Built on the Thames, Mapped the world, Educated Darwin


Woolwich Dockyard in 1790, National Maritime Museum

The year 2020 marks the 200th anniversary of the launch of HMS Beagle on the Thames on May 11th 1820. Work began on the project in June 1817 in the celebrated Woolwich Dockyard, and she was completed three years later at a cost of £7,800. She was a Cherokee-class Royal Naval survey ship, a 10 gun brig that went on to map unchartered coasts across the globe between 1826 and 1843. Famously, she accommodated a young Charles Darwin on one of her expeditions, her second major survey. That particular journey proved instrumental in the development of Darwin’s thinking, from which his ground-breaking theories of human evolution were later developed.

HMS Beagle 1820-1845

HMS Beagle had an adventurous life, attending the celebrations for the coronation of George IV in 1821 before completing three survey voyages for the Royal Navy. The first voyage (1826-30) took her to Tierra del Fuego to survey the South American coast. When she returned to England, she carried three native Fuegians and had a new captain, the talented Robert Fitzroy. For a view of the HMS Beagle replica under construction in 2016 for the Nao Victoria Museum, Punta Areneas, Chile, click here.

A cross-section of HMS Beagle showing below-deck arrangements and deck plan as modified for her second survey voyage is shown below:


The second voyage (1831-36) introduced Charles Darwin to the story and to Captain Fitzroy, who had overseen a major refit of the Beagle, much of it at his own expense. The captain decided that a self-financing naturalist could accompany the crew on this long expedition, and the 22-year old botanist Charles Darwin was taken on. The scientific expedition left Devonport on December 10th 1831 travelling via Tenerife and the Cape Verde Islands to South America (including a return to Tierra del Fuego), and then along the west coast of that continent. After many coastal surveys and several inland expeditions, the Beagle sailed to the Galapagos Islands, arriving on 15th September 1835. Darwin spent the next month exploring the islands, making further studies of the flora, fauna and geology, until October 20th.

See the route of HMS Beagle’s Second Voyage, which circumnavigated the globe.

The surveys and overland expeditions continued in Tahiti, New Zealand and Australia (commemorated by the later places: the Fitzroy River, Port Darwin and the Beagle Coast). The long journey home took in Keeling Island, Mauritius, South Africa, St Helena, Ascension Island, Brazil and the Azores, finally arriving in Falmouth Cornwall in October 1836. Darwin had kept a detailed diary of this life-changing adventure, which was initially published under the title: “Journal of researches into the natural history and geology of the countries visited during the voyage of HMS Beagle round the world, under the Command of Capt. Fitz Roy, RN.” The account is now better known by the rather shorter title The Voyage of the Beagle.

HMS Beagle 1845-1870


Watercolour by Owen Stanley showing HMS Beagle in 1841

After HMS Beagle’s third voyage (1837-1843) to South America, South Africa and Australia, she was transferred to HM Customs and Excise in 1845. In a dramatic change of role, she now served as a static coastguard station, to help deal with shipwrecks and to control smugglers on the Essex Coast. For a view of another ex-naval vessel taken on as a stationary Watch Vessel in Essex by the coastguards (HMS Kangaroo) click here

Now renamed WV7 (Watch Vessel 7), Beagle accommodated up to seven officers and their families. The most likely location for her berth was near Paglesham, Essex, where an old naval anchor of 1841 was found, as well as a concentration of mid-19th-century domestic pottery recovered from the foreshore by concerned local archaeologists.

It was in 1859, while the Beagle was stationed on the River Roach, that Darwin’s great book On the Origin of Species by means of Natural Selection was published, cementing his reputation as one of the greatest thinkers of the modern age. As for the ageing Beagle, a different fate awaited: she was broken up in 1870 at Paglesham.

There have been several attempts to find her remains on the Essex coast, with the most recent attempt being in 2019, although no hard evidence for the vessel itself has been recovered on the shoreline. The site of the Beagle’s final resting place is now a Scheduled Ancient Monument. But when she was broken up in 1870, where did all those reusable timbers go? There are suggestions that some buildings still standing in the area may have been repaired or rebuilt with material from the Beagle. All we have to do now is find them, not in the riverine mud, but on dry land…..