eternity.”

The full meaning of able seaman Neel’s message became clear shortly after it was published. The was a British passenger ferry that sailed between Southampton and the Channel Islands. It was wrecked in fog on the Casquets, north of Guernsey, in March 1899 with the loss of around 105 passengers and crew. No official passenger list was kept, and it was unknown whether an R Neel was on board. Inquiries made at the given address in Cardiff found that a man named Neel had formerly lived there, but “was supposed to have gone to Bradford”, where nothing else was known of him. Mrs. Abigail Neel could not be traced.

The earliest message in a bottle is thought to have been sent by Greek philosopher Theophrastus around 310 BC. Theophrastus developed a theory that the Mediterranean was formed by an inflow of water from the Atlantic. In order to test his theory, he dropped several notes sealed in bottles into the sea and waited to see where they ended up. If he ever received a response to his notes, it does not seem to have been recorded. However, messages in bottles would become commonly-used by government departments and research societies to study ocean currents, particularly during the 1800s and early 1900s.

On November 30, 1906, George Bidder of the Marine Biological Association in Plymouth released several bottles containing numbered postcards into the North Sea. On April 17, 2015, 108 years and 138 days later, one of the bottles, number 57, was found by Marianne Winkler at Amrum Island, Germany. It was recorded by Guinness World Records as the oldest (or technically the longest adrift) message in a bottle ever found.

Messages such as those sent by Theophrastus and George Bidder served a scientific purpose, but others, such as the message from R Neel, were of a much more personal — and perhaps more vital — nature. For many seafarers, the message in a bottle was a legitimate and valuable method of communication, and perhaps their only means of contacting the outside world.

Until the arrival of the wireless telegraph at the beginning of the 20th century, a ship that passed over the horizon and out of sight of land would lose communication with its home port for days, weeks, or months at a time. Perhaps another vessel might spy the ship on the ocean and return with news of its location. Or a letter might be carried from a far-off destination to advise of the ship’s safe arrival. But not all ships would arrive safely.

Seafaring was incredibly dangerous. Hundreds of vessels were lost at sea each year, perhaps overcome by waves, dashed on rocks, or engulfed in flames. A single storm could sink scores of vessels, or wipe out entire fleets. Those that didn’t sink could be blown off course, become lost, and run out of food and water. Their crews might be left drifting in disabled ships, floating in lifeboats, or clinging to pieces of wreckage.

In such desperate situations, thoughts would inevitably be of family and loved ones at home, perhaps hundreds or thousands of miles away. A brief message, written swiftly in the most hopeless of circumstances, might include a desperate plea for help, but would more likely comprise a tragic goodbye. Often, after disasters at sea, messages in bottles were considered to be what in 1880 called “the means of communication between the living and the dead”.

In July 1861, a message in a bottle was found off the coast of Uist, in the Scottish Outer Hebrides. The message, signed by William Graham, read:

The Collins Line steamer had left Liverpool for New York in January 1856, and was lost with all 141 crew and 45 passengers. It was thought to have sunk off Newfoundland, but William Graham’s message, found more than five years later, was the only real clue to its fate. Graham was a British sea captain traveling on the as a passenger.

“The writer was evidently some person accustomed to the perils of the sea,” commented the newspaper, “for it is difficult to understand how any person whose nerves had not been hardened by the presence of frequent and appalling dangers could have written with such manifest coolness in the immediate presence of death.”

Many of the messages washed ashore at this time represented the last words of stricken seamen who would never set foot on land again, and often shared a relatively formal and straightforward tone. They would not be picked up by the intended final recipient and might be published in newspapers, so the senders would restrain their emotions. But not all were tragic tales. Some senders survived and returned home, often long before their messages were washed ashore.

In 1900, a message in a bottle was found that had been cast adrift in the previous year by able seaman Edward Fardon, from the ship , during a voyage “from Portland, Oregon, to Queenstown, for orders”. After being damaged in a heavy storm, the ship had drifted for several months and had run out of provisions. The crew, Fardon wrote, were living on a cargo of wheat and

Fardon provided an address for his family, in Lytham, England. But when the found message eventually arrived there, it was received by Fardon himself. Several weeks after being given up as lost, the had arrived home safely with all hands. Fardon, who, it was reported, was no longer a seaman, was said to be “one amongst the few men who have been privileged to read, after many days, his ‘last message’.”

Some of these last messages would have provided closure for the families of the crew and passengers of missing vessels. They brought terrible, heart-breaking news, but, after weeks or months of uncertainty, and the inevitable realization that their loved ones would not be coming home, it was surely better to know what had happened, and perhaps to receive a loving message from their lost souls. In some cases, messages from the sea solved the mysteries of vessels that had been missing without a trace for several years, occasionally with hundreds of passengers on board. We know what happened to the , but what happened to fellow White Star liner the ?

The left Liverpool for New York on February 11, 1893. On board were 50 crew, 14 cattlemen, ten horsemen, and a cargo of livestock. The ship called at Point Lynas, Anglesey, and was never seen again. In March, a passing steamer spotted two of the ’s empty lifeboats in an area with large quantities of ice, close to where the would later be sunk. Then, in July 1896, a message in a bottle was found on the shore near Hoylake, England, which seemed to confirm the ship’s fate. Written on a scrap of paper, the short message read:

Not all found messages in bottles printed in newspapers concerned ships or boats. Other messages contained confessions, suicide notes, or pleas for help. They concerned murders, kidnappings, body snatchings, and family secrets, and raised questions that could not always be answered. Take, for example, the extraordinary message found floating off the White Cliffs of Dover, England, in October 1896. It read:

Inquiries at the police station in Norwood, south-east London, some 26 years after the alleged murder, found no recollection of a Margaret Hutchinson being reported missing, nor of a body being discovered in the district. However, it was pointed out that Norwood had entirely changed in character over the previous quarter of a century. “Thousands of new houses had been erected, new roads made, and wells built over,” reported the local newspaper. “Most wells had entirely disappeared since that time.”

Charles Pilcher’s message was found, not in a bottle, but in a sealed box. Other messages were found scratched onto pieces of wood, or, in one case, etched onto a metal band that was wrapped around the neck of a recently-deceased albatross. One remarkable message contained a poem written about a baby boy born on a long voyage from England to New Zealand. The message was found in a corked soda water bottle, which itself was found inside the stomach of an 11ft shark.

The arrival of the wireless telegraph in the early 1900s, followed by the roll-out of ship-to-shore radio, gradually provided vessels with a lifeline of communication from the lonely isolation of the sea. The was fitted with a Marconi wireless telegraph system, and, on the morning of 15 April 1912, transmitted the Marconi “CDQ” Morse code distress signal, as well as the new international standard signal — “SOS”. (Neither CDQ nor SOS are acronyms — they are simply distinct maritime radio signals.) Responding to the distress signals, the was able to rescue more than 700 of the 2,224 passengers and crew. Some passengers did throw messages in bottles into the sea (they were found on both sides of the Atlantic), but without the wireless, they would surely all have perished.

Messages from the sea remain newsworthy. If a message in a bottle sent from one side of the Atlantic is found on the other, it will generally make local newspapers and television bulletins. Such modern messages retain a fascinating romantic allure, although their contents are often trivial, and will rarely be concerned with any great drama. But a century ago they represented potential lifelines for those involved and were concerned with some of the biggest dramas imaginable, albeit distilled down to just a few poignant words.

The brevity of the messages conveys their urgency and adds to their mystery. Each represents a fascinating story of personal drama. One typical message was found on the shore near Ulverston, England, in January 1907. In a stout bottle, written on the piece of envelope, were the words: The message was signed:

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