Mar 29, 2018

Voices from the Deep

The Postal Museum

Discover untold stories through the letters and objects on board the SS Gairsoppa, a merchant steam ship that sank over 75 years ago.

On 14 February 1941 the SS Gairsoppa, a British India Steam Navigation Company cargo ship, was nearing the end of its journey from India back to Britain. It carried important war supplies.

In worsening weather and low on coal, the Gairsoppa dropped behind the safety of its convoy in a notorious danger zone.

On 16 February a German U-boat attacked. A torpedo hit with such force that the lower hull cracked open.

It took 20 minutes for the ship to sink to the seabed, where it lay for 73 years. 86 crew were on board. They escaped to lifeboats but only one survived.

In 2011 American deep-sea exploration pioneers Odyssey Marine Exploration found the long-lost wreck of the ship.

The Gairsoppa lies 4.7km (nearly 3 miles) beneath the Atlantic Ocean surface. Among the objects Odyssey recovered:
- 109 tonnes of silver
- 717 letters
- Personal items of the crew

The ship carried 2,817 silver bars.

The sinking of the Gairsoppa saw the heaviest loss of silver bullion sent from India to Britain in the Second World War.

This is just one of the silver bars loaded onto the Gairsoppa. The weight of 1008.9 ounces is carved into the bar - equivalent to 28kg (over 60 pounds).

The Gairsoppa also carried enough tea to sustain 65% of Britain's population for a week.

Tea sample boxes like this were on board the Gairsoppa and sent through the post.

Essential to prop up the nation’s wavering morale, during the Second World War Britain’s weekly tea ration was set at 2 ounces per adult (56 grams) - almost 30 cups' worth!

This pewter teapot and porcelain cup and jug are stamped with the British India Steam Navigation Company logo (BISN). They were custom made for on-board use for the Gairsoppa crew.

The pantry was also stocked with various sauce bottles to spice up food for the 86 crew members – from HP Sauce to ketchup.

How did the letters on board survive so long?

They lay within the hold beneath tons of mail bags and sediments - environmentally sealed. Without light, currents, heat and oxygen, decay slowed down.

To repair damage and make them ready for display, some of the letters had to be treated in a conservation studio.

Listen to excerpts from undelivered letters found on board. Here, Gladys Clapp writes passionately to her parents with her view of recent developments in the war.

Letter from Gladys Clapp | Voices from the Deep

Private Pete Walker wrote this joyful letter to his ‘most precious sweetheart’ Phyll. She has just accepted his offer of marriage, also made via the post.

Letter from the SS Gairsoppa | Voices from the Deep

Bill, a soldier with the 1st Devonshire Regiment, has been in hospital, but with ‘an India complaint which makes you turn yellow’ – jaundice. Now fully recovered, he writes to his parents.

Letter from Bill Wheeler | Voices from the Deep

Sailing in December, much of the Gairsoppa's mail was made up of Christmas and greetings cards.

19 bundles of undelivered letters were recovered - just some of what was on the ship when it sank. The shipwreck and some of its contents still lie on the seabed today.

Discover more letters and find out about the story of the SS Gairsoppa at The Postal Museum's temporary exhibition, Voices from the Deep.

Credits: Story

Original underwater photos and footage by Odyssey Marine Exploration.

Black and white photo of the SS Gairsoppa, credit to Bibliothek für Zeitgeschichte, Stuttgart.

Object photography, The Postal Museum.

Exhibition supported by:
The Wreck & Crash Mail Society
Dr Steve Berlin
Ken Sanford
V&A Purchase Fund

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.