Finding Family

One woman's obsession with family history.

Messages in bottles have long been considered fascinating to many people. Stories of people finding them on the beach regularly pop up on news websites (often with the letters returned to their original owners) so it’s of no surprise to find that newspapers of the past similarly reported on such discoveries in much the same way.


In 1869 when the bottle was found, Abraham Hurst was 64 years old and had been living in the southwest of Western Australia for 27 years. Specific details relating to his discovery were not printed (I’m not even particularly sure where the bottle was found) but the letter found within the bottle was. While I can only use my imagination as to how Abraham found it, I can go one better with respect to the contents; I can research it.

The letter was written by an individual while they were on board the ship Hydrabad. It’s dated 18 April 1869 and appears to have been signed off by the Master of the ship, Richard Jones. This could mean that the letter was written by Richard or his name was added at the end as an extra identifying factor.

The Hydrabad was an iron, three-masted sailing ship weighing 1,339 tons. Built in Glasgow, Scotland in 1865, it was launched in May of the same year and was registered in Bombay (now Mumbai) in India in 1866.


The Hydrabad in full sail by William Clark. Courtesy of the National Library of Australia.

It mostly operated as a cargo and/or passenger vessel between England, India and Australia and was originally owned by the Bombay Iron Ship Company. It had several Captains throughout the years and, by 1868, had been sold to T. Stephens & Co. At this point in time, Richard Jones was appointed the ship’s Captain.

On 22 October 1868, the Hydrabad departed Liverpool carrying passengers bound for Victoria. It arrived on 6 January 1869. It’s next job was to transport a cargo of coal from Newcastle (New South Wales) to Bombay and it departed Newcastle on 25 March. Captain Jones sailed the ship in a westerly direction around the southern coastline of Australia. They were headed towards Western Australia.

It’s not known if the ship docked in Western Australia (there is a good chance it did so in Albany) but nevertheless, by 18 April (the date of the letter) someone wrote their coordinates on a piece of paper…

Lat 30 deg South, Long. 112 deg East, 23 days out, all well.

…placed the letter in a bottle, sealed it and then threw it over the side of the ship into the Indian Ocean.

It’s an act which, to me, shows the optimism of those on board. They had been at sea for 23 days and everything thus far had gone according to plan. Was the message in  the bottle the work of one individual? Or, was the whole crew aware of it and excitedly mused on thoughts of where in the world their letter would end up.

The coordinates written in the letter reveal that the Hydrabad was off the coast of Western Australia; north of Perth and approximately west of Green Head (see the map below).


The fact that the ship’s coordinates were included in the letter adds weight to the possibility that perhaps Captain Jones had written it after all.

With respect to the bottle, the rest of the story is known. Bobbing along in the Indian Ocean, it floated south and, five months later, washed up on a beach near Bunbury only to be found by my 4th Great Grandfather.

The story of the Hydrabad however, continues.

The ship sailed north and soon left the west coast of Australia bound for the west coast of India. It arrived in Bombay on 3 June 1869 and stayed there for some time.

Unfortunately the words written on the letter ‘all well’ proved ominous. While still in Bombay, Captain Richard Jones contracted cholera and, on 31 July 1869, he passed away.


The Hydrabad remained in the vicinity of the Arabian Sea for another month or so. Sometime in late August or early September (around the time the bottle was being scooped up from the beach in Bunbury) the ship was at the port of Jedda (Saudi Arabia) when it was chartered by the wife of Syud Hamed bin Sulliman (an ambassador to Bombay). She had been on pilgrimage to Mecca and required a ship to take her and her retinue back home to Zanzibar.

Not long after leaving Jedda they found themselves in a south-westerly monsoon and were forced to divert their course to the port of Aleppy (today Alappuzha). Once the weather cleared the Hydrabad departed Aleppy and again set sail for Zanzibar.

During the night of 11 September 1869, about 45 miles from the coast of Zanzibar, it was realised that the Hydrabad was quite close to a sandbank named Latham’s Shoal. In order to prevent the ship from drifting onto the shoal, the Captain ordered to ‘let go the anchor’. They remained safe during the night but, upon resuming their journey in the morning, the wind (which must have been fairly strong) caused the ship to drift and it was subsequently wrecked on the reef.


The approximate location on Latham’s Shoal.

For seven days the Hydrabad, it’s crew and passengers remained stranded on the tiny shoal. Some people had drowned at the time of the wreck but those who survived found the small island uninhabitable. There was no water available but they managed to sustain themselves on sea birds and eggs. As the days wore on, some people died from dehydration.

At some point it was decided that there was no use sitting and waiting for help. Five people set out in a small boat (which had survived the wreck) and rowed towards the mainland for assistance.

They arrived safely and on 18 September 1869 at 11pm, John Kirk (the Political Agent and Consul of Zanzibar) received word of the British ship which had been wrecked.

The Sultan was out of the country at the time but his Wuzeer (similar to a Prime Minister) Sheik Sulaman bin Aik was left in charge and immediately arranged for the Sultan’s steam yacht to be made ready to rescue the survivors. John Kirk joined him on the rescue mission and they reached Latham’s Shoal in the afternoon of the following day.


Of the 84 people who were on board the Hydrabad (totalling 32 crew members and 52 passengers) 59 were rescued and landed alive at Zanzibar. 25 people had lost their lives. Of the ship’s crew, three had drowned at the time of the wreck, two had died from thirst on the shoal and three others (who had left on a raft – possibly to seek help) were unaccounted for.

John Kirk’s letter (written to Charles Gonne, the Chief Secretary to the Government in the Political Department) was published in most of the British newspapers of the time and several Australian newspapers. The ship was often declared in headlines as a loss but history tells us this wasn’t the case.

According to the Heritage New Zealand website, the Hydrabadsustained damage and as a consequence remained at Bombay for almost a year while repairs were being carried out, finally returning to Liverpool on 3 October 1870.” Perhaps the damage caused by Latham’s Shoal wasn’t quite as bad as first thought.

The Hydrabad eventually returned to the seas and continued to make various voyages throughout the next eight years.

Its last journey took place in 1878 when it travelled from Adelaide to Lyttelton (New Zealand) to collect surplus railway stock which had been purchased by the South Australian Government from the New Zealand Government. During its return journey it met with inclement weather while passing through the Cook Strait and, on 24 June 1878, it was grounded in the sand of Waitarere Beach.

At this point in time, Abraham Hurst was 73 years old, still alive and still living in Bunbury. Nearly ten years had passed since he had found the bottle. I wonder if, even after all those years, he had kept both the bottle and the message somewhere safe in his home. Western Australian newspapers did not report on the wreck of the Hydrabad in New Zealand so it’s likely Abraham was never able to read the story of its demise. Regardless, I can’t help but wonder if he often pondered on the letter, the identity of its author and the ship it had come from.

Over the years several attempts to recover the Hydrabad failed and after being gutted by fire in 1881 (coincidentally, the same year Abraham Hurst passed away) it was finally left to sit where it was; slowly ravaged by time and eventually swallowed by the sand.


2 thoughts on “Message in a Bottle

  1. Jess says:

    Reblogged this on The Dusty Box and commented:

    A story involving my 4th Great Grandfather, Abraham Hurst, a message in a bottle and the ship ‘Hydrabad’.

  2. Great story! My great-uncle found a message in a bottle and recorded the event in his diary. He also detailed the efforts he made to contact the ships agents. I must dig it out and have another look at it!

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