By The Postal Museum

Voices from the Deep

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

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The Route of the SS Gairsoppa when it sank (2018) by The Postal MuseumThe Postal Museum

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.

Voices from the Deep (2011) by Odyssey Marine ExplorationThe Postal Museum

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

The SS Gairsoppa (1940) by UnknownThe Postal Museum

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

Silver from the SS Gairsoppa (2011) by Odyssey Marine ExplorationThe Postal Museum

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.

Silver Ingot from the SS Gairsoppa (1940) by The Postal MuseumThe Postal Museum

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).

Tea on the Gairsoppa (2011) by Odyssey Marine ExplorationThe Postal Museum

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

Tea sample box from the SS Gairsoppa (circa. 1940) by The Postal MuseumThe Postal Museum

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

Teapot, jug and cup from the Gairsoppa (1940) by The Postal MuseumThe Postal Museum

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.

Condiment Bottle from the SS Gairsoppa (circa. 1940) by The Postal MuseumThe Postal Museum

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

Conservation of the letters (2018) by The Postal MuseumThe Postal Museum

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.

Conservation of letters from the Gairsoppa (2018) by The Postal MuseumThe Postal Museum

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

Letter from Gladys Clapp (1940-11-28) by The Postal MuseumThe Postal Museum

Letter from Gladys Clapp | Voices from the Deep
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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 Private Pete Walker (1940-12-01) by The Postal MuseumThe Postal Museum

Letter from the SS Gairsoppa | Voices from the Deep
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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 Bill Wheeler (1940) by The Postal MuseumThe Postal Museum

Letter from Bill Wheeler | Voices from the Deep
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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.

Newspaper clipping from the Gairsoppa, The Postal Museum, 1940, From the collection of: The Postal Museum
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Christmas card from the Gairsoppa, The Postal Museum, 1940, From the collection of: The Postal Museum
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Sailing in December, much of the Gairsoppa's mail was made up of Christmas and greetings cards.

Christmas card from the Gairsoppa, The Postal Museum, 1940, From the collection of: The Postal Museum
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Letter from Gladys Clapp (1940-11-28) by The Postal MuseumThe Postal Museum

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.

Voices from the Deep Exhibition (2018) by The Postal MuseumThe Postal Museum

Discover more letters and find out about the story of the SS Gairsoppa at The Postal Museum website.

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.