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The Strange Tale of Three 1915 Messages in Bottles & Stowaway Maud Butler

On New Year’s Day, 1916, three messages in bottles washed ashore right beside each other near Portland Bay, Victoria, Australia. Three! And one man (Maurice J. Leddin) found this pile of treasure. All were written by Australian soldiers from New South Wales, en route to WWI. All were written on Christmas Day, 1915. A couple of them told a curious story about a young woman on board their ship–a stowaway. This young woman was Maud Butler, a country girl who tried to sneak into the Great War. Maud Butler became famous for her attempt to fight for Australia in WWI. But before any of that fame arrived, soldiers wrote about her in these soon-to-be-found messages in bottles.

As details emerged, Butler’s amazing story inspired many at the time (though she really did get in deep trouble for stowing away). Maud Butler fascinated me the moment I learned her story – and I only learned it thanks to the messages in bottles in this post. There’s much more to Maud Butler’s story than I can fit here, as you can read on the Australian War Memorial’s page about her. But I just want to share a bit here to show how messages in bottles have a truly unique ability to provide windows into history, and into other peoples’ lives.

Message in a Bottle Tells of “Girl On Board Dressed As A Soldier”

The Koroit Sentinel and Tower Hill Advocate printed a story on January 22nd, 1916, about the three messages in bottles found together on New Year’s Day of that year by a Maurice J. Leddin. The soldiers had dropped them overboard on Christmas Day of 1915.

Vintage news article about Ted Blakey, who wrote a message in a bottle mentioning the famous stowaway Maud Butler. Ted Blakey survived the war.

Vintage news article about Ted Blakey, who mentioned Maud Butler in his message in a bottle (though not by name).

The whole thing is crazy! Can you imagine finding three messages in bottles washed up beside each other? Madness! And this particular message in a bottle mentions Maud Butler, though not by name. She was trying to get to Gallipoli to fight alongside her brother.

These messages in bottles about Maud Butler join the ranks of several other famous and fascinating messages in bottles concerning Australia. There’s the incredible story of Thomas Hughes’ message in a bottle, found ages after he sent it–also en route to WWI–and returned to his elderly granddaughter. Then there’s the second oldest message in a bottle ever found, which, at almost 132 years of age, was discovered in Australia’s coastal sand dunes. There’s even an incredible tale of a message in a bottle making its way to Australia’s second prime minister, Alfred Deakin. When it comes to messages in bottles, Australia doesn’t mess around!

These messages also join the exclusive club of extremely interesting messages in bottles sent on Christmas Day, alongside the likes of Frank Hayostek’s WWII message in a bottle, which he sent on Christmas Day of 1945.

Bottled Messages Can Drift and Wash Ashore Together

There are so many strange and wonderful elements to Maud Butler’s story, and the messages in bottles written about her, it’s hard to know where to start.

First, although three MIBs washing up together seems so amazing as to be impossible, in fact, it is absolutely possible.

According to renowned oceanographer Curtis Ebbesmeyer, author of Flotsametrics and the Floating World, this isn’t all that strange. In his book, Ebbesmeyer discusses how “drifters” (basically any floating objects) that are similar to each other, released at the same time and place together, can often stay together as they float around. Almost as if they share a “packet” of water that keeps them together. Neat, huh? So, if three Australian soldiers hucked their bottles overboard together enroute to the front, they very well could have stayed together just as the finder describes.

Now, the soldiers were under way from New South Wales (bottom right in the map below) to Europe. Their ship traveled south and west around Australia’s south coast. So the logistics check out: The balloon below marks Portland Bay where the bottles washed up. The soldiers who sent them would have sailed relatively close by.

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Now, let’s zoom in:

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Fourth Message in a Bottle Describes Stowaway Girl Bound for Western Front

Even though Ebbesmeyer explains that three messages in bottles could indeed drift together and wash up together, it is striking to imagine finding three such bottled notes side by side.

When I read the article above about the three MIBs (one of which mentions Maud Butler), one thing jumped out to me:

At sea, Saturday, December 25th, 1915, 4 p.m. My dear mum–I am sending this note by bottle from the Victorian coast. I hope you will get this O.K. We have just finished our Christmas dinner–turkey and pork. Everyone on board is O.K. A girl was found on board dressed as a soldier; she was going to fight with her brother at Gallipoli. Oh, well, good-bye for the present. -I am, your loving son, Ted.

“A girl was found on board dressed as a soldier”!

When I found this article, I had just written about a message in a bottle from WWI which told a very similar story about a girl dressing in drag to serve in WWI. Extremely similar, as a matter of fact. I began to wonder if both messages in bottles described the same girl – Maud Butler.

Here was the first article, which I mentioned in my post about women who have fought for the right to, well, fight. In the armed forces, that is.

Vintage newspaper article that mentions Maud Butler and another female stowaway who hoped to fight in WWI.

This article tells of a message in a bottle found at Warrnambool beach shortly after Christmas 1915. And, the article goes on, “The message was written on Christmas morning by Private R. Lock of [New South Wales],” and it tells the story of a girl “masquerading” as a soldier who was found out.

Here’s the difference between Warrnambool, where this message was found just after Christmas 1915 and Portland Bay, where the other three messages in bottles were found just days later:

Locations where messages in bottles were found along Australia's coast that mentioned Maud Butler.

That’s about 40 miles as the crow flies.

How many young ladies were stowing away around Christmas 1915 and having messages in bottles written about them? It seemed to me that both of these messages had to be about Maud Butler. But I wanted proof.

A Raft of Messages in Bottles About Maud Butler From Christmas 1915

At least four soldiers, all from New South Wales, were on a ship together for Christmas, 1915. On that day, they all four sent messages in bottles that washed ashore within 40 miles of each other (three of them apparently in one pile). Of those four messages, at least two mention a woman who snuck aboard in soldier’s clothes, evading detection for days.

As we have seen, message in a bottle hoaxes were extremely common around the time these were sent. Like this one. And this one. And this one. So I wanted to know: First of all: Were these messages in bottles real? Did they speak of the same girl–Maud Butler? The men who allegedly wrote them–Ted Blakey and R. Lock–were they real? Hoaxers often used fake names of people in connection with real names of ships, making it hard to sort out fact from fiction.

In seeking answers to these questions, I hit a brick wall. But then, I asked for help on Facebook. Holy cow–you guys are amazing! Special thanks to Anne Young and Kylie Malafant who totally helped solve this mystery. Here’s the scoop (and you can see more in the comments below):

“Ted” is a nickname for Edward. Thus, it turns out “Ted Blakey” was actually acting corporal Edward Spencer Blakey, of 6 Whistler Road, Manly, New South Wales, Australia. He signed up on September 11th, 1915.

And R. Lock? That turns out to be Reginald Lock of Dover Road, Rose Bay, New South Wales, Australia. He signed up on September 1st, 1915.

Both men sailed from Sydney on December 23rd, 1915, aboard the SS Suevic, a troopship headed to the front, and both served in the 56th Battalion. This means confirmation! Both of their messages in bottles are indeed about Maud Butler!

Photo of the SS Suveic which carried Maud Butler and two of the men who mentioned her in messages in bottles that were later found.

The SS Suevic, which carried Ted Blakey, Reginald Lock, and Maud Butler. Photo: Australian War Memorial.

Postcard of SS Suevic onto which Maud Butler snuck, hoping to fight in WWI.

Postcard of SS Suevic. Photo: Flotilla Australia.

Reginald returned to Australia in January, 1918. Ted returned in December of 1918. Perhaps the most amazing thing about this story, given the overwhelming carnage of WWI, is that both men survived their service. After all, the 56th Battalion engaged in intense fighting along the western front and suffered heavy casualties.

Meet Maud Butler – The Young Woman Who Tried to Sneak Into WWI

As for the young woman who stowed away on that ship? It was Kylie Malafant who expertly discovered it was 16-year-old Maud Butler. Apparently, she was hell-bent on going to the front to aid the wounded. She told newspapers at the time that she had learned first aid and wanted to act as a nurse in the war. So, she cut her hair, bought the appropriate soldiers’ clothing, and snuck aboard the SS Suevic.

Maud Butler as she looked when discovered aboard an Australian troop ship in WWI. Her uniform is correct; her boots gave her away.

Maud Butler aboard the SS Suevic in her soldier’s outfit, including the black boots that gave her away. Photo: Australian War Memorial.

She evaded notice for two days, even mingling with soldiers who suspected nothing. But a suspicious officer noticed her boots were black instead of the regulation tan color. That small detail betrayed her and ruined her chances of getting to the front.

She vents about this in the articles about her from the time (see below). You see, she knew that she needed the tan boots, but she couldn’t find any, and time was of the essence. So, she risked sneaking aboard the Suevic with black boots, and the rest is history. Commanding officers transferred her to a passenger ship that returned her to Australia. But not before she tipped her hat to the camera, surrounded by curious soldiers–very curious, I would think!

Maud Butler Tipping Hat aboard the troop ship she hoped to ride to the western front of WWI.

Maud Butler, tipping her hat on the deck of the SS Suevic, just before transferring to a passenger ship. Photo: Australian War Memorial.

I can’t help wondering whether the message in a bottle senders Reginald Lock and Ted Blakey actually met Maud Butler while they were on the Suveic together. I bet they did. But we’ll never know. Heck–they could be in the photo above! But they both certainly heard the story quickly enough that they mentioned it in their messages in bottles, sent right after Maud’s discovery.

Below is a whole article from December 29th, 1915, about Maud Butler’s escapade, followed by a bit about her later life.

I had to chop up the article into lots of different photos, but they are in order. This appeared in The Bendigo Independent. Accessed via Australia’s amazing newspaper archive, Trove.

Vintage news article about Maud Butler who snuck aboard a troop ship bound for WWI.23456789101112

***UPDATE*** Maud Butler in Life After the War

Thanks to research done by Gilliam and Yvonne Fletcher as well as Victoria Haskins, we now know that Maud Butler snuck aboard a second troop ship during World War I in hopes of reaching the front and helping wounded me. But she was caught almost immediately this time, and sent back ashore.

Her efforts to help in the war won her the admiration of Australia’s soldiers, and she became a bit of a celebrity. According to Victoria Haskins, she used this fame to fundraise for the Returned Soldier’s Association, but authorities stripped her even of this privilege on the grounds that no one in uniform was allowed to collect like this, and she indeed wore a uniform to do so.

Eventually, according to Maud Butler’s granddaughter, Maud became a midwife and a nurse in the 1930s and 40s. In a comment on Haskins’s blog, Butler’s granddaughter explains that Maud “was greatly respected in the Canterbury and Campsie area of Sydney in the 1960 and 1970s. People greeted her in the street as Matron Hulme. She had a great sense of service through hard work.”

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