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A ship's evolution from globetrotter to coastguard

The vessel that carried Darwin on his voyage around the world and gave its name to the British Mars lander has been lost for a century. Robert Prescott reports on the effort to find the Beagle.

The Essex marshes are wild and desolate. You could be forgiven for feeling you were at the end of the Earth in the vast emptiness of this watery landscape. Yet it was among this expanse of mudbanks and salt flats that one of the most remarkable journeys in human endeavour came to its end. For here is the final resting place of the remains of the brig-sloop HMS Beagle.

When Colin Pillinger named his Mars lander Beagle 2, he was paying homage to the immense impact of that earlier voyage of exploration. The original Beagle, under the command of Captain Robert Fitzroy, circumnavigated the Earth between 1831 and 1836. On board was a young naturalist called Charles Darwin, whose experiences during that expedition critically influenced the development of his ideas about evolution, and ultimately rewrote the story of life. The Beagle qualifies as one of the most significant ships in scientific history. Yet she has been forgotten for more than a century.

I am fascinated with Darwin's voyage. So when Colin approached me to inquire about the fate of the Beagle and the possibility of locating archaeological evidence associated with the last years of her working life, it was too tempting an offer to ignore. I had planned just such an investigation some years earlier but could not raise the necessary funds.

Beagle' s significance arises from Darwin's voyage. However, there are other reasons for tracking her down. To present-day naval historians, her captain, Fitzroy, is an important figure, both as a significant hydrographer and later as the man who established the Meteorological Office. Furthermore, students of naval architecture and history know that while brig-sloop were once legion in the Royal Navy, none survives today and there is little information to be found about them. So I readily agreed to collaborate with Colin to set up the Beagle Ship Research Group. Our goal was to retrace the ship's later life and reveal what happened to her in the end.

Beagle 2' s illustrious predecessor was a ten-gun brig of the Cherokee/Cadmus class, launched in 1820 from the Woolwich Royal Dockyard on the Thames. These small, lightly armed warships were well suited to general peacetime duties 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 then embarked on a successful career as a survey and scientific exploration ship, circumnavigating the globe twice. It was a punishing regime. Those who watched her return to the Thames from a surveying expedition to Australia some years after Darwin's voyage 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 Coastguard 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 southeast 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 goods such as brandy, lace and tobacco from the Continent. More than 30 such ships were placed on station in the estuaries, rivers and creeks of Essex, Kent and Sussex.

The distribution pattern of these vessels has led to 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 the Beagle was "assigned to the Coastguard at Southend", she could have served anywhere throughout this region accessible to a ship of her size. In fact, an annotated coastguard chart for the period records the location of all the watch vessels. The Beagle is clearly shown moored in the River Roach.

This position allowed the Beagle to dominate the network of creeks between the Thames Estuary and the North Sea coast via the River Crouch. Her boats could patrol the waterways and work in conjunction with shore-based patrols riding the sea-walls to control access to the marshes of Potton, Wakering and Foulness Islands. Our field-work has added further evidence with the discovery of brick-laid causeways that stretch straight across the mudflats to connect the low-tide mark with the sea walls. These allowed preventive servicemen, in their efforts to head off smugglers, to land their boats at key locations and rapidly cross the huge expanses of glutinous mud that are exposed when the tide is out.

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. Their complaints eventually led to the Beagle' s being put ashore at the river margin, where from 1850 she continued to serve another 20 years as a watch vessel.

A study of the point at which she was beached has revealed a dense scatter of Victorian pottery. This debris gives us 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 teaset. This correlates well with census records for the period that reveal the crew lived with their families on board the Beagle. One can imagine that it was not an unpleasant life for young children in the mid-19th century.

By 1870, the activities of smugglers were in decline and the number of watch vessels was greatly decreased. The Beagle was taken back by the Admiralty and sold at auction for £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. More important is the fact that the identity of the purchasers has remained obscure and hence the details of what happened next are uncertain. It seems that 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 first. Just how and where this was carried out is still under investigation. While we have found the fragmentary remains of some superstructure and two ship's boats, a full excavation would be required to reveal any remaining timbers from her hull.

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. The Beagle' s history is now clear up to the point of her sale in 1870.

As our work continues, we expect to unravel the enigmatic circumstances of her final fate. Our hope and expectation is that the mystery will soon be solved. 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.

After the marvels of Patagonia and the Galapagos Islands, it seems the ship that helped spark a scientific revolution led a humdrum life in a rural backwater before expiring on a muddy riverbank where time seems to have stood still for centuries.

Robert Prescott founded the Scottish Institute of Maritime Studies at the University of St Andrews and holds a Caird Senior Fellowship at the National Maritime Museum.

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