The last days of Darwin’s Beagle

Thursday 29 May 2003

Maritime historians hope to finally solve the mystery of the final fate of the HMS Beagle – the 19th century ship which circumnavigated the globe with Charles Darwin on board.

A team led by Dr Robert Prescott of the University of St Andrews expect to unravel the enigmatic circumstances of the ship’s final resting place – and hope to find its lost remains 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. But it was while on board the Beagle that Darwin began to form his theory of evolution which later led to the publication of his renowned work ‘Origin of the Species’.

Dr Prescott 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 almost a century.”

“The archaeology of these final phases of the Beagle’s life will provide a geographical focus of attention for all who admire the achievements of Darwin and Fitzroy and are fascinated by this most historically significant of ships.”

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. He was brought on board to solve the mystery when he was approached by Professor Colin Pillinger, the head scientist leading the UK-based project to land on Mars with the Beagle 2 – which he had named in homage to the immense impact made by the original Beagle.

“I have an intense fascination with Darwin’s voyage. So when Colin approached me to enquire about the ultimate fate of the Beagle and about the possibility of locating archaeological evidence associated with the last years of her working life, it was too tempting an offer to ignore,” he explained.

The Beagle’s significance 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 an important 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.

In 2000 Dr Prescott and Professor Pillinger collaborated to 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.

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.

“The geographical focus of the Beagle’s new task provided the starting point for our archaeological search. Throughout much of the 19th century, smuggling was endemic among the seafaring communities of the south- east coast of England. The preventive service was obliged to deploy revenue cruisers and coastguard watch vessels in considerable numbers to combat well organised gangs of smugglers bringing in such goods as brandy, lace and tobacco from the Continent. More than 30 such boats and ships were placed on station in the estuaries, rivers and creeks of Essex, Kent and Sussex,” continued Dr Prescott.

The distribution pattern of these vessels has led to much confusion as to what happened to the Beagle at this time. Admiralty records from 1845 mention the ship as assigned to the coastguard at Southend. This has led some authors to take this to literally mean she was berthed at or near the Essex town. Some have postulated that she was based six miles east of Southend in Havengore Creek, one of a number of waterways that penetrate the Essex marshes and connect the Thames Estuary with the rivers Roach and Crouch to the north. These creeks were much used for the running of smuggled goods.

However, coastguard records for the period reveal that for administrative purposes, the coast was divided into a number of districts, each named after its most prominent town. Southend district ran from Leigh-on-Sea to the Crouch. When Beagle was “assigned to the Coastguard at Southend”, she could have served anywhere throughout this region accessible to a ship of her tonnage and 11ft draught.

The Beagle was one of the largest ships employed as a watch vessel. This ruled out her deployment in some of the narrower, shallower creeks. It also meant that when moored in the fairway, she was a great nuisance to other river users, particularly the oyster fishermen whose smacks thronged the Crouch and Roach. Their complaints eventually led to the Beagle being put ashore at the river margin, where from 1850 she continued to serve another 20 years as a watch vessel.

A careful study of the point at which she was beached has revealed a dense scatter of Victorian pottery. This debris, which stands out in this remote part of the Essex marshes, has given Professor Prescott and his team an insight into the domestic lives of the coast guard 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. This latter find correlates well with census records for the period that reveal the crew lived with their families on board the Beagle.

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. Just how and where this was carried out is still under investigation. While we have found the scattered remains of some superstructure and two of her ship’s boats, a full excavation would be required to reveal any remaining timbers from her hull, ” explained Dr Prescott.

“It is paradoxical that after surveying some of the most remote locations in the world, the Beagle’s final years just a day’s ride from London are the most obscure. A combination of documentary, cartographic and archaeological evidence has clarified much surrounding the last decades of her working life,” he continued.

Dr Prescott’s study has revealed so far the history of the Beagle up to the point of her sale in 1870. All that remains is for them to find the lost remains amongst the great expanse of mud banks and salt flats of the Essex marshes.

“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,” he concluded.



Dr Prescott is available for interview after 12pm today on 01334 463017.




Issued by Beattie Media On behalf of the University of St Andrews Contact Gayle Cook on 01334 467227, mobile 07900 050103, or email [email protected] Ref: Dr Prescott Beagle pr 300503 View the latest University news at

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