As a result of the Conference of Maritime Nations at Brussels in 1853 on the subject of international co operation in marine meteorology, the English Government decided to establish a state meteorological department, and Captain Robert FitzRoy was placed in charge.
Born at Ampton Hall, Suffolk, on the 5th July, 1805, Robert FitzRoy was trained at the Royal Naval College, then a school for cadets, and entered the Navy in 1819. He was gazetted Lieutenant in 1824 and appointed to the frigate Thetis, serving in the Mediterranean and on the coast of South America under the command of Sir John Philimore and Captain Bingham. In 1828 he was transferred to the Ganges, and became flag lieutenant to Admiral Sir Robert Otway, in command of the South American Station.
He was given his first command in August, 1828, in the Beagle, a 235 ton brig engaged with the Adventure, Captain Philip Parker King, in survey work off the coasts of Patagonia and Tierra del Fuego.
He returned to England in 1830, bringing with him five Fuegans, who, he hoped, after a short sojourn in England, would return to their native land, carrying with them some rudimentary notions of civilisation. The expenses of this project he defrayed out of his own pocket.
In 1831, the Beagle was again commissioned to continue the survey, and FitzRoy again given command. He set sail in December, 1831, carrying Charles Darwin as supernumerary and taking back with him his five Fuegans.
During the next five years he surveyed the Straits of Magellan and the coasts of South America, and also ran a chronometric line round the world, "forming," to quote his report, "a connected chain of meridian distances around the globe, the first that has ever been completed, or even attempted, by means of chronometers alone."
FitzRoy was advanced to the rank of Captain in 1835.
The expedition returned to England in 1836, and FitzRoy proceeded to write up the narratives of the two voyages, which he published in 1839. Both narratives are of absorbing interest and contain a wealth of information, not only of the physical features of these regions, but also of the characteristics and habits of the inhabitants.
That FitzRoy was an extremely able surveyor, considering, the inadequate equipment he had to work with, is evident from the remarks of Sir Francis Beaufort, then Hydrographer to the Navy, in a Report to the House of Commons, 1848, namely, "from the Equator to Cape Horn and from thence round to the River Plata on the eastern side of South America, all that is immediately wanted has been already achieved by the splendid survey of Captain Robert FitzRoy."
In 1841 he stood for Parliament, and was returned as member for Durham. He also accepted the Conservancy of the Mersey, and in his double capacity obtained permission to introduce a bill for the improvement of conditions in the Merchantile Marine. Although his measure was not accepted, it was the means of bringing about the introduction of the voluntary certificate of the Board of Trade in 1845, and formed the groundwork of some important clauses in the Mercantile Marine Act of 1850.
He was appointed Governor of New Zealand in 1843, but owing to his stern attitude towards the settlersin their often unscrupulous dealings with the natives, he became very unpopular and was recalled in 1845.
Three years later he was appointed to the post of Superintendent of the Dockyard at Woolwich, and later took command of the Arrogant, an early screw frigate fitted out under his supervision, in order to carry out experiments. These completed he asked to be superseded on account of ill health and private affairs, and in 1850 he was placed on half pay. This marks the end of his active sea career, although he was subsequently advanced to Rear Admiral in 1857 and Vice-Admiral in 1863 by order of seniority.
FitzRoy had always evinced an interest in weather condition and his "Voyages of the Beagle" contains many references to weather phenomena. When, therefore, in 1854 it was decided to organise a department to deal with the collection of weather data at sea, FitzRoy, on the recommendation of the President of the Royal Society, was appointed its chief, with the title of Meteorological Statist to the Board of Trade.
He issued a circular to captains of ships, inviting their co operation in the work of observing, and in 1855 a number of tested instruments were loaned to the Royal Navy and captains in the Mercantile Marine.
After consultation with the Royal Society as to the best method of utilising these observations, a programme of work was drawn up which confined itself solely to the computation of marine data. Some divergence from this original plan was, however, afterwards made. The occurrence of a terrific storm in 1859 off the British Isles, which caused the loss of the Royal Charter, led FitzRoy to see the possibility of visualising weather conditions at any given time by means of a synoptic chart, and from this chart the possibility of foretelling or, as FitzRoy termed it, forecasting the weather.
With this end in view, fifteen land stations were established which telegraphed to London daily their weather at certain hours, thus enabling a forecast to be made. These forecasts were utilised for the benefit of seamen by the inauguration, in 1861, of the; system of hoisting storm warning cones at the principal ports when a gale was to be expected. This service has proved of inestimable value to shipping, and, if forgotten for all else, FitzRoy's name will always be remembered with gratitude in association with this gale warning service.
In 1863 FitzRoy published his "Weather Book," a text book which was far in advance of the scientific opinion of his time
Although immersed in the organisation of this new weather service, FitzRoy made opportunity to devote considerable time and energy to the work of the lifeboat institutions, for whose improvement he laboured unceasingly.
In time, however, the strain of the two pursuit told on his health. Naturally of a highly strung temperament, his health had been much impaired by the strain and anxiety of his survey work off South America. The subsequent responsibility of carrying on the meteorological department, and, in particular, of maintaining the efficiency of the gale warning service at a time when little or nothing was known of the conditions governing the weather of these isles, proved too great, with the result that he died on the 30th April, 1865, at the early age of fifty nine. Thus was ended prematurely a life that had been devoted to the interests and advancement of his fellow seamen.
Although with the change of conditions from the days of sailing ships
to those of the modern ocean liner and the general use of wireless telegraphy
at sea, marine meteorology had had to adjust its outlook from FitzRoy's
day, the seafarer must always look back with a feeling of gratitude for
the magnificent work done by Admiral FitzRoy, the founder of the British