Imagine you lost your parents years ago. Imagine that today–decades after they passed–a stranger delivers to you a final letter from them. You thought you would never hear from them again. But here they are, one last time.
Emily Crowhurst never imagined she would receive such a letter. Through love, war, loss, and a dash of genealogical good fortune, that all changed one day in 1999.
Private Thomas Hughes, a soldier since 1905, was a member of the Durham Light Infantry in England. He was among the first soldiers called to the war in 1914. BritishArmedForces.org states that Private Hughes and his brothers-in-arms “landed at St Nazaire and made their way to the River Aisne, north of Rheims, where Germans were dug in. [Hughes] and 40 comrades died on September 21 . His body was never recovered and he is commemorated with 4,000 British ‘unknown soldiers’ at the La Ferte-Sous-Jouarre memorial.”
In other words, when Hughes died, his family never got to say a proper farewell as his body was not recovered. All they had were his medals.
Years after Private Hughes was killed in action, his wife Elizabeth remarried and moved to Auckland, New Zealand, with the couple’s daughter Emily in 1922. Emily was just two years old when her father was killed.
In 1979, 55 years after Private Hughes died, his wife Elizabeth died in Auckland. Only their daughter Emily remained.
Twenty years later, in 1999–back on the other side of the world in England–a man named Steve Gowan fished a bottled letter out of the Thames Estuary.
It looked old–but was it real? Or was it a hoax?
The message consisted of three pieces of paper. One, an envelope, addressed the correspondence to Elizabeth Hughes, wife of the sender: Private Thomas Hughes.
Next came a sort of cover letter, explaining the contents and what the finder should do:
Sir or madam, youth or maid,
Would you kindly forward the enclosed letter and earn the blessing of a poor British soldier on his way to the front this ninth day of September, 1914. Signed Private T. Hughes, Second Durham Light Infantry. Third Army Corp Expeditionary Force.
Finally, there was a brief, loving letter from Hughes to his wife:
The longer, more personal side of the letter reads:
I am writing this note on the Boat and dropping it into the sea, just to see if it will reach you. If it does sign the envelope on the right hand bottom corner where it says receipt, put the date and hour of receipt and your name where it says signature, and look after it well. Ta-Ta Sweet for the present
Gowan said he “thought at first it was a wind up because the message was so clear, but then realised it was genuine because it had the soldiers name, army number and regiment.”
Historians helped fill in the gaps.
According to Durham at War, “As [Hughes] crossed the English Channel from Southampton to St. Nazaire with the 2nd Battalion DLI on 9 September 1914, at 7.52pm he dropped a message in a green ginger beer bottle over the side of the ship.”
So the message was real–but how could he deliver it to the intended recipients?
In 1999, the internet was still in its toddler years. No way would Gowan be able to find Hughes’s surviving family that way! So, what to do?
Well, he put an advertisement in a local paper! The story captured so many hearts and minds that it gained national coverage. Somewhere along the way, through a fluke of genealogical magic and luck, a cousin of Private Hughes’ daughter learned of the message and explained to Gowan that Hughes’s daughter, Emily, was alive in New Zealand!
Right away, Gowan and journalists reached out to Emily to tell her of her father’s amazing letter.
It must have felt like a miracle to Emily, this sudden appearance of an affectionate letter from her father 85 years after he died. When Emily first heard of the letter’s discovery, she told The Independent, “I only have a few photos of my father but I spent most of my life trying to find out more about him… I understand the fisherman is keen to keep the letter and the bottle as a souvenir, but it would mean so much to me to have it.”
The New Zealand Post felt the same way, and they flew Mr. Gowan to New Zealand to deliver the message in person. Gowan told the BBC “I am just so pleased to have been able to deliver it and to have been the postman.” I think Gowan is a hero in his own small way. The bottled note must have been extremely meaningful for him–I mean, what a discovery! It’s treasure, plain and simple! But ultimately, in his heart, he knew that the letter belonged with Hughes’s family as Hughes intended. Finally, Hughes’s final message to his family was delivered almost a century after it was sent.
Eventually, however, Emily decided to share her father’s story with posterity, and donated the message and bottle to the Durham Light Infantry museum in Durham, England. She was extremely proud of her father’s military service, and wore his medals to commemorative events throughout her life. Emily explained her decision, “I was overwhelmed at first to hear this story of my father and to know more about him. I feel that I now have a piece of him. I have always wanted to come back to England and my birthplace and decided I could do this by presenting the bottle to the DLI Museum. My father was a British soldier and it should be kept here. It has been a wonderful experience and I will take back to New Zealand some lovely memories.”
Emily Crowhurst passed away at 101 in January, 2014, almost exactly a century after her father sent his bottled note in 1914.
World War I was tragic and violent in a way humanity had never seen before, with the advent of new war machinery and chemical warfare. Many thousands of soldiers, like Private Hughes, were lost forever on the battlefield, their bodies never recovered.
Therein lies the power of this bottled note. For the family, it was the final tangible connection they had to Thomas. For the rest of us, it reminds us of the tragedy of war, how it forces even loving people like Thomas Hughes to kill or be killed. Most families who lose someone at war are not lucky enough to receive a final letter from the beloved person. What extraordinary good fortune for Hughes’s family that some small beauty came from that great tragedy.