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]

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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.
THOMAS JACKSON

[Edinburgh Evening News, 28 October 1881]

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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.

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A Heavy Sea Struck

Found November 1875, near Stonehaven, Aberdeenshire

In a bottle:

Dorothy Jobson, October 21st, 1870 — Dear Father — At four p.m., midway between Fifeness and Buchanness, trying to keep her off the shore, a heavy sea struck the vessel, carrying away mainmast and wheel, and washing master and mate overboard. The remainder of us got the boat out in the forenoon, but she swamped. We made a raft, but the painter carried away. About two p.m., a schooner hove in sight and answered our signals for assistance, but offered no assistance. It is half-past four p.m. now, and we expect to down in another hour. John Ross, Robert Hope, William Kingston, join me in bidding farewell to our parents and friends. So, therefore, good-bye dear father, and may God prosper you. Charles Charlton, Felix Symon, send their farewell to all friends. Any one who picks this up will do our friends great favour if he sends it to Mr. W. C. Bergen, 5, Eldon-street, Blyth, Northumberland. I am your loving son, W. C. Bergen.

The Dorothy Jobson, of North Shields, was wrecked off Stonehaven during a storm, and sank with all seven crew. 21-year-old able seaman William Bergen Jr. was the son of the author of the nautical work Bergen On Navigation. The boat’s stern and medicine chest washed ashore in the same place as this message. Also found was another message, from the boat’s 20-year-old seaman Felix Simon, who was from French Mauritius and lodging at North Shields: “Je meurs en regrettant ma soeur, Alex Simon, et ma bien aimee, Annie Rowan.”

[Luton Times and Advertiser, 6 November 1875]

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God Help Us

Found December 1898, on the beach at Troon, South Ayrshire

In a bottle, a note scribbled in pencil:

Schooner Lizzie foundering off Corsewall Point. God help us.

Corsewall Point is 40 miles south of Troon on the west coast of Scotland. No Scottish vessel named Lizzie was known to be missing, and the message was initially assumed to be a hoax. However, it was subsequently revealed to be the last dispatch from a Northern Irish vessel, from Kircubbin, County Down, across the North Channel.

The Lizzie left Maryport, Cumbria, on 22 November 1898, and was due in Kircubbin on the following day. However, it was caught in a severe gale, and was last seen heading north, apparently to seek shelter from the storm. A week later, a life-boat bearing the Lizzie’s name was washed ashore near Larne, County Antrim, around 25 miles from Corsewall Point. “No doubts are now held that the vessel foundered in the heavy gale, which, it will be remembered, caused a lot of damage to shipping at the time,” reported the Glasgow Herald.

The Lizzie had a crew of four hands, led by Captain McWhirr, who left a widow and eight children, “most of whom are young”.

[Glasgow Herald, 9 December 1898]

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