Oldest message in a bottle found in Australia once contained gin

A nineteenth century Dutch gin bottle containing a scrolled note, dated 12 June 1886, has been found by an Australian family on a remote beach on Wedge Island.

Tonya Illman made the discovery while walking on a beach on Wedge Island in Western Australia on 21 January this year. After noticing the glass bottle half sticking out of the sand, she picked it up, intending to display it in her home.

The bottle, which had no lid or closure, was found to contain a damp scroll, tied with twine and measuring 200mm x 153mm, which the family initially thought was a rolled up cigarette.

After removing it from the bottle, the family dried it in the oven so that the were able to unroll and read it without damaging the paper.

On the family’s photography website, Kym Illman stated: “The first thing that caught my eye was the year field, 18__. It seemed totally unlikely to us that the note and bottle could have lasted that long and then be so easy to find”.

Two days later, they contacted the assistant curator of Maritime Archeology at the WA Museum, Ross Anderson, who was able to analyse the find.

After the ink properly dried out, it became clear that the message in the bottle, written in German, had originally been on board a ship by the name of Paula.

Searching through the archives, Anderson found that there was a boat of that name listed in the Lloyds Register of 1883. The boat was described as a “320-ton gross sailing barque, iron frames with timber planking, felt and yellow metal sheathing, built in Lormont, Bordeaux, France, in 1859, owners L. Daver, Master Serett”.

However, German maritime historian Christine Porr, who also works at the WA Museum, advised that she believed that the boat was actually German. Through a contact, she had found references to the Paula, along with the captain (O Diekmann), in an 1887 Journal of German Marine Meteorology.

It is believed – as the note provides coordinates – that the bottle was thrown from the ship in the south-eastern Indian Ocean during a voyage from Cardiff in Wales to Indonesia. Anderson believes that it was probably washed up on the Australian coast within a year of being tossed overboard, where it was subsequently buried under the sand.

The gin bottle

The team at the WA Museum found that the bottle was made by Daniel Visser and Zonen in Schiedam and is believed to have originally contained gin, or genever – the original juniper-flavoured spirit from which today’s gin originates.

Dutch archeologist, J. van Doesburg, contacted by the WA Maritime Museum stated: “The starting point of production of this specific type of gin bottle is c 1880 (typical tapered shape of the rim). The oldest ones are quite angular, just as older types. The later ones have a more rounded shoulder. The development from angular to round takes about 20-30 years and is gradual. Your bottle should be placed somewhere in this development”.

It is believed that cyclone conditions in the weeks before the find led to the exposure of the bottle. It took around three weeks of research to determine the bottle’s authenticity.

Once Guinness World Records acknowledges the Illmans’ discovery, it will surpass the current holder of the “oldest message in a bottle” by over 23 years.

Information regarding the discovery can be read here, and the WA Museum’s report can be found here.

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