Trans. Devon. Assoc., 1878, Vol X, pp. 57-58.


J. Brooking Rowe, (Ed.).

Prepared by Michael Steer

Messages in bottles have a long and varied history. Used in experiments and as communication, by the 19th century when shipping had expanded dramatically around the world, messages in bottles became all the rage – so much so that they were regularly printed in newspapers such as the Times of London and the New York Times under a headline ‘Messages from the Sea‘. They were also important scientific tools. As an example, between 1864 and 1933, thousands of bottles were thrown overboard from German ships, each containing a form on which the captain would write the date, the ship’s coordinates and details about its route. It was all part of an experiment by the German Naval Observatory to better understand global ocean currents and provide more accurate weather and ocean data for international shipping. The article, from a copy of a rare and much sought-after journal can be downloaded from the Internet Archive. Google has sponsored the digitisation of books from several libraries. These books, on which copyright has expired, are available for free educational and research use, both as individual books and as full collections to aid researchers.

"The following paragraph appeared in the Western Morning News of the 17th February, 1883: 'On Thursday a waterman at Mutton Cove, Devonport, named Rogers, while in his boat off Messrs. Willcocks and Sanders's coal wharf, noticed a bottle floating. He at once secured it, and found that it was covered with barnacles and seaweed, an indication that it must have been in the water a considerable length of time. Rogers took the bottle to the Custom-house, where it was opened by Mr. Chambers, examining - officer. Inside was a piece of paper, dated the 10th of September, 1880, stating that the bottle had been thrown overboard from the British steamship Britannic, that she was then four days out of New York, that she had made 1,000 miles in those four days, and that all was well on board. The paper, which was in a good state of preservation, was signed by the captain of the ship.'

"On making application to Mr. Chambers, he was so good as to send me a copy of the paper contained in the bottle. It runs as follows {verbatim et literatim) :

Sept. 21st 1880.

S.S. Britannic,

"N. Y. to Queenstown, three days out; 1,000 miles run ; wind N.E. Making about 14 ½  to 15 knots per hour. All well; four squerrells on board doing beautiful.

  "A. J. R. KEOTH.

"It will be seen that the newspaper report is inaccurate as to date, as to the number of days out of New York, and as to the nationality of the ship being mentioned in the paper.

"Feeling sure, from the speed recorded, that the vessel could be none other than the White Star Liner Britannic, I wrote to Messrs. Ismay, Imrie, and Co., and received from them the following courteous reply:

"10, Water Street, Liverpool,
"23rd Feb., 1883.

"Arthur Roope Hunt, Esq., F.G.S.,
             "Southwood, Torquay.

"DEAR SIR, - We are in possession of your favour of the 21st inst , and in reply beg to say that the RM.S. Britannic, H. H. Perry, Commander, left New York for Queenstown and Liverpool on the 18th September, 1880, at 6.11 p.m., and that her position at noon on the 21st idem, as per log, was 41.48 N. lat., 53.23 W. long., the distance from New York being 939 miles.

"The names of C. Keeting and A. J. R. Keoth are on the passenger list; but they are unknown to us, nor has the com- mander any recollection of the bottle which was picked up at Plymouth on the 15th inst. being thrown overboard.

"The information it contained, however, appears to be genuine, so far as the ship's position and speed is concerned, and will doubtless prove very interesting from a scientific point of view.             Yours faithfully,


"In a subsequent communication Mr. Chambers informed me that the bottle had been forwarded to the Board of Trade, and that,  although the word "signed" was written upon the paper referred to, no one seeing it would suppose for a moment that it bore the master’s signature.

"(A. R. HUNT.)"

The bottle is now in the Museum of the Plymouth Institution.