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Essex marsh may be last resting place of HMS Beagle
By Roger Highfield, Science Editor
(Filed: 31/05/2003)

The final resting place of Beagle, the ship in which Charles Darwin sailed around the world and formed his ideas on evolution, might have been found, experts said yesterday.

Darwin said "the most important event in my life" was the voyage, which paved the way for his On the Origin of Species, the most important scientific book of the past millennium because of its revolutionary picture of how life evolved. Consequently, the wreck of HMS Beagle is of crucial historic significance.

Dr Robert Prescott of the University of St Andrews, who has led the team retracing the final days of the ship's working life, said yesterday that a range of remote sensing equipment is to be used to investigate a key site in the Essex marshes this summer. He does not want to reveal the exact location until his investigation is complete, though he has a range of documentary evidence to back his suspicions.

"Once we get a clearer picture from that, the next step would be a full excavation, where we are expecting to find substantial remains of the lower part of the vessel's hull," he said.

Darwin, who published On the Origin of Species in 1859, was in Beagle as it circumnavigated the globe under Captain Robert Fitzroy between 1831 and 1836.

Dr Prescott said: "The Beagle surely qualifies as one of the most significant ships in scientific history. Yet she has been forgotten for almost a century."

The only known relic of the vessel is a box, fashioned from its wood, which will be used to confirm the find.

Launched in 1820 at Woolwich Royal Dockyard on the Thames, the 235-ton, 10-gun brig was refitted three years later as a hydrographic survey vessel before embarking on its famous career as a survey and scientific exploration ship.

The 90ft sloop was laid up at Woolwich in 1840, and used later for anti-smuggling duties along the south-east coast until it was auctioned for £525 in 1870 - from when its fate has remained unclear.

Dr Prescott, who founded the Scottish Institute of Maritime Studies at St Andrews, set up the Beagle Ship Research Group three years with Prof Colin Pillinger and others, with the intention of clearing up the uncertainty surrounding the vessel.

Prof Pillinger of the Open University is the head of the UK-based project to land on Mars and seek alien life with the Beagle 2 probe, to be launched next week.

After examining documentary evidence, the team ruled out previous suggestions that Beagle had operated from Southend. A location further north was identified and parts of the ship, as well as a dense scatter of Victorian pottery, have already been uncovered.

Dr Prescott said he believed the ship had been broken up either where she lay or nearby, but the lower part of the hull was unlikely to have been moved far. "After the marvels of Patagonia and the Galapagos Islands, it seems the ship that helped spark a scientific revolution led a humdrum life in a backwater of England before falling asleep on a muddy riverbank," he said.

The National Maritime Museum in Greenwich is hosting an exhibition, The Beagle Voyages - from Earth to Mars, linking the Beagle 2 mission to Darwin's. Although separated by more than 150 years, the voyages of the two Beagles are surprisingly similar, said curator Rob Warren.

Regardless of advances in navigation technology, surveying methods and timekeeping, many of the principles that underlie these have changed very little, said Mr Warren, though the materials and technologies in Beagle 2 would be unrecognisable to a 19th-century sailor.

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