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HMS Beagle was a Cherokee class 10-gun brig-sloop of the Royal Navy. She was launched on 11 May 1820 from the Woolwich Dockyardmarker 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 Bridgemarker. After that there was no immediate need for Beagle so she was "lay in ordinary", moored afloat but without masts or rigging. 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.

First voyage

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 mizzen mast was added to improve her manoeuvrability, thereby changing her from a brig to a bark (or barque).

Beagle set sail from Plymouthmarker on 22 May 1826 on 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 Fuegomarker, under the overall command of the Australian Captain Phillip Parker King, Commander and Surveyor.

Faced with the more difficult part of the survey in the desolate waters of Tierra del Fuegomarker, Captain Pringle Stokes fell into a deep depression. At Port Faminemarker on the Strait of Magellanmarker he locked himself in his cabin for 14 days, then after getting over-excited and talking of preparing for the next cruise, shot himself on 2 August 1828. Following four days of delirium Stokes recovered slightly, but then his condition deteriorated and he died on 12 August 1828. Guardian review: Man on a suicide mission
Captain Parker King then replaced Stokes with the Executive Officer of Beagle, Lieutenant W.G. Skyring. They sailed to Rio de Janeiromarker where on 15 December 1828 Rear Admiral Sir Robert Otway, commander in chief of the South American station aboard , 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 ship's 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 England on 14 October 1830.

During this survey, the Beagle Channelmarker was identified and named after the ship.

Second voyage

FitzRoy had been given reason to hope that the South American Survey would be continued under his command, but when the Lords of the Admiralty appeared to abandon the plan, he made alternative arrangements to return the Fuegians. A kind uncle heard of this and contacted the Admiralty. Soon afterwards FitzRoy heard that he was to be appointed commander of HMS Chanticleer to go to Tierra del Fuegomarker, but due to her poor condition Beagle was substituted for the voyage. FitzRoy was re-appointed as commander on 27 June 1831 and the Beagle was commissioned on 4 July 1831 under his command, with Lieutenants John Clements Wickham and Bartholomew James Sulivan.

The Beagle was immediately taken into dock at Devonportmarker 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; the raised deck gave the Beagle better handling and made her less liable to become top-heavy and capsize by helping the decks to drain more quickly so that less water would collect in the gunwales. Additional sheathing added to the hull added about seven tons to her burthen and perhaps fifteen to her displacement, and the ship was one of the first to be fitted with the lightning conductor invented by William Snow Harris. FitzRoy spared no expense in her fitting out, which included 22 chronometer, and five examples of the Sympiesometer, a kind of mercury-free barometer patented by Alexander Adie which was favoured by FitzRoy as giving the accurate readings required by the Admiralty.

FitzRoy had found a need for expert advice on geology during the first voyage, and had resolved that if on a similar expedition, he would "endeavour to carry out a person qualified to examine the land; while the officers, and myself, would attend to hydrography." Command in that era could involve stress and loneliness, as shown by the suicide of Captain Stokes, and FitzRoy's own uncle Viscount Castlereagh had committed suicide under stress of overwork. 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 naturalist as a self-financing passenger who would give him company during the voyage. A sequence of inquiries led to Charles Darwin, a young gentleman on his way to becoming a rural clergyman, joining the voyage.

Beagle was originally scheduled to leave on 24 October 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 the morning of 27 December, the Beagle left her anchorage in the Barn Pool, under Mount Edgecumbe on the west side of Plymouth Soundmarker, on what was to become a ground breaking scientific expedition. After completing extensive surveys in South America she returned via New Zealandmarker, Sydney, Hobart Town (6 February 1836), to Falmouth, Cornwallmarker, Englandmarker on 2 October 1836.

Third voyage

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, who had been a Lieutenant on the second voyage, 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 Rivermarker (modern Perthmarker, Australia) and the Fitzroy River, Western Australiamarker, then surveyed both shores of the Bass Straitmarker at the southeast corner of the continent. To aid the Beagle in her surveying operations in Bass’s Strait, the Colonial cutter Vansittart, of Van Diemen’s Land, was most liberally lent by His Excellency Sir John Franklin, and placed under the command of Mr Charles Codrington Forsyth, the Senior Mate, assisted by Mr Pasco, another of her Mates. In May 1839 they sailed north to survey the shores of the Arafura Seamarker opposite Timormarker. Wickham named the Beagle Gulf and Port Darwin, which was first sighted by Stokes and which later gave its name to the city of Darwinmarker, 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.

Final years

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 estuarymarker. She was moored mid-river on the River Roachmarker which forms part of a maze of waterways in the marshes south of Burnham-on-Crouchmarker. 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 "Messrs Murray and Trainer" for breaking up.

Possible resting place

Investigations started in 2000 by a team led by Dr Robert Prescott of the University of St Andrewsmarker 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 seven coastguard officers, drawn from other areas to minimise collusion with the locals. Each officer had about three rooms to house his 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.


There is currently a plan to create and launch a replica of HMS Beagle in 2009. This £3.3m wooden barque is to be built as part of a project to recreate Darwin's 1830s voyage which proved crucial in the genesis and intellectual foundations of the theory of natural selection. The vessel is to be built in Milford Havenmarker. When completed, the new Beagle is anticipated to be able to recreate the 1831-36 circumnavigation with international crews of aspiring young scientists aboard, following the same course and making similar landfalls to those made by the original HMS Beagle when Darwin was aboard.

See also

Sources and references

  1. King was born on Norfolk Island and left for England in 1796. Colonial Secretary Index, 1788-1825, In the New South Wales State Records.
  2. "Replicas on the Blocks," Ships Monthly. April 2007.
  • HMS Beagle: Survey Ship "Extraordinary" / Karl Heinz Marquardt (2007) ISBN 0851777031
  • Voyage of the Beagle, Charles Darwin (including FitzRoy's commentary on refitting the Beagle from his account of the voyage), Penguin Books, London 1989 ISBN 0-14-043268-X

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