HMS Beagle – her final adventure 18 May,2020
HMS Beagle returned to England in 1843. On her return, she was sent to Sheerness dockyard where she remained for the next 18 months. By this time the Beagle was 25 years old and despite having circumnavigated the globe, she was still relatively sound and there was one last role for her to play. On June 14th, 1845 the dockyard workers began to copper her bottom again and on July 11th 1845 she set sail from Sheerness on her very last voyage. A voyage which would see her next 25 years in Rochford district.
HMS Beagle had been seconded by the Navy to the civilian coastguard service. She was refitted to as a static coastguard watch vessel – a stationary observation post, for storage, and as quarters for the men of the service. The census returns for 1851 and 1861 (see photographs) detail the men, women and children who were born, lived and died on HMS Beagle and the parish records for St Peter’s in Paglesham show entries referencing coastguard families who lived on board the ship and also across the river on Foulness Island.
At this time most cargos were conveyed by water. On the River Roach and its tributaries, there were many industries and trades:
- Stambridge Mill where grain was ground into flour, where also supplies and freight for the nearby town of Rochford would be off-loaded at the quay;
- Wakering brickfields; and
- Paglesham oyster-fishery industry; there are also oyster pits on the marshes of Potton Island, Wakering, Barling, and further up the reaches of the Roach.
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. As is the way of things, alongside the legitimate trading activity there was the illegitimate trade in smuggled goods from the continent. The tidal mud flats provided the perfect opportunity to off load contraband and the Preventative Revenue Service (like a modern-day coastguard) stationed several watch vessels along the eastern coast. Miles of coastline, low lying land, a network of tidal creeks plus frequent sea mists provided the perfect opportunity to move contraband inland from the continent. Smuggling prospered and the whole community conspired to keep it that way! Our contributors
- Crouch Harbour Authority https://crouchharbour.uk/
- HM Coastguard https://www.gov.uk/government/organisations/maritime-and-coastguard-agency
- Essex Police Marine Unit https://www.essex.police.uk/news/essex/news/news/2019/september/were-celebrating-70-years-of-our-marine-unit/
- ECFRS Water Rescue Unit https://essexsearchandrescue.org.uk/water-team/
- RNLI https://southendlifeboat.org/
These organisations are testament to the need to protect our coastline from modern day nefarious activity.
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 the Beagle watch vessel remained - stripped of all her naval accoutrements and converted into an observation post with a “caboose” (kitchen and laundry facilities) and living quarters below for the coastguard men.
In 1850 following a petition from local oyster merchants the Beagle was moved to the shore and tied up on the Paglesham side of the river. In 1859 the Royal Navy took over the operation of the coastguard (paying just £5 per year for maintenance of the ship) and all watch vessels were given numbers; H.M.S. Beagle became simply Watch Vessel 7. Our friends at Essex Hundred Publications wrote and produced a poem with an accompanying video https://m.facebook.com/watch/?v=266602134046284&_rdr
By 1870, the activities of smugglers were in decline and the number of watch vessels was cut. Records show that on 13th May,1870. Watch Vessel 7 - almost exactly 50 years after her launch was sold to two local men from the Wakering/Foulness area to be broken up. And that’s where her story seemed to end.
However subsequent investigations into the records suggest that following salvage the Beagle was dismantled on the saltings where she lay. Artefacts have been found on site contemporary to the time and consistent with the use of a watch vessel. Folklore in this part of Essex supported this theory but it wasn’t until the year 2000 that science began to support it too.
Using radar imaging technology a team of researchers from St Andrew’s University led by Dr Robert Prescott found flicks of wood used to repair the local boat building shed and these bore marks tracing back to the Sheerness shipbuilding yard where HMS Beagle had been prepared prior to her locating in the Roach. Working with Dr Prescott were local residents Ann Boulter and Rodney Chopin. They studied charts, explored old buildings and interviewed many people locally in Essex and from as far afield as the town of Darwin in North West Australia. Ann explored the saltings, searching for, and finding, artefacts around the Beagle site. In 2003, Rodney retrieved an Admiralty Patent Stream Anchor (since authenticated), of which the Beagle had four. In Paglesham, plans are afoot to re-site the anchor in the village, with an accompanying plaque.
Dr Prescott had a close association with Professor Colin Pillinger - the brains behind the Beagle 2 Mars lander project. Beagle 2 being named, of course, after HMS Beagle. There was some discussion about whether burrowing technology that Professor Pillinger was planning to deploy on Mars could be used at Paglesham. But the budget was prohibitive and although active work on site stopped, interest in the overall project continued. A model of Beagle 2 loaned by Judith Pillinger, wife of the late Professor, will be on display at our event.
In Spring 2015 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. He concluded that it was likely that if the vessel was broken up in situ in Paglesham that there would be material still in the dock. The University of Southampton work involved coring into the mud-dock to a depth of 5m with a power-auger in August 2016, in five places along the rough centreline of the dock – as best could be established from the ordnance survey records. Unfortunately, they found no evidence of any structure relating to the ship.
In 2019 Historic England (https://historicengland.org.uk/) commissioned Wessex Archaeology (https://www.wessexarch.co.uk/) to investigate the Paglesham mudflats thought to be the last resting place of the Beagle. Maritime archaeologists confirmed the location of the mud dock and a brick slope or ‘hard’ using geophysical surveys and an aerial survey by drone. The Rochford mud dock - a specifically cut mooring place in which a vessel rests on the bottom at low tide - was constructed sometime after 1847. Its outline, location and size matches the indentation of the riverbank recorded on early Ordnance Survey maps. Despite what was probably once a common feature on England’s major waterways, particularly in the absence of designed dockyards, the locations of purpose-built mud docks are not well known. Only five mud docks are recorded in England.
The remains of the berth in Paglesham where HMS Beagle is believed to have been dismantled has now been protected as a scheduled monument by Historic England.
We are busy making plans to reconvene our Discover 2020 commemorations next year and we will let you know the dates as soon as we can. In the meantime, I’d like to thank all the contributors mentioned in this weeks’ blog and our sponsors listed below for all their support in celebrating HMS Beagle and I look forward to working with you in 2021. Keep well.
- Essex & South Suffolk Community Rail Partnership https://esscrp.org.uk
- Essex Chambers of Commerce www.essexchambers.co.uk
- London Southend Airport https://southendairport.com
- Palmers Solicitors https://www.palmerslaw.co.uk
- Sorrells Custom Wine Rooms https://www.sorrells-wineracks.co.uk
- Tina Wing Photography https://www.tinawingphotography.co.uk