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Submersible discovering SS Gairsoppa. (c) Odyssey Marine Exploration

Voices from the Deep

22 June 2018 Suzanne Frost

London’s new Postal Museum opened barely a year ago, and while postal services may seem like a pretty niche subject, the true significance of what mailing means is without a doubt hugely socially important. With their second temporary exhibition “Voices from the Deep”, the Postal Museum delivers a surprisingly emotional experience, revealing what lies at the heart of human communication, and what they discovered at the bottom of the sea – nothing less than love.

In 1941, the, SS Gairsoppa was torpedoed off the coast of Ireland by a German U-Boat. The merchant steamboat, which had been at sea for 8 weeks and was finally on its way home from Calcutta, sank within 20 minutes and left behind just a single survivor.  For 77 years the derelict shipwreck was buried at the bottom of the Atlantic, 3 miles deep, a mile deeper than the Titanic and the equivalent of 14 times the Shard! When the wreck was discovered in 2011, scientists found among other personal affairs, more than 700 personal letters, written in war time that never reached their intended recipients – family, parents, sweethearts, and loved ones that were left behind waiting for messages that never came.



In the 40s, letters are the only way of communication that exists yet and during the war the sea is Britain’s lifeline. It is also incredibly dangerous out there. Two ships a day sink, usually struck by the prowling German U-boats from which derived the phrase “loose lips lose ships”. Merchant ships like the SS Gairsoppa carried goods on the all-important England – India trade line, but they also carried mail. Even the Titanic was as a matter of fact a Royal Mail Ship (which is what RMS actually stands for). What was discovered on the Gairsoppa however is the largest amount of letters ever found and preserved by an airlock that formed as the boat sank, offering an astonishing powerful window into the past.

Because the Gairsoppa was lying so deep – it took diving robots 4 hours to travel down – the freezing cold conditions down there, the darkness and the lack of oxygen were actually ideal for preservation.  A thick black mushy slime that formed after 77 years in the ocean served as another protective layer, and when the letters were conserved, with a meticulousness that took 5 years, they were amazingly readable, even the ones written in pencil. The discovery of the SS Gairsoppa would be a subject just as easily displayed in a science focused exhibition but the Postal Museum puts a human angle on the story that is all the more piercing.


Recreating the experience of the diving robots by keeping the exhibitions rooms very dark, you can pick up a UV torchlight to reveal messages on the walls, or listen to extracts from letters in a soundpod. When the voices from the deep reveal their messages, you are swept up in emotion. They speak of love and friendship, they give the all-important news of survival from a hospital bed, tell of injuries and near death experiences. There are lots of Christmas Cards, photos of children, “Dear Ma & Da …” , “… I worry I have not written to you for such a long time…” , “… please send me a reply…”, “…I’m longing to hear how you are…”, “…do you love me still?”.


It took on average 3 months for mail to arrive, and realising that these letters never made it, the recipients never got those words of love or those reassuring  life signs, that they never felt those emotions – it is actually heartbreaking.  Private Walker, possibly the heartthrob of this exhibition, writes to his “most precious sweetheart” gushing with joy because the lady of his affection has accepted his proposal by post. She would have been waiting and waiting for this reply, which never arrived. Try not to cry.


With the project The Late Post, the Postal Museum is trying to track down the descendants of the letter’s recipients, in a quest to finally deliver messages that took 77 years to arrive. You can also take part in an interactive project and write a note you would like someone to read 70 years in the future. Who would you write to and what would you most like to say?
 
Voices from the Deep is at the Postal Museum until January 2019.
 

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