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Charles Darwin marine chronometer from HMS Beagle for Bonhams auction

An important two-day marine chronometer from HMS Beagle, the legendary Admiralty survey ship that took Charles Darwin on an epic five-year voyage to South America and the Galapagos Islands, has surfaced at Bonhams. It will be offered in the 9th July Fine Clocks sale at New Bond Street, London with an estimate of £30,000-50,000.

The previously unrecorded marine chronometer, dated 1825 and signed by William Edward Frodsham, was one of 22 that were on board HMS Beagle. Until now, only two other recorded chronometers from the ship are known to have survived, both of which are owned by the British Museum.

The offered lot, ‘W.E.Frodsham 2’, was the second chronometer produced by William Edward Frodsham (1804-1825), second son of a famous clock making family. Tragically, soon after the chronometer was completed William drowned whilst swimming. The chronometer, however, was not overlooked and was sent to Greenwhich to take part in the chronometer trials. In testament to William’s skill, it performed so well that it was purchased by the Admiralty.

The chronometer had a long and distinguished career: It was present on the second voyage of the Admiralty survey ship HMS Beagle (1831-1836) along with a science graduate by the name of Charles Darwin.

Later, it was used on the North American Boundary Expedition (1843-1846) which established the border between the USA and Canada. In 1857 it joined HMS Herald for the survey of the Australian coast. In all, it served on 15 ships between 1831 and 1911 when it was de-accessioned by the Admiralty and sold. After this, it disappeared from records.

HMS Beagle was an Admiralty survey ship which was sent on three major expeditions:

The first voyage (1826-1830) was to survey the coast of South America in order to help establish a chain of reliable navigational co-ordinates around the globe. During the long voyage the ship’s Captain, Pringle Stokes, sank into a terrible depression. As the ship neared the southernmost tip of the continent, in the desolate waters of Tierra del Fuego (Spanish for ‘Land of Fire’) he took a gun and shot himself. The command was given initially to Lieutenant W.G. Skyring and then to Lieutenant Robert Fitzroy, under whom the survey continued until 1830.

The second voyage of The Beagle (1831-1836) under Captain (later Rear-Admiral) Robert Fitzroy continued the work of the first expedition and then sailed west across the South Pacific towards the Galapagos Islands, New Zealand and Australia. To avoid the same fate as Captain Pringle Stokes, Fitzroy sought to recruit a “gentleman companion” with a scientific background to help record the geology of the region – but more crucially – to reduce the isolation that had doomed his predecessor. Charles Darwin was chosen from a number of University candidates, but had to pay for all his own supplies, the Admiralty having refused to fund a civilian scientist.

The Beagle reached the Galapagos Islands in September 1835 where Darwin was fascinated by such oddities as volcanic rocks and giant tortoises. This proved to be a pivotal moment in modern scientific and theological thought that resulted in the overturning of the accepted, centuries old, Creationist view.

Darwin’s five-year voyage on H.M.S. Beagle has become legendary after Darwin wrote extensively about his experiences in The Zoology of the Voyage of H.M.S. Beagle and in his seminal work On the Origin of Species published in 1859. The book caused uproar in the established Church and amongst traditionalists and ultimately created a rift between Charles Darwin and Robert Fitzroy, a devout Christian.

The marine chronometer offered in Bonhams 9th July sale was one of 22 used on this voyage. Having taken measurements between Devonport and San Carlos, W.E. Frodsham 2 was then transferred to the Constitution and continued the survey of the coasts of Chile and Peru.

The third voyage of the Beagle (1837-1843) under Commander John Wickham and John Stokes completed the survey of the Australian coast and resulted in the naming of Port Darwin and the Fitzroy River after their former colleagues.