HMS Beagle was a Cherokee class 10-gun brig of the Royal Navy, named after the beagle, a breed of dog. She was launched on 11 May 1820 from the Woolwich Dockyard on the River Thames, at a cost of £7,803. In July of that year she took part in a fleet review celebrating the coronation of King George IV of the United Kingdom in which she was the first ship to sail under the new London Bridge. After that there was no immediate need for Beagle so she was kept in reserve for five years and "lay in ordinary", moored afloat but unmanned. She was then adapted as a survey barque and took part in three expeditions. On the second survey voyage the young naturalist Charles Darwin was on board, and his work would eventually make the Beagle one of the most famous ships in history.
On 27 September 1825 Beagle docked at Woolwich for repairs and fitted out for her new duties at a total cost of £5,913. Her guns were reduced from ten cannons to six and a mizzenmast was added to improve her maneuverability, thereby changing her from a brig to a bark (or barque).
Beagle set sail on 22 May 1826 for her first voyage, under the command of Captain Pringle Stokes. The mission was to accompany the larger ship HMS Adventure (380 tons) on a hydrographic survey of Patagonia and Tierra del Fuego, under the overall command of the Australian Captain Philip Parker King.
Faced with the more difficult part of the survey in the desolate waters of Tierra del Fuego, Captain Pringle Stokes fell into a deep depression. At Port Famine on the Strait of Magellan he locked himself in his cabin for 14 days, then on 2 August 1828 shot himself and died in delirium 12 days later. Captain Parker King then replaced Stokes with the Executive Officer of the Beagle, Lieutenant W.G. Skyring. They sailed to Rio de Janeiro where on 15 December 1828 Rear Admiral Sir Robert Otway, commander in chief of the South American station aboard HMS Ganges, named as (temporary) Captain of the Beagle his aide, Flag Lieutenant Robert FitzRoy.
The 23 year old aristocrat FitzRoy proved an able commander and meticulous surveyor. In one incident a group of Fuegians stole a ships boat, and FitzRoy took their families on board as hostages. Eventually he held two men, a girl and a boy who was given the name of Jemmy Button, and these four native Fuegians were taken back with them when the Beagle returned to Plymouth, England on 14 October 1830.
It was originally intended that Chanticleer would make the second South American Survey, but due to her poor condition Beagle was substituted for the voyage. FitzRoy had been considering how to return the Fuegians who had trained as missionaries, and on 25 June 1831 he was re-appointed as commander. The Beagle was commissioned on 4 July 1831 under the command of Captain Robert FitzRoy.
She was immediately taken into dock for extensive rebuilding and refitting. As she required a new deck, FitzRoy had the upper-deck raised considerably, by 8 inches (200 mm) aft and 12 inches (300 mm) forward. The Cherokee class ships had the reputation of being "coffin brigs", which handled badly and were prone to sinking. By helping the decks to drain more quickly with less water collecting in the gunnels, the raised deck gave the Beagle better handling and made her less liable to become top-heavy and capsize. Additional sheathing added to the hull added about 7 tons to her displacement. FitzRoy spared no expense in her fitting out, which included 22 chronometers and five examples of the Sympiesometer, a kind of mercury-free barometer patented by Alexander Adie and favoured by FitzRoy as giving the accurate readings required by the Admiralty.
Particularly in the light of the fate of Stokes and the suicide of his own uncle, FitzRoy was concerned about the lonely position of a captain at that time. His attempts to get a friend to accompany him fell through, and he asked his friend and superior, Captain Francis Beaufort, to seek a gentleman passenger who would act as a companion as well as having opportunities as a naturalist. This led to Charles Darwin joining the voyage.
Beagle was originally scheduled to leave on October 24, 1831 but because of delays in her preparations the departure was delayed until December. She attempted to depart on 10 December but ran into bad weather. Finally, on December 27 at 2:00 pm, the Beagle left Plymouth harbour on what was to become a groundbreaking scientific expedition. After completing extensive surveys in South America she returned via New Zealand to Falmouth, Cornwall, England on 2 October 1836.
Six months later, Beagle set off in 1837 to survey large parts of the coast of Australia under the command of Commander John Clements Wickham, with assistant surveyor Lieutenant John Lort Stokes who had been a Midshipman on the first voyage of the Beagle, then mate and assistant surveyor on the second voyage (no relation to Pringle Stokes). They started with the western coast between the Swan River (modern Perth, Australia) and the Fitzroy River, Western Australia, then surveyed both shores of the Bass Strait at the southeast corner of the continent. In May 1839 they sailed north to survey the shores of the Arafura Sea opposite Timor. Wickham named the Beagle Gulf and Port Darwin, which was first sighted by Stokes and which later gave its name to the city of Darwin, Australia. When Wickham fell ill and resigned, the command was taken over in March 1841 by Lieutenant John Lort Stokes who continued the survey. The third voyage was completed in 1843.
In 1845 the Beagle was refitted as a static coastguard watch vessel and transferred to Customs and Excise to control smuggling on the Essex coast to the north bank of the Thames estuary. She was moored mid-river on the River Roach which forms part of a maze of waterways in the marshes south of Burnham-on-Crouch. In 1851 oyster companies and traders petitioned for her to be removed as she was obstructing the river, and the 1851 Navy List dated 25 May showed her renamed as Southend "W.V. No. 7" at Paglesham. In 1870, she was sold to local scrap merchants "Murray and Trainer" for breaking up.
Investigations started in 2000 by a team led by Dr Robert Prescott of the University of St Andrews found documents confirming that "W.V. 7" was the Beagle, and noted a vessel matching her size shown midstream on the 1847 hydrographic survey chart. A later chart showed a nearby indentation to the north bank which could have been a dock for the Beagle. Site investigations found an area of marshy ground some 15 ft (5 m) deep matching this chart position, with many fragments of pottery of the correct period.
An atomic dielectric resonance survey carried out in November 2003 found traces of timbers forming the size and shape of the lower hull, indicating a substantial amount of timbers from below the waterline still in place. An old anchor of 1841 pattern was excavated. It was also found that the 1871 census recorded a new farmhouse in the name of William Murray and Thomas Rainer, leading to speculation that the merchant's name was a misprint for T. Rainer. The farmhouse was demolished in the 1940s, but a nearby boathouse incorporated timbers matching knee timbers used in the Beagle. Further investigations are proposed.
Their investigations featured in a BBC Television programme which showed how each watch ship would have accommodated 7 coastguard officers, drawn from other areas to minimise collusion with the locals. Each officer had about 3 rooms to house their family, forming a small community. They would use small boats to intercept smugglers, and the investigators found a causeway giving access at low tide across the soft mud of the river bank. Apparently the next coastguard station along was the Kangaroo, a sister ship of the Beagle.
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