What Planet is This?

23 Aug 2005

Admiral FitzRoy and the Beagle

Vice Admiral Robert FitzRoy is most famous for captaining the HMS Beagle whilst Charles Darwin was creating his theory of evolution. But FitzRoy himself was a remarkable man. For instance, if you look through The Times of July 1861 you'll notice that the daily weather sections only tell you what the day's weather has been like. Then in the 1st August 1861 edition, you'll find this on page ten:

General weather probable during next two days in the—
North—Moderate westerly wind; fine.
West—Moderate south-westerly; fine.
South—Fresh westerly; fine.

The Times, Thursday, 1st Aug 1861; p.10 col C

It's the world's first published weather forecast, issued by FitzRoy. For seven years he had held the title of Meteorological Statist to the Board of Trade, which was the precursor for the United Kingdom's modern Met Office. He later went onto coin the phrase "weather forecast", which wasn't used in The Times until 1877. In 1862, the year after that first weather forecast, FitzRoy published the "Weather Book", which was a summary of his meteorological investigations to date. Though it's now said to have been before its time, when it came out it was viewed as being scientifically rigourless. The criticism he got may have contributed to his tragic suicide in 1865, but the legacy of his work still lives on.

The ship that he captained had a similar fate: instead of being the basis for a museum exhibit, or restored like the HMS Victory, she was plundered for scrapwood. But in 2003, the remnants of the ship were found by Dr. Robert Prescott of the University of St. Andrews, leading to the possibility of salvage and exhibition.

In 1845 the Beagle was being used as a coastguard vessel to patrol the River Roach near Wakering in Essex, but had fallen out of use, been renamed the "W.V. No. 7" and moored at Paglesham in 1863, and eventually sold off for scrap to the duo "Murray and Trainer" on 13th May 1870 for £525. The 1871 census for the area, however, shows a new farmhouse registered to one William Murray, whose neighbour was named Thomas Rainer, raising the probability that "Trainer" was a typo for "T. Rainer". It's thought that the wood of the Beagle was used for Murray's farmhouse, which was demolished by the MoD in the 1930s. But since they were not experienced shipbreakers, Murray and T. Rainer would have been unable to plunder the bottom of the boat. Dr. Prescott found the site of the scrapping, an old infilled dock, and located the ship under the surface with her lower hull and keel apparently intact.

So the HMS Beagle is still in situ buried under the marsh near or on Potton Island. An Observer article indicates that she's on the north bank, on the other side of Potton Island, but a now expired Essex Evening Echo article of 27th February 2004 said that "the remains of HMS Beagle lie under six metres of mud at a secret military base at Potton Island near Paglesham." And a Rochford Council page also says that she's "allegedly been found on Potton Island", so fittingly for a Navy vessel she may be on MoD land. On the other hand, the original BBC documentary in which this information appeared, "The Hunt for Darwin's Beagle", seemed to indicate that it was the north bank, not far from Paglesham boatshed, which is likely the one where some of the Beagle's timbers ended up. Since the boat lies several metres under the marsh still, there's no point going to visit her just yet, but already locals have been calling for the find to be linked to tourism.

Note that plans by the Conservative government in the 1980s to convert Potton Island into a dump site for nuclear material have recently been uncovered in a freedom of information request by the Sunday Herald. It's a good job that they didn't go ahead with it, if it would've disturbed the site, and though experts say "another attempt to find waste sites would be likely to end up with a similar list", it seems likely that the Beagle would be taken into consideration this time.

To confirm that the boat was down there, Dr. Prescott employed the use of an Atomic Dielectric Resonance (ADR) device for one of the first times, which provides a ground-penetrating view of the earth that also exposes the types of materials that are buried. It's one of the most advanced non-destructive forms of archaeological equipment to date. The non-destructive methods ought to be used more often on stable sites, leaving them to further technological advances in the field. After all, we now even find minute granules of ancient pollen in the soil useful, which would've been washed away by archaeologists a century ago.

At noon on 4th February 2002, the Finisterre shipping area was considered to be too liable for confusion with the Spanish shipping area of the same name, so the Met Office renamed it FitzRoy in Vice Admiral FitzRoy's honour.

Cite: Palmer, S.B. (2005). "Admiral FitzRoy and the Beagle", in: What Planet is This?
Archival URI: http://inamidst.com/notes/fitzroybeagle


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