Message in a bottle, promising finder a shilling, bobs up after 108 years

Communication thrown into sea by Plymouth biologist in 1906 and found by German woman confirmed as oldest in the world

The bottle and its message
The bottle was among more than 1,000 thrown into the North Sea by George Parker Bidder. Photograph: Marine Biological Association/PA

When the distinguished marine biologist threw his message in a bottle into the sea, asking whoever found it to contact him, he wasn’t expecting a speedy response. Which is just as well, because it took just over 108 years – now officially confirmed by Guinness World Records as the oldest such message in the world.

The German woman who found it has been given the reward promised in 1908, by the scientific institution which has inherited the debt of honour: a shilling.

The bottle was among more than 1,000 thrown into the North Sea in batches by George Parker Bidder, as part of his research into the patterns of currents. This one was part of a batch from 30 November 1906, and was found 108 years, four months and 18 days later in 2015 by a retired German postal worker, Marianne Winkler, on holiday on Amrun, one of Germany’s North Frisian islands.

A self-addressed postcard was found inside the bottle
A self-addressed postcard was found inside the bottle, although the finder sent it back in an envelope to preserve it. Photograph: Marine Biological Association/PA

Inside she could see a message reading “break the bottle” but she and her husband Horst tried and failed to get the message out without destroying its container. Eventually they extracted a postcard with a message in English, German and Dutch, asking for it to be returned to the Marine Biological Association in Plymouth, Devon.

The Winklers could see it was old, but had no idea how old as the card was undated. They duly followed the instructions to fill in the date and where it was found, then put the card in an envelope to preserve it and posted it off, copying the printed address to GP Bidder.

The association, founded in 1884, still exists and is an internationally renowned marine research institution. Although there was astonishment when the post arrived, Bidder’s name was still familiar in Plymouth, as in a remarkably long working life he had served as president of the association between 1939-45. He died in 1954 aged 91. His messages in bottles helped him prove for the first time that the deep sea current in the North Sea flowed from east to west.

The card promised what had been in 1908 the reasonably handsome reward of a shilling – most were gratefully claimed within the year by fishermen.

Guy Baker, the communications officer at the association, said they were determined Winkler would get the proper reward.

“We found an old shilling, I think we got it on eBay. We sent it to her with a letter saying thank you.”

Winkler also now has the honour of confirmation by Guinness World Records of her find: her bottle comfortably beat the last record holder, a bottle found in Shetland in 2013 that had been adrift for 99 years and 43 days.

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