Two people wearing high viz jackets exploring the site of the mud berth
Archaeologists from Wessex Archaeology looking for the 'Beagle' © Wessex Archaeology
Archaeologists from Wessex Archaeology looking for the 'Beagle' © Wessex Archaeology

Rare 19th century Ship Dock Where Darwin’s Beagle Spent Her Final Days Gains Heritage Protection

The remains of a rare 19th century dock, built to accommodate HMS Beagle when it was serving as a Coastguard Watch Vessel in Essex, is now protected as a nationally important site. The submerged mud berth on the River Roach near Paglesham has been designated as a scheduled monument by the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport on the advice of Historic England.

The voyages of HMS Beagle had a transformative impact on the world and they began here on our shores two hundred years ago. As 2020 marks a special anniversary in the Beagle's past, it is fitting that the significant site of its last days will be protected for the future.

Nigel Huddleston, Heritage Minister
Drawing of HMS Beagle in full sail with mountains behind and a group of people in a small boat in the foreground

HMS Beagle in the Straits of Magellan - Reproduction of frontispiece from Charles Darwin (1890), 'Journal of researches into the natural history and geology of the various countries visited by H.M.S. Beagle' - Public domain

HMS Beagle was first launched in May 1820 from Woolwich Dockyard on the River Thames 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 far-flung exploratory voyages the Beagle was refitted as a static watch vessel for the Essex Coastguard in 1845 serving to curb smuggling until it was sold for scrap in 1870.

In 2019 Historic England commissioned Wessex Archaeology to investigate the Paglesham mudflats in Rochford thought to be the last resting place of the Beagle, ahead of the bicentenary of the vessel’s launch in May 2020. Maritime archaeologists confirmed the location of the mud dock and a brick slope or ‘hard’ using geophysical surveys and an aerial survey by drone.

Red line outlining the location on an aerial image

Multispectral UAV survey involved flying a UAV (drone) fitted with a specialist camera, which captures red, green, infrared, near-infrared light, to create a Neutral Density Vegetation Index (NDVI). This has created a clear outline within the dataset of the original mud dock where HMS Beagle was most likely dismantled, confirming its location. © Wessex Archaeology | Designated a scheduled monument

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.

A mud dock of the same type can be seen in John Constable’s 1815 painting ‘Boat-Building near Flatford Mill’ on display at the Victoria & Albert Museum, London. Mud berths included the need for shoring to stabilise the sides, and wooden stocks to support the ship. The sloped brick hard extended alongside the dock and ship’s side allowing people access down the foreshore to low water.

Oil painting depicting a man working on the hull of a boat on the banks of a river

'Boat-Building near Flatford Mill', 1815, by John Constable (1776-1837) © Victoria & Albert Museum

Documentary evidence tells us the Beagle was in the Rochford dock in 1870 when it was sold. It was likely dismantled here, and lots of the material would have been taken and repurposed elsewhere. Remains of the Beagle may survive within the dock, though no more archaeological work is currently planned.

Previous surveys 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, showed that there are the remains of potentially substantial material in the dock – this could be parts of the dock itself, another vessel possibly associated with the local oyster fishery, or the Beagle.

The remains of an anchor leaning against a stone on the shore

The remains of an anchor on the shore indicate that ship remains are to be found in the area, though this is not the Beagle's anchor, which has already been found in the past © Historic England

This is a fascinating example of a rare piece of maritime history, linked to one of the world’s most famous ships. We are glad to see this site in a quiet corner of Essex given national protection and celebrated as part of the Beagle bicentenary events.

Duncan Wilson, Chief Executive Historic England

History

HMS Beagle was launched in 1820 and participated in celebrations of the coronation of King George IV the following year, but is most famous for its three voyages of exploration to survey the coasts of Patagonia, Tierra del Fuego and Australia.

In August 1831, aged 22, Charles Darwin was offered the opportunity by his botany professor to join the HMS Beagle on a voyage around the world to create sea-charts. The offer had been made to two others before Darwin, but they had turned it down.

The young Captain FitzRoy was looking for a scientific-minded gentleman who would also be a companion. The voyage would be would be an excellent opportunity to collect, observe, and write about flora, fauna, and geology in South America and beyond.

HMS Beagle set sail from Plymouth in December 1831. The voyage was to last for two years but lasted almost five. The Beagle returned to Plymouth in October 1836. Darwin’s diary was later published as ‘The Voyage of the Beagle’ in 1839. Darwin became the most influential scientist, writer and thinker on evolution in part thanks to his time on the Beagle.

Although the voyage had been commissioned by the admiralty, Captain FitzRoy had insisted on many alterations to the ship, including adding a third mast to make it more stable at sea, and creating space for the many surveying instruments on board.

Blueprint of HMS Beagle in 1832

Blueprint of HMS Beagle in 1832 © Cambridge University Library

In 1845, the Beagle transferred to the Customs Service to control smuggling on the Essex Coast as a static coastguard watch vessel. Its masts were removed and it was renamed CGWV No. 7. Moored mid-river in Paglesham Reach, the ship kept watch over part of the River Roach Tidal River System. Census records from the 19th century show that the ship accommodated seven coastguard officers and their families, who would have integrated with the local community

In 1870, the ship was sold to be broken up in the dock. The lower portion of the vessel (comprising the keel, futtocks and inner planking) would have been difficult to remove from the mud and therefore potentially survives. It is believed that the upper timbers above the waterline were repurposed and used in local building construction.

We are extremely proud that this prestigious vessel ended her days on our shores, and that the site will now be recognised as a scheduled monument. Although our plans for celebrating HMS Beagle are on hold due to the COVID 19 pandemic, as soon as we are able Rochford District Council will be recommencing our plans for the commemoration of 2020 as the 200th anniversary of the launch of this famous vessel.

Rochford District Council will be creating a lasting commemoration to the ship in the form of a new observation platform at the RSPB Wallasea Island Wild Coast Project, overlooking the River Roach where the ship was moored.

From this spot, thanks to the support of the National Lottery Heritage Fund, visitors will be able to immerse themselves in a Computer Generated Image (CGI) Tour of the HMS Beagle simply by holding their smartphones or tablets up to the horizon.

Cllr Simon Wootton, Portfolio Holder for Enterprise Rochford District Council

HMS Beagle Timeline

1820
HMS Beagle was launched as a 10-gun Cherokee-class brig-sloop on 11 May 1820

1821
The Beagle participates in celebrations of the coronation of King George IV

1826-30
Voyage of exploration to survey the coasts of Patagonia and Tierra del Fuego

1831-36
Charles Darwin joins the voyage of exploration on the Beagle to survey the coast of Tierra del Fuego

1837-43
Voyage of exploration to survey the coast of Australia

1845
The Beagle is transferred to the Customs Service to control smuggling on the Essex Coast. It is refitted as a static coastguard watch vessel – its masts are removed and it is renamed CGWV No. 7

1851
Purpose-built mud dock constructed as the Customs Service is asked to remove the ship as it is obstructing the river and its coastal oyster-beds, home to the cultivation and harvesting of the European flat oyster

1870
The ship was sold to be broken up in the dock

List entry for mud berth of the Beagle

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