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Meet Robert FitzRoy: The father of forecast

Charles Darwin’s fame obscures the lifetime’s work of an equally gifted pioneer. Robert FitzRoy, captain of HMS Beagle on that legendary voyage, was an extraordinary scholar, scientist and philanthropist – and a force behind the RNLI’s earliest safety work.

Meet Robert FitzRoy: The father of forecast

Artist: Samuel Lane

It’s 26 October 1859 and a hurricane is tearing up the Irish Sea. The steam clipper Royal Charter breaks up off Anglesey and – despite desperate rescue attempts by villagers – 450 men, women and children perish. The storm rages for days, hundreds more ships are wrecked and the death toll almost doubles. Charles Dickens is so moved by the emotional aftermath that he devotes an entire chapter to it in The Uncommercial Traveller.

The tragedy has a profound effect on a certain government official too: Vice Admiral FitzRoy, member of the RNLI’s Committee of Management and head of a fledgling Meteorological Department (later the Met Office).

FitzRoy is convinced that many of these lives could have been saved and demonstrates this by showing how storms can be predicted using data collected simultaneously from around the UK. A little more than a year later, he is breaking new ground – telegraphing shipping forecasts, installing storm warning systems and, with his RNLI colleagues, supplying barometers to get coastal communities weather-wise.

FitzRoy’s work would go on to prevent countless tragedies. But to better understand this enigmatic figure, and the full reach of his efforts, we need to rewind to a few months before the Battle of Trafalgar …

Rising star

Robert FitzRoy, fourth great-grandson of Charles II, was born into the upper echelons of the British aristocracy and destined for public service. He joined Royal Naval Academy, Portsmouth at 12 and entered the navy the following year. Young FitzRoy proved to be an outstanding officer and rapidly climbed the ranks. He was also growing passionate about the science of weather and keen to debunk the dubious soothsaying devices on offer at the time.

FitzRoy’s passion came to the fore when he was appointed meteorologist aboard the hydrographic survey vessel HMS Beagle in 1826. Exploring the coasts of southern Patagonia and Tierra del Fuego was a harsh science lesson.

They were in uncharted territory and plagued by dangerous tides, storms and blizzards. Two years in and his captain, Pringle Stokes, had had enough.

Gripped by depression, he shot himself – and FitzRoy, now a Lieutenant, was entrusted with command, aged just 23.

Darwin and the Beagle

FitzRoy did a remarkable job of handling Beagle and charting the second leg of the expedition. He returned home in 1830 and his achievements had impressed Francis Beaufort, creator of the ubiquitous Beaufort wind force scale. Beaufort made FitzRoy his protégé and they became firm friends.

He saw to it that his understudy was given command of Beagle’s now legendary second voyage, charting South America and the Galapagos Islands. He even found him a companion for the trip: a young chap by the name of Charles Darwin.

Hot Coffee

Darwin, as ship’s naturalist, formed a deep respect for FitzRoy. They got on well for the most part of their 5-year excursion but Darwin later remarked how their arguments sometimes ‘bordered on insanity’ and explained how the captain earned the nickname Hot Coffee: ‘FitzRoy’s temper was a most unfortunate one. This was shown not only by passion but by fits of long-continued moroseness ... [The junior officers] used to ask whether “much hot coffee had been served out this morning” which meant how was the captain’s temper?’

Today, FitzRoy would probably be diagnosed as bipolar – and it would go some way to explain his bursts of drive and brilliance, as well as the tantrums and melancholy. Nevertheless, their voyage was a game-changer. The young captain dipped into his own pockets to fit Beagle with the cutting-edge technology of the day. This included 22 chronometers (to help him accurately calculate longitude) and the latest in weather forecasting devices, including his new and improved storm glass.

This would also be the first voyage to officially use Beaufort’s scale for wind observations.

As Darwin gathered the threads of what would later become his ‘dangerous idea’, FitzRoy guided them safely through treacherous waters, measured tides, studied weather systems, surveyed new territory, corrected existing charts and, for the first time, established a series of reference points around the globe that others would calibrate their instruments by.

Soon after Beagle’s return in 1836, FitzRoy was awarded a Gold Medal by the Royal Geographical Society. Three years later he published the narrative of his voyages in four volumes, with Darwin contributing the third. The result was a trailblazing scientific journal and vibrant travel memoir in one, popular with readers from all walks of life.

In 1841 FitzRoy was elected as MP for Durham and pushed through legislation to improve the safety of merchant vessels. Later, he sailed halfway back around the globe to be Governor of New Zealand. Satisfying the land hunger of the new settlers, while protecting the Māori, was an impossible task without government backing. Eventually, the settlement fell into bankruptcy and exploded into war.

FitzRoy was removed at the behest of the New Zealand Company for, essentially, defending human rights.

Storm warning

Retired from active service and elected to the Royal Society, FitzRoy’s meteorological expertise was in demand. He was appointed chief of an experimental government department – the forerunner of today’s Met Office, and the first of its kind anywhere in the world. His original brief was to collect and crunch data collected at sea to protect mariners and their property – but FitzRoy pressed it further. After the Royal Charter tragedy he knew the information could help him not only understand the universal laws of the weather, but to predict storms too.

FitzRoy convinced parliament to let him set up a storm warning service. His system used new telegraph technology to collect live weather data from land and at sea, and he developed charts to calculate forecasts from it. His storm warnings were transmitted to key ports that would then display them locally using his signal system. The government agreed this was essential to shipping but FitzRoy opened it up to everyone, publishing the first public weather forecast in The Times in 1861.

FitzRoy also understood the benefits of putting barometers into the hands of the people and perfected an easy-to-read design that would give some of the poorest communities a way of better anticipating the weather locally. He issued these new barometers to fishing communities while his friends at the RNLI supplied them to lifeboat stations. The fact that so many FitzRoy barometers are still working today is testament to their robust design.

When FitzRoy published his Weather Book in 1863 it sealed his reputation as the leading meteorologist of his time.

He continued to play a leading role in the RNLI’s Committee of Management, driving its early preventative work and writing many articles for the Life-Boat Journal.

When Darwin published On the Origin of Species, FitzRoy admitted that it caused him the ‘acutist pain’. As a passionate creationist, he was wracked with guilt at unwittingly playing a part in its construction. This, along with mounting debts and failing health, soon locked him into a losing battle with depression. Just weeks before his 60th birthday, Vice Admiral FitzRoy followed the path of his uncle and former captain and took his own life.

Robert FitzRoy may always be remembered as the captain of the Beagle, but let’s not forget what he truly was: a selfless innovator who devoted his life and fortune to protecting the lives of others.

The Met Office today

The Met Office is the UK’s national weather service. It provides forecasts and climate-related services to the public, the armed forces, government, civil aviation, shipping, industry, agriculture and commerce.

Evolving partnership

Met Office staff chose the RNLI as their official charity in August 2015.

They supported our Fish Supper and Give an Hour campaigns, and have already raised around £6,000 for our crews. But the 3-year partnership isn’t just about fundraising. By working together, both organisations aim to reach the widest possible audience with Respect the Water messages, personalised forecasts and safety information. Ultimately, it will help us achieve our ambitious goal of halving drownings by 2024. FitzRoy would surely have been proud.