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HMS Beagle 1820

HMS Beagle was a Cherokee-class 10-gun brig-sloop of the Royal Navy. 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 "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 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 maneuverability, thereby changing her from a brig to a bark (or barque).

Beagle set sail from Plymouth 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 Fuego, 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 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 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. Captain Parker King then replaced Stokes with the First Lieutenant of the Beagle, Lieutenant W.G. Skyring as commander, and both ships sailed to Montevideo. On 13 October King sailed the Adventure to Rio de Janeiro for refitting and provisions. During this work Rear Admiral Sir Robert Otway, commander in chief of the South American station, arrived aboard HMS Ganges and announced his decision that the Beagle was also to be brought to Montevideo for repairs, and that he intended to supersede Skyring. When the Beagle arrived, Otway put the ship under the command of 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 Channel 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 Fuego, 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 Devonport 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 chronometers, 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 Sound, on what was to become a ground breaking scientific expedition. After completing extensive surveys in South America she returned via New Zealand, Sydney, Hobart Town (6 February 1836), to Falmouth, Cornwall, England 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 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. To aid the Beagle in her surveying operations in Bass 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 Sea opposite Timor. 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.

Numerous places around the coast were named by Wickham, and subsequently by Stokes when he became captain, often honouring eminent people or the members of the crew. On 9 October 1839 Wickham named Port Darwin, which was first sighted by Stokes, in honour of their former shipmate Charles Darwin. They were reminded of him (and his "geologising") by the discovery there of a new fine-grained sandstone. A settlement there became the town of Palmerston in 1869, and was renamed Darwin in 1911.

Final years

In 1845 the Beagle was refitted as a static coastguard watch vessel like many similar watch ships stationed in rivers and harbours throughout the nation. She was transferred to HM Customs and Excise to control smuggling on the Essex coast in the navigable waterways beyond the north bank of the Thames Estuary. She was moored mid-river in the River Roach which forms part of an extensive maze of waterways and marshes known as The River Crouch and River Roach Tidal River System, located around and to the south and west of Burnham-on-Crouch. This large maritime area has a tidal coastline of 243km (151 miles), part of Essex's 565km (351 miles) of coastline - the largest coastline in the United Kingdom. In 1851, oyster companies and traders who cultivated and harvested the "Walflete" or "Walfleet" oyster Ostrea edulis, petitioned for the Customs and Excise watch vessel WV-7 (ex HMS Begle) to be removed as she was obstructing the river and its oyster-beds. In the 1851 Navy List dated 25 May, it 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 Andrews found documents confirming that "W.V. 7" was the Beagle, and noted a vessel matching her size shown midstream on the River Roach (in Paglesham Reach) on the 1847 hydrographic survey chart. A later chart showed a nearby indentation to the north bank of Paglesham Reach near the Eastend Wharf and near Waterside Farm. This could have been a dock for W.V.7 - the Beagle. Site investigations found an area of marshy ground some 15 ft (5 m) deep on the tidal river-bank, about 150 metres west of the boat-house. This discovery matched the chart position and many fragments of pottery of the correct period were found in the same area.

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. Two more large anchors similar to the one excavated from the ships present location are known to have been found in neighbouring villages. It is believed that there were four anchors in the ship.

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.


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