In 2019, Historic England commissioned Wessex Archaeology to investigate the area thought to be the last resting place of the HMS Beagle, ahead of the bicentenary of the vessel’s launch in May 2020.

The investigation built 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.

 

HMS Beagle

The project aims to hunt for the remains of the illustrious ship, which transported Charles Darwin to South America and circumnavigated the globe twice.

The HMS Beagle was first launched in 1820 and is most famous for being the vessel on which 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.

Darwin's HMS Beagle

Image courtesy of Historic England

 

Geophysical survey

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

The team employed three main techniques: magnetometry, ground penetrating radar (GPR) and an aerial survey by UAV (drone).

Multispectral UAV survey is an innovative technique which involves flying a drone fitted with a special camera which captures red, green, infrared, near-infrared light, to create a Normalised Difference Vegetation Index (NDVI). 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.

Mark Dunkley, Maritime Archaeologist at Historic England, said: “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.”

Geophysical surveying in the hunt for Darwin's HMS Beagle Geophysical investigations continue for the HMS Beagle

Image (right) courtesy of Rochford District Council

 

Results

The survey work has allowed us to confirm the location of the original mud dock where HMS Beagle was most likely dismantled, a key objective of the project.

However, no evidence has yet been found of the ship itself; it was dismantled at the end of its life and much of the material would have been taken and repurposed elsewhere. Auger surveys have shown the presence of some submerged wood, although this could be remains of the dock itself, another boat that may have been berthed there, or the Beagle.

Dr Dan Atkinson, Director of Coastal & Marine at Wessex Archaeology, said: “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.”

LiDAR image of the investigation site showing the dock Results of the multispectral UAV survey showing the dock

Celebrating the Beagle’s launch

Celebrations across the Rochford District in 2020 will mark the 200th anniversary of the launch of the HMS Beagle. Rochford District Council is hosting the Discover 2020 Festival - for more information visit the website.

Cllr Simon Wootton, Rochford District Council’s Portfolio Holder for Enterprise, said: “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.”

The hunt features on BBC One Inside Out East, Monday 28 October