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Three Messages in Bottles Found on New Year’s Day, Side by Side

On New Year’s Day, 1916, three messages in bottles washed ashore right beside each other near Portland Bay, Victoria, Australia. Three! All three were written by Australian soldiers from New South Wales, sailing on their way to WWI. Some of them mentioned a curious story about a young woman–a stowaway. it would later be learned that this was Maud Butler, a country girl who tried to sneak into the Great War.

The incident, including the story of how one bottle was forwarded to the mother of the writer, was shared by the Koroit Sentinel and Tower Hill Advocate on January 22nd, 1916.

Ted Blakey Australia 2

The whole thing is crazy! Can you imagine finding three messages in bottles washed up beside each other? Madness!

But, according to renowned oceanographer Curtis Ebbesmeyer, author of Flotsametrics and the Floating World, this may not be all that crazy. 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. 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.

Here’s the Portland Bay area, marked on a map of Australia:

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Now, let’s zoom in:

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There’s one thing about this message that jumps 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”! just wrote 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.

Here was the first article:

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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:

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That’s about 40 miles as the crow flies.

A Raft of Messages in Bottles

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 of them mention the 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. Or this one. Or this one. So I wanted to know: Were these messages in bottles real? The men who allegedly wrote them–Ted Blakey and R. Lock–were they real? 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–so Ted Blakey turns out to have been 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.

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

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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 woman who stowed away on that ship? Kylie Malafant 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 1915 WWI Message in a Bottle

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 got her discovered and ruined her chances of getting to the front. She vents about this in the articles written about her at the time (one is shared below). 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. She was transferred to a passenger ship and returned to Australia–but not before tipping her hat to the camera, surrounded by curious soldiers–very curious, I would think!

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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 met Maud Butler. I think 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.

I found the story of Maud Butler fascinating! Below is a whole article from December 29th, 1915, about her 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.


***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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