19 March 2008

On Beagle'd ground.


The Beagle Project descended on a cold grey London today to be interviewed for a BBC Radio 4 Programme about HMS Beagle. (Left to right: Dr Robert Prescott, David Lort Phillips, BBC producer Jeremy Grange) We went to the site of Woolwich Dockyard where she was built and launched in 1820. I stood in the very slipway, still there, choked with modern detritus and its role in building the ship which changed the world sadly unremarked.

Star of the show was maritime historian Dr Robert Prescott of St Andrews University who is cautiously optimistic that he has found the remains of HMS Beagle at Paglesham and has certainly recovered one of her anchors from the mud. He talked with David Lort Philips about his relative John Lort Stokes, who shared a cabin with Darwin and was with Beagle from her commissioning in 1825 to laying up in 1843.

Dr Prescott painted a terrific word-picture of what the scene must have been like when 74 gun ships of the line were on the stocks here, alongside the small, mostly un-celebrated fleet workhorses like Beagle.

I was hauled in to talk about the seamanship needed to sail an engineless square rigger, to defend the ship's seagoing honour (the class were called 'coffin brigs': unfairly so in my opinion) and outline how the rebuild will differ from the original. It was freezing, and the site is surrounded by brutal-looking blocks of flats which do a disservice to the site of the most significant dockyard for the biggest navy in the world at the time. Pics to come.

David Lort Philips quoted from his relatives final moments aboard Beagle after 18 years afloat: she had returned to Woolwich, unceremoniously tied to a hulk, her commissioning flag lowered. Captain Lort Stokes saw his men over the side one final time then:
I loitered a sort time to indulge in those feelings that naturally arose on taking a final leave of the poor old Beagle at the very same place where I first joined her in 1825...I have seen her under every variety of circumstances, placed in peculiar situations and fearful positions, from nearly the arctic to the tropic, cooled by the frigid clime of the extreme of South America, or parched by the heats of North Australia; under every vicissitude from the grave to the gay, I have struggled along with her; and after wandering together for eighteen years, a fact unprecedented in the service, I naturally parted from her with regret.
(Mariners are warned! John Lort Stokes and HMS Beagle in Australia 1837-1843, Marsden Hordern, , Melbourne University Press 1989.)

1 comment:

nunatak said...

This must have been said with a certain sagging of the shoulders and possibly a tear in the eye: "...and after wandering together for eighteen years, a fact unprecedented in the service, I naturally parted from her with regret." I can't imagine a better segue into our Beagle Project as co-founded by a Lort Stokes descendant!