Dr Sean Kingsley who researched the Gairsoppa shipwreck finds tells another remarkable story of a letter reunited with its recipient almost 80 years later.

On 16 February 1941, the SS Gairsoppa British-India steamship was torpedoed off the coast of Ireland by a German U-Boat. More than 70 years later the US pioneers of deep-sea exploration Odyssey Marine Exploration discovered the wreck with over 700 letters, the largest collection ever found on any shipwreck worldwide. Odyssey passed the responsibility for curating the mail to The Postal Museum, where a new exhibition, Voices from the Deep, showcasing these astonishing finds, was launched in 2018.

Thanks to a collaboration with the BBC’s One Show, The Postal Museum has started to put faces to a few voices. First, the story of Dot Matheson writing a letter to her parents in Somerset. At the end of the show, the actor David Oyelowo read out our favourite love letter from the Gairsoppa. The romantic figure of Private Will Walker with the 1st Wiltshire Regiment in Allahabad, north India, had asked Phyll Aldridge of Devizes to marry him on her twenty-first birthday.

Letter written by Will Walker to Phyllis

After living on his nerves for two long months, her reply turned up by sea mail – she said yes. Will fell to pieces and immediately replied:

I wept for joy, I could not help it. If you could only know how happy it made me darling to know that you accepted me and that you will be mine for ever… I felt the happiest man in the world. The other fellows must have thought I’d gone mad…

I just let myself go. I wept with joy, I laughed, I shouted… I’ve felt a different man since then dear. I’ve felt so happy that I have been singing most of the time… I wish I could be there to put the ring on for you… I love you with all my heart darling and I shall be yours for ever.

 

Only he never was. His letter was sent to a watery grave.

The day after the One Show aired, the BBC told me Phyll’s granddaughter had been in touch. Her news was gobsmacking: Will’s fiancée was still alive aged 99 and would very much like to read her lost letter.

On a stormy December winter’s day, I made my way south from London to Chippenham and then Devizes, thrice soaked by rain storms. Phyll’s daughter Joy and her granddaughter Lisa introduced me to a woman whose voice had been haunting me for years. And there she was, just two streets away from the very spot her lost letter had been addressed to in 1940, a sprightly 99-year-old, the first-born and last surviving of four children, visibly struggling to make sense of the bookends of history playing out in front of her.

Phyllis Ponting, born Aldridge, with a copy of Will Walker’s letter, and her daughter Joy and granddaughter Lisa. © Sean Kingsley

As it turned out the fate of Will Walker was also a mystery to Phyllis. Her first ever boyfriend headed to India in 1938 and they kept up a stream of letters in the hardest of times. But no sooner had she agreed to marry him, the trail went cold. Many decades later Phyllis’s memory of their courtship is hazy. Her mind erased the pain of young love and replaced it with glowing memories of her two husbands and a rich family life.

Phyllis Ponting, born Aldridge, with a copy of Will Walker’s letter – delivered 78 years late. © Sean Kingsley

You could be forgiven for wondering whether the whole story was a fantasy scripted for Pinewood Studios. Also long buried away, though, was a photo album the family dug up from Phyllis’s broom cupboard. And there they were. Phyll looking serious in Will’s soldier’s hat, postcards from Will as he boarded the troop ship Nevasa in Southampton on the way to India in 1938, Will looking sad trying his best to ‘celebrate’ Christmas.

Phyllis Aldridge in Devizes during World War II. © Phyllis Ponting & family

As I wound my way home, the dust of times past hung heavy in the air. Tracking down Phyll Aldridge felt like an out of body experience. Newly married myself I wondered how she felt when Will Walker vanished. What ever happened to the serious, good looking solider – “you know how to pick them”, her friends had ribbed her back in the day – with thick-set eyes?

Will Walker in Devizes during World War II. © Phyllis Ponting & family

“He must have been killed”, Phyllis had told me. “Ooh memories. For me to take this in now, the depth in which that letter went down in the sea, it’s remarkable they ever got it back up… I never dreamt of this, what a shock.” At least for Phyll and Will there never would be a happy ever after.

But what happened to Will? Determined to find out more I applied for information about William Arthur Walker who died in India through the Defence and Armed Forces. Unfortunately, no trace of him. Also, The Commonwealth War Graves Commission holds no entries even though we have his regiment number. The Army Personnel Centre in Glasgow could not disclose any information about Will because of personal data protection, but could have if he had died during the war. Did Will or Phyllis, from the pain of long-term separation, end the relationship? It may remain a mystery forever…

As for the letters from the Gairsoppa – two down and 715 to go. In the hands of The Postal Museum’s custodians, the lost mail raised from three and half miles deep is in the best of hands for future generations – permanent memories enshrined on paper, not ephemeral iPhone and computer screens here today and gone tomorrow.

You can see more long lost love letters at Voices From The Deep Exhibition at The Postal Museum until 30 June 2019.

– Dr Sean Kingsley, Marine Archaeologist & Guest Curator of Voices From The Deep

*A fully illustrated book by the same name, edited by Sean Kingsley, is available at the Museum or please contact: sean@wreckwatch.org

Voices from the Deep by Sean A. Kingsley, 2018, book cover