Robert FitzRoy

The forgotten man of Norwood

The name of one of Norwood’s former residents is broadcast several times a day, every day of the year, by BBC radio; but even in Norwood, let alone the world at large, few people know who he was and why he should be honoured in this way.  The name is Fitzroy, given to the sea area formerly known as Finisterre in 2002, and broadcast repeatedly in the shipping forecast on Radio 4 long wave.  The man was Robert FitzRoy (with a capital “R”), and if you have heard of him, you may know that he was Captain of the Beagle when it carried Charles Darwin on the voyage which inspired him to come up with the theory of evolution by natural selection.  But what has that got to do with weather forecasting, or Norwood?

     FitzRoy was, in fact a brilliant seaman and navigator.  Born in 1805, the year of the Battle of Trafalgar, he joined the Navy at the age of twelve, and the Darwin voyage, from 1831 to 1836, was actually his second in command of the Beagle, surveying the difficult waters around Cape Horn in all kinds of weather.  On his return to England, after completing the tedious paper work involved in putting all his observations in order, he served as an MP for Durham, and then became the second Governor of New Zealand.

     Recalled to England for political reasons, he was put in charge of fitting out the Royal Navy’s first screw-driven steamship, and became its first Captain.  But throughout his career, ever since experiencing the fierce storms off Cape Horn, he had been a keen student of the weather, and had always carried at least two barometers when at sea, being one of the first people to realise that falling pressure was a sign of a storm to come.  In 1854, he was offered a job that could have been tailor made for him – as head of what would become the Meteorological Office.

     With a tiny staff, FitzRoy began to collect statistics on the weather (his original  title was “Meteorological Statist”), and to use the knowledge he had gained from years at sea to the benefit of others.  He set up a chain of observing stations around the coast of Britain, reporting to London via the new electric telegraph the local weather conditions each morning.  From these observations, FitzRoy was able to predict the likely occurrence of storms, and issue warnings, sent out by telegraph to the key ports, where storm warning signals would be hoisted for all sailors to see.

     But this was not enough.  Far ahead of his time, by the early 1860s FitzRoy was issuing weather forecasts for the entire country.  Indeed, he invented the term “weather forecast,” as well as the term “synoptic chart” (since they provide a synopsis of weather conditions) for weather maps.  The forecasts, though not the maps, were published daily in The Times.  All of the work of processing the data was done, of course, “by hand,” using pen and paper to carry out the laborious calculations that would nowadays be done in seconds on a computer.    By the standards of the Victorian civil service, FitzRoy was a lenient superior, and obtained special permission for his clerks to have alternate Saturday afternoons off.  But he was far less lenient with himself.

     FitzRoy worked whatever hours it took to finish his official duties, but he was scrupulously careful never to do any private work – not even writing a letter – during office hours.  In his so-called spare time he wrote en epic book, The Weather Book, which was published in 1862.  And ever since 1859, when Darwin had published his Origin of Species, FitzRoy, a deeply religious conventional Christian, had been tormented by his role in unleashing what he saw as this sinful idea upon the world.

     On top of all this, the Government, as short-sighted then as now, began to complain that his weather forecasts were a waste of money, and even though The Times continued to publish those forecasts, the leader columns took to making ponderous jokes when, as was inevitable, the forecasts often proved inaccurate.

     With FitzRoy worn down by overwork, depressed by the criticism and troubled by the spread of evolutionary ideas, at the end of 1864 his wife Maria moved the family out to the quiet suburb of Norwood, to try to get him to rest.  But even though he was officially on sick leave, every time FitzRoy felt a little better he went back in to the office, where he worked until he could do no more, then collapsed at home for a few days.  As it turned out, his last official act was to send a forecast to Queen Victoria for a proposed crossing to the Isle of Wight.  On Sunday, 30 April 1865, a few weeks short of his own 60th birthday, Robert FitzRoy got up early, kissed his sleeping daughter, went into his bathroom and cut his throat.

     It was only after his death that the true value of FitzRoy’s work, especially in setting up the storm warning system, became clear, and almost as soon as the importance of his weather forecasting efforts became clear the name of the man who had pioneered their development was more or less forgotten.  But he was one of the great Victorian pioneers who helped to shape our world, and far more than merely “Darwin’s Captain.”

 

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