My Research Quest: the South Australian Farmer and Soldiers’ Messages in Bottles WWI.

“Do not follow where the path may lead. Go instead where there is no path and leave a trail.”
-Ralph Waldo Emerson

I’m not sure whether you can help me, but I’m hopeful.

After all, one of the things I appreciate about blogging, is how you can write and share your ideas before you’ve fully nutted them out. You can test the waters, and even hook up with others interested in the same area and collaborate in a more low-key environment. This is particularly good, too, when your nearest and dearest in terms of love, relationships and DNA, doesn’t share your research interest. Indeed, many of us would be better off talking to the dog, or trading in the cat.

However, by heading online too soon, you risk making mistakes, and there’s a definite safety in holding back until you’ve dotted the i’s crossed the t’s. Possible wisdom in staying offline perfecting your manuscript and seeing it published in print, even if your scribblings might be set in stone.

Of course, operating within the university context can provide the ideal nursery environment to safely nurture your research project and receive much needed mentoring support. However, there’s still that sense that you need to have your “shit” together before you put it out there, even as a concept. Indeed, embarking into the realms of professional research is very daunting. After all, “thou shalt not make a mistake” is its first commandment, but we’re only human. Even if it’s only a comma out of place, it’s still a mistake, and at the very least, you have to live with your own censure.

My personal journey along the serious research path is even lonelier than most. While research has been part and parcel of my writing and I have an honours degree in history, my current interests have been fuelled by the events of late 1999 and 2020. Firstly, I was forced inside by thick, suffocating bushfire smoke when I simply couldn’t breathe for weeks at a time, and I depended on our air-conditioner. After a brief intermission, I was back inside self-isolating from the coronavirus, which turned into lockdown, back to self-isolation. All I can say about that, is thank goodness for my research. It’s been a lifeline this year.

So, after keeping virtually all this research offline, I’ve decided to cast a line out into the world wide web. Moreover, just like anybody going fishing, I’m optimistic my efforts won’t return with an empty hook, and I’ll find a great big fish dangling at the end of the line,

Lieutenant Roy Mandeville Lenton wrote one of the messages found by Herbert A Stewart in 1916.

The blog has come through for me before, and I’m hoping it will deliver once again, even if this approach does seem equally random as the very messages I’m chasing. They were written by Australian and New Zealand troops and sealed inside bottles and often thrown overboard as they crossed the Great Australian Bight with a hope they’d eventually find their intended destination.

Map showing roughly where Herbert A Stewart found the messages in bottles SE of Rivoli Bay, South Australia.

However, my primary focus isn’t on the troops themselves, but on a South Australian farmer who found almost 200 messages in bottles near Rivoli Bay on the Limestone Coast. Not only that, Herbert A Stewart of “Bleakfield”, Rendelsham forwarded the messages to their intended destinations with a cover letter, and he even went to the trouble of forwarding letters written by NZ troops on to New Zealand.

While you would think that forwarding messages in bottles doesn’t make much of a difference to the war effort, when you look at it on this scale, it takes on a different slant. Indeed, I’m incredibly inspired by Herbert’s dedication, hard work, love and compassion for the soldiers and their families. Indeed, I’d love to be more like him.

Bottle housed in the Australian War Memorial.

By the way, it’s worth putting Herbert’s efforts into some kind of context. While it wasn’t unusual for soldiers to throw messages in bottles overboard in transit, so far I haven’t come across anyone else finding the sheer number of messages Herbert found. As far as I can tell, he found at least 180 bottles, and on the 31st August, 1916, he found a record 47 messages. The closest I’ve come across is Harbour Master, Ned Carrison, of Port McDonnell, South Australia who found 10 bottles on the 16th July, 1916 not far from Herbert’s stomping ground.

At the moment, I’ve only been able to identify 22 of the messages found by Herbert Stewart, and this is clearly only the tip of the iceberg. It looks like Herbert kept a record of all the messages he’d found, and I’m hoping that’s somehow been preserved. I’d also imagine that there are families out there who still know the story of how an ancestor or loved one’s message was forwarded to them by Herbert A Stewart of Bleakfield, Rendelsheim, South Australia. I would love to hear from you.

I’m also interested in the WWI messages in bottles in general. So, I’d love to hear from you if that’s of interest.

An empty chair is often used to represent a loved one who has passed away…

While researching messages in bottles might seem quirky and eccentric, the reality is that each bottle is a time capsule preserving a fragment of a much larger journey of a soldier, or group of soldiers heading across the ocean to the front. Moreover, they also tell a story about the person who finds the bottle. Who were they, and what were they do on the beach? They often had to work hard to salvage the scrap of paper which had been floating adrift at the mercy of the sea. I’ve read about bottles turning up covered in seaweed and barnacles. Messages which are wet and barely legible but the finder is just able to pick out an address, a name, a detail and the message has been printed in a newspaper. There was a message written by an Australian soldier which was found by a Maori man on the beach in New Zealand, Herbert Stewart also found a letter by a Maori man from the 1st Maori Continent which was found near Rivoli Bay, South Australia. Indeed, there’s something rather touching about the currents carrying these bottles across boarders and boundaries, especially when I’ve been conducting my research during Covid where we have boundaries on boundaries on boundaries, and we can’t even hug a friend. The ocean, on the other hand, knows no boundaries and these messages in bottles rose from the deep, and went where they went until they were found, retrieved and passed on. Sadly, some of these messages took years to research their destination and by that time, some of their scribes had inevitably died…killed in action, died of wounds, casualties of a foreign war.

Anyway, if you have any information to share or would like to pick my brains, please leave a message. I’d love to hear from you.

Best wishes,

Rowena Curtin

9 thoughts on “My Research Quest: the South Australian Farmer and Soldiers’ Messages in Bottles WWI.

  1. Karen J Schoff

    What a fascinating piece of history! Sadly I don’t know anything about the WWI messages in bottles but it sounds like a very interesting research project. War history often focuses on battles and numbers of casualties, but the messages would reveal the human side, the intimate thoughts of those going off to battle. For those of us in the 21st century, WWI seems so remote, but imagine if you were reunited with a message written by your great great uncle! It would make them so much more real. I am currently studying a BA in English Lit & History and thinking of doing Honours in History. All the best with your research.

  2. Rowena Post author

    That’s really good you’re doing your degree. I did a BA through Sydney Uni with honours in history mostly Australian. After doing English in first year, I did Australian literature for the following two years. I highly recommend doing honours in history. I am thinking about doing my PhD but am also thinking about a Masters in Creative Writing. and doing these stories that way.
    I thought you’d be interested in reading about Maud Butler: https://uonblogs.newcastle.edu.au/anzacherstory/2016/04/08/world-war-1-teenage-girl-maud-butler-cut-hair-dressed-as-soldier-and-stowed-away-on-troopship/
    There’s a link to some posts I wrote about Maud in the comments.
    My WWI research was launched by trying to write up our relatives’ experiences. Our son was supposed to be going on a European history tour with school and was due to be at Villers Bretonneux for the dawn service on ANZAC Day. However, Covid canned that and we were just grateful to get our money back. I was trying to work out where my Great Great Uncle was when he was wounded and it was tricky to work out and I ended up reading letters written by soldiers in the old newspapers in Trove to fill in the gaps and it all took off. The research is much more involved and difficult than I thought but I’m getting well beneath the surface which is so satisfying. Getting to know some of these men and working in their boots for a bit is amazing. I’m absolutely hooked.

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