The beagle has landed?

Friday 27 February 2004

Maritime historians believe they have finally solved the mystery of the fate of HMS Beagle – the 19th century ship which circumnavigated the globe with Charles Darwin on board.

Using sophisticated radar technology, a team led by Dr Robert Prescott of the University of St Andrews has located the last resting place of the enigmatic ship – buried deep in mud in the Essex marshes.

Under the command of Captain Robert Fitzroy, the Beagle circumnavigated the Earth between 1831 and 1836. On board was Charles Darwin who, then only a young man, joined the crew as a naturalist. It was onboard the ship that Darwin first developed his theory of evolution, leading to one of the most important scientific revolutions in history. Darwin’s landmark text ‘On the Origin of Species’ shook the world and forged both his and the Beagle’s name in history. Yet for 130 years the eventual fate of this iconic ship has remained a mystery.

As hopes have faded for the Mars Lander Probe Beagle 2, Dr Prescott has collaborated with Professor Colin Pillinger, the Director of the Beagle 2 project, and they are convinced they have at least found remains of the original Beagle.

Having conducted a remote sensing survey at a secret site in the Essex marshes, they believe they have finally located elements of the ship entombed 18 feet deep in mud. Using sophisticated ground penetrating radar technology from Edinburgh-based firm Radar World, who have mapped the area, the team have found firm evidence that the remains of a ship lie deep within the marshes. It is the first time that such technology, which can spot objects buried under layers of soil and marshland vegetation, has been used to locate maritime sites deeply buried on land.

Dr Prescott’s search for the famous ship’s final resting place was latterly filmed by a BBC documentary crew and the outcome of his two-year-long search will appear as a special programme this weekend (Saturday 28th February 2004).

Dr Prescott said: “From our remote sensing survey, we can see the outline of a dock for the ship and can make out wood and metal, which is highly suggestive that there is indeed something substantial down there, most probably the bottom of the Beagle. Based on this scientific evidence and what we already know about the final days of this icon of the history of science, we are now urgently considering additional work to obtain more information from the site. Who knows what clues from Darwin’s voyage are down there?”

He explained: “Darwin’s experiences during that expedition critically influenced the development of his ideas about evolution, ultimately revolutionising the way science regards the story of life. The Beagle surely qualifies as one of the most significant ships in scientific history. Yet she has been forgotten for more than a century.”

The BBC programme, ‘The Hunt for Darwin’s Beagle’ is part of the Ancestors series and will appear on screens this Saturday (28th February 2004, 8.10pm). It is presented by archaeologist Julian Richards, who travelled to Patagonia and Tierra del Fuego to follow in the Beagle’s wake to unravel the events that led to her fame and experience something of what she and her crew went through.

He said: “It has been a great privilege to be involved in Robert’s work, to see at first hand the detective work that has enabled him to close in on this amazing ship.”

For the latter part of her life, the Beagle lived a modest existence as a Coastguard watch vessel in Essex, with up to four families of crew members living onboard. Their role was to combat well-organised gangs of smugglers bringing in such goods as brandy, lace and tobacco from the Continent. The Beagle was one of the largest watch vessels and was known to have worked somewhere in the Southend Coastguard District, which ran from Leigh-on-Sea to the River Blackwater, between 1845 to 1870. Research has revealed that while she lay moored in the fairway her size made her a nuisance to other sailing vessels, in particular oyster fishermen, so from 1850 she was berthed at the side of the river Roach.

By 1870, the activities of smugglers were in decline and the number of watch vessels were drastically decreased. The Beagle was taken back by the Admiralty and advertised for sale by auction. The price achieved at the sale was £525, a surprisingly low figure that prompted one MP to subject the First Lord of the Admiralty to hostile questioning concerning the squandering of state assets. The identity of the purchasers has remained obscure and the details of what happened next are uncertain.

“It seems a pair of local likely lads may have purchased the ship, breaking her up where she sat or possibly towing her to a nearby site, ” explained Dr Prescott.

In 2000, Dr Prescott and Professor Pillinger set up the Beagle Ship Research Group with the goal to retrace the ship’s later life and reveal what happened to her in the end. Professor Pillinger, named the Beagle 2 in homage to the immense impact made by the earlier HMS Beagle.

In recent months, tantalising clues have emerged from old maps, an abandoned and largely forgotten anchor and archaeological surveys which have turned up fragments of Victorian pottery which appear to have come from the Beagle. All evidence points to a remote backwater deep in the Essex marshes, near Potton Island. The pottery finds offer an insight into the domestic lives of the Coastguard officers and boatmen who made up the Beagle’s final crews. Among the remains are decorative pieces and even fragments from a child’s toy tea- set, which correlates well with census records for the period that reveal the crew lived with their families on board the Beagle. Indeed, there were babies born on the Beagle as it was moored in Essex.

The Beagle’s significance in history arises from Darwin’s voyage. However, there are other reasons for tracking her down. To present day naval historians, Fitzroy, the ship’s former captain, is an important figure, both as a significant hydrographer and later as the man who established the Meteorological Office, laying the foundations of the weather-forecasting service so valuable to seafarers today. Furthermore, students of naval architecture and history know that while the humble brig-sloop was once legion in the Royal Navy, none survive today and there is little information to be found about them in dockyard drawings or shipwreck sites.

“After the marvels of Patagonia and the Galapagos Islands, it seems the ship that helped spark off a scientific revolution led a humdrum life in a backwater of England before falling asleep on a muddy riverbank where time seems to have stood still for centuries. Darwin himself seems to have had no idea that his former ship ended her days so close to his home in Kent,¿ concluded Dr Prescott.

Today (Friday 27th February 2004), the researchers will meet at the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich to discuss the findings and the way forward.

The BBC documentary ‘The Hunt for Darwin’s Beagle’ is part of the Ancestors series and will appear on screens this Saturday (28th February 2004, 8.10pm).


JPEGS AND MOVING IMAGES ARE AVAILABLE FROM THE BBC ARCHAEOLOGY UNIT – Lorraine Selwyn: 0208 752 6223 or Nigel Paterson: 0796 854 2044

AND University of St Andrews’ Press Office Gayle Cook: 01334 467227, gec3@st-


· The Beagle was a 10-gun brig, launched in 1820 from the Woolwich Royal Dockyard on the Thames. These small, lightly armed warships were well suited to general peacetime duties throughout the world and became the most numerous class ever built for the Royal Navy. The Admiralty Progress Books, in which the construction and maintenance history of every warship is recorded, list the Beagle as a ship of 90ft length on deck and 235 tons. In 1823, in preparation for her life as a hydrographic survey vessel, she was refitted as a barque-rigged sloop with an extra mast and six guns.

· She embarked on a successful career as a survey and scientific exploration ship, circumnavigating the globe twice. It was a punishing regime for a small ship. Those who watched her return to Deptford from a long surveying expedition to Australia some years after Darwin left her could see she had little life left in her. She was therefore laid up at Woolwich in 1840 and five years later assigned by the Admiralty to the Coast Guard Service for anti- smuggling duties. It was a role that would occupy her for the next 25 years.

· Dr Prescott founded the Scottish Institute of Maritime Studies (SIMS) at the University of St Andrews and holds a Caird Senior Fellowship at the National Maritime Museum.

Issued by Beattie Media On behalf of the University of St Andrews Contact Gayle Cook on 01334 467227, mobile 07900 050 103, or email [email protected] Ref: Beagle pr 240204 View the latest University news at

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