On May 11th 1820 HMS Beagle was launched at Woolwich naval dockyard on the Thames. As it was peacetime there was no immediate need for her and she remained at Woolwich until 1825 when she was refitted as a survey ship. HMS Beagle’s first mission was to chart the southern coasts of South America but after a long and desperate voyage she returned to Plymouth in 1830 under the command of Commander Robert Fitzroy, an enigmatic but complicated man; a man of science but a fundamentalist Christian too. He was also a man of means and considerable influence and he personally financed much of Beagle’s refit for her second mission which was to be HMS Beagle’s most famous voyage; a voyage which would take in most of South America, the Galápagos Islands, Tahiti, the southern coastline of Australia, Mauritius, the Cape of Good Hope, the Ascension Islands, Brazil and finally Cape Verde and the Azores.
It was common for the Navy to combine its hydrographic work with scientific observations on land and Fitzroy decided that he needed specialist help to do this and offered the role of unpaid naturalist to a 22 year old graduate by the name of Charles Darwin. That 4 3/4 year voyage will be forever accredited with the ground breaking and history making scientific discoveries which were born from it. Fitzroy’s meteorological advances formed the basis of modern weather forecasting and in 1854 he established what would later become the Met Office. Darwin’s observations would lead to his seminal works on natural selection and the evolution of species.
HMS Beagle continued her mapping duties until 1843 when she returned to Woolwich and was then sent to Sheerness dockyard where she remained for the next 18 months. By this time the Beagle was 25 years old but there was one last role for her to play and on July 11th she set sail on her very last voyage. HMS Beagle had been sold to the civilian coastguard service and refitted as a watch vessel. These watch vessels were essentially floating police stations designed to enable the coastguard to police the rivers and creeks where contraband was frequently brought ashore and hidden before onward transmission to London. At that time most cargos were conveyed by water and the transport of illegal goods rubbed cheek by jowl with busy legitimate trade. This was especially prolific along the Essex coastline. In the mid nineteenth century Paglesham was a hive of industry in the oyster fishery business which was prevalent along the marshes of this part of the Essex coastline. 350 miles of coast, low lying land, a network of tidal creeks plus frequent sea mists provided the perfect opportunity to move smuggled goods inland from the continent. Smuggling prospered and the whole community conspired to keep it that way!
The Beagle watch vessel was moored in the middle of a narrow passage of water as a visible deterrent- staffed by men from outside of the community which made them (theoretically at least) less corruptible! And there Beagle watch vessel remained - stripped of all her naval accoutrements and converted into an observation post with a cookhouse and living quarters for the coastguard men. In 1850 following a petition from local oyster captains the Beagle was moved to the shore and tied up on the Paglesham side of the river. In 1859 the Navy took over the operation of the coastguard and the watch vessels were stripped of their Royal Navy names and reduced merely to a number. The illustrious HMS Beagle became Watch Vessel 7. By 1870 Watch Vessel 7 was redundant and auctioned for sale.
Rochford District Council wishes to ensure that the story of HMS Beagle and the last stage of her career is given proper recognition. Archaeologists have been key to moving the identification of the ship’s final resting place from folklore to reality. In the early 2000’s Dr Robert Prescott of St Andrew’s University led a project that located the mud berth where the ship had been finally broken up. Professor Colin Pillinger (the brains behind the Beagle 2 Mars lander project. Beagle 2 being named, of course, after HMS Beagle) was also closely associated with this project. In 2016 Dr Julian Whitewright from the University of Southampton’s Centre for Marine Archaeology became involved with Rochford District Council and undertook a review of all the available evidence that HMS Beagle had been moored in the centre of the River Roach overlooking Wallasea Island and later moved to and broken up in a mud berth; as well as undertaking some further archaeological activity. This review concluded that, notwithstanding there is no empirical evidence that the remains of the ship are in the estuary mud, it can be stated that HMS Beagle completed her career at this location within the District.