Chasing Shadows: Shipwrecked Mail from World War II

Dr Sean Kingsley who researched the Gairsoppa shipwreck finds tells the story of a letter reunited with the recipient's family almost 80 years later.

Just when you think you’ve seen all the secrets under the sea, a shipwreck slaps you round the face with a fish. When Odyssey Marine Exploration, the US pioneers of deep-sea exploration, went hunting for the SS Gairsoppa British-India steamship, nobody expected the unexpected.

The ship was heading from Bombay to London with silver, tea and iron, research showed, to keep the war machine turning. Just finding this needle in a sand dune, sunk by a German u-boat 300 miles southwest of Galway on 16 February 1941, would be a miracle.

A robot preparing to dive 4,800 metres down to the wreck of the Gairsoppa. Photo: © Odyssey Marine Exploration

Sure enough, the Gairsoppa gave up the expected. Then the sea threw up a mystery when a mass of pulp stinking of rotten eggs surfaced. As an archaeologist, I hadn’t worked on the steamship’s salvage, but when the engines stopped I was increasingly drawn into a thrilling adventure. Again nobody expected much when Odyssey sent the mush to the scientific labs of AOC Archaeology in Edinburgh. There the conservators, Gretel Evans and Natalie Mitchell, soon realised they had something unique in their hands. As they worked, day after day, as if by magic:

…the blackened surfaces lightened before our eyes, very gently at first, to the extent you could blame the experience on a trick of the light. Over several more minutes the faintest inked writing would begin to appear… Who were they? What were they doing at the time? What were they feeling? And who was this person they were sending it to?

Monitoring work on the Gairsoppa from the research ship. Photo: © Odyssey Marine Exploration

It took four years of conservation and transcribing the 717 letters – the largest collection of mail found on any shipwreck worldwide – to start to answer these questions. The lost post is a remarkable thin-slice of the history of British India, faded voices written in dangerous times by maharajas, soldiers, teachers, medics, businessmen and missionaries.

Paper items from the SS Gairsoppa in the conservation studio for treatment

Some 77 years after the writers posted hope and joy to loved ones in southwest England, Edinburgh and California, Odyssey passed the responsibility for curating the letters to The Postal Museum. The voices from the deep had finally come home. The museum lost little time launching a stunning exhibition running until 30 June 2019.

The arrival of the loan items from Seascape Artifact Exhibits Inc, Tampa, Florida with Dr Sean Kingsley unpacking the objects.

The finishing touches for Voices from the Deep Exhibition

Voices from the Deep Exhibition Preview

Archaeology is usually faceless social history telling us about the daily life of long-lost cultures. Hearing the fear, hope, tragedy and love that jump off the pages of the Gairsoppa’s letters is a rare privilege, dampened by the sad reality that the postman never delivered these rays of sunshine to intended friends and loved ones.

Thanks to a collaboration with the BBC’s One Show, The Postal Museum has started to put faces to a few voices. Dot Matheson wrote to her parents, Admiral and Lady Tweedie in Wraxall in Somerset, in early December 1940 full of the splendours of the life of a major’s wife in Nowshera’s tribal badlands on India’s Northwest Frontier in modern Pakistan.

Dot Matheson’s letter to his parents Admiral and Lady Tweedie

Dot Matheson’s letter to his parents Admiral and Lady Tweedie, envelope

Newly married she’d just learnt she was pregnant. Full of vigour she wrote about chasing a pair of turkeys, being reared for Christmas, off her bed and dreaming of buying a Russian fur coat to keep out the winter blues. Saddened by hearing about the death of a friend at Dunkirk, leaving behind twin daughters, Dot nevertheless looked on the bright side of life, telling her parents that:

It is so peaceful here it’s almost unbelievable when you see the pictures of houses wrecked by bombs. I walked along the river yesterday to watch the polo & sitting on a grassy bank under trees it was just like English summer – utterly peaceful & so pretty you’d love it – all green and shady & the polo was thrilling…

It must sound strange to you, this life we lead… it couldn’t be more perfect for me & I’m utterly content – lovely place – gorgeous garden – & utter peace – if it wasn’t the awful feeling that I feel every day it might end…

 

With our help, the BBC found Dot’s granddaughter Victoria in London and filmed her reading, with the fondest of memories, the letter her family never got. Victoria had known Dot well, not least after she stepped in after her mother died. “How extraordinary”, she said after reading the family’s lost mail, “It’s quite overwhelming to read actually, and I feel so much of her in this letter… It’s almost as if I can hear her talking…. It’s a very moving day for me.”

Recording ‘Voices From The Deep’ at The Postal Museum for the BBC One Show. Photo: © Sean Kingsley

Recording ‘Voices From The Deep’ at The Postal Museum for the BBC One Show. Photo: © Sean Kingsley

As an added bonus the actor David Oyelowo read out our favourite love letter from the Gairsoppa on The One Show. The romantic figure of Private Will Walker with the 1st Wiltshire Regiment in Allahabad, north India, had asked Phyll Aldridge of Devizes to marry her on her twenty-first birthday. After the public appeal, something unexpected happened…Check back soon to read more!

– 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