southern Essex

The 'coffin brig' that sailed the ultimate voyage of discovery

By Peter Davies


A ship that was thought likely to sink became the craft that took Darwin around the world.

No one who witnessed the launch of HMS Beagle at Woolwich naval dockyard on the Thames on May 11, 1820, could possibly have imagined that this unremarkable, not to say dowdy, craft was destined to sail into the pages of history on one of the most famous voyages of scientific discovery ever undertaken.

Ships like the Beagle, ten-gun brigs (two-masted square-rigged vessels) displacing barely 250 tonnes - a tenth of the size of Nelson's Victory - were regarded as one of the lowest forms of naval life.

Their nickname “coffin brigs” expressed the generally held belief in the Navy that once out at sea in any kind of heavy weather, they shipped unacceptable amounts of water and were highly likely to sink.

Planned as a class of ship for inshore blockading operations as the Napoleonic wars drew to a close, they were produced in droves, but after 1815 no immediate use could be found for them.

Beagle never saw action. Instead she spent the first few years of her naval life in reserve, moored afloat.