View of HMS Beagle in the Straits of Magellan
View of HMS Beagle in the Straits of Magellan

Hunt for Darwin’s HMS Beagle Reveals Dock Outline

Historic England’s hunt for the remains of the illustrious HMS Beagle has identified the outline of the dock where the ship was likely dismantled.

Historic England commissioned Wessex Archaeology to investigate the area thought to be the last resting place of the Beagle, which transported Charles Darwin to South America and circumnavigated the globe twice, ahead of the bicentenary of the vessel’s launch in May 2020.

Results from fieldwork carried out earlier in the summer are coming to light, while the hunt will feature on BBC One Inside Out East today (Monday 28 October) at 7:30pm.

View of HMS Beagle in the Straits of Magellan

Surveying the mud flats

Experts from Wessex Archaeology are interrogating the results of surveys undertaken on the mud flats of the River Roach, off Paglesham, Essex where the Beagle spent her final days.

The team employed three main techniques: magnetometry, ground penetrating radar and an aerial survey by drone. This investigation builds on previous work undertaken by a team led by the late Dr Robert Prescott from the University of St Andrews in 2003, and more recent work by the University of Southampton.

Archaeologists from Wessex Archaeology surveying the mud flats in search of HMS Beagle © Rochford District Council

The mud, channels of water and vegetation presented a unique and complicated environment to work in, but building on previous research and using state-of-the-art technology we’re beginning to understand what’s under the surface and whether elements of the Beagle’s hull still lies within the mud dock we’ve identified. We’re delighted to be working with Rochford District Council to help commemorate the bicentenary of the launch of the Beagle and encourage more visitors to this important site. Mark Dunkley, Maritime Archaeologist at Historic England

Mud dock located

Archaeologists have been able to confirm the location of the original mud dock where HMS Beagle was most likely dismantled, a key objective of the project.

The outline was produced thanks to the use of a drone fitted with a specialist camera which captures red, green, infrared, near-infrared light. This looks at the health of plant life to build a picture of any buried remains, using the principle of differential growth - buried features affect vegetation growth above ground, much like the way cropmarks are formed in dry weather.

A multispectral UAV survey helped identify the mud dock © Wessex Archaeology

It has been hugely exciting to work on this project, which is starting to shed some light on the famous ship that carried one of science’s most renowned individuals. For me, it’s a welcome return, having worked on the site previously with Dr Prescott. No evidence has yet been found of the Beagle itself. It was likely dismantled at the dock, and lots of the material would have been taken and repurposed elsewhere. But we know from previous surveys that there are the remains of potentially substantial material in the dock – this could be the remains of the dock itself, another vessel possibly associated with the local oyster fishery, or the Beagle – we can’t say for sure. Further analysis of data from the previous survey results, and our recent survey may tell us more. Dr Dan Atkinson, Director of Coastal & Marine at Wessex Archaeology

HMS Beagle was first launched in 1820 and is most famous for being the vessel on which Charles Darwin made the observations necessary to develop his theory of natural selection.​ Following three exploratory voyages the Beagle was refitted as a static watch vessel for the Coastguard in 1845 serving to curb smuggling until sold in 1870.

This is a very exciting time for Rochford District as Historic England and Wessex Archaeology share their expertise and findings with us about one of the most prestigious ships in the world, whose name is synonymous with discovery in the fields of science, meteorology and even space exploration. I eagerly await next year’s ‘Discover 2020’ Festival celebrations, when we will mark 200 years since the launch of HMS Beagle, along with a series of other important anniversaries in our local history. This unique festival will commemorate the spirit of adventure, in a voyage around Rochford District’s rich heritage. Cllr Simon Wootton, Rochford District Council’s Portfolio Holder for Enterprise

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