Robert FitzRoy (1805 – 1865)
We take weather forecasts very much for granted, but they are a relatively recent development. In the mid 19th century many believed that the weather was so unpredictable that forecasting it would be the height of futility. When one MP in 1854 suggested in Parliament that recent advances in scientific theory might allow them to know the weather in London “twenty-four hours beforehand”, he was greeted with hoots of derision. Admiral Robert FitzRoy, the erstwhile captain of the HMS Beagle when Charles Darwin made his voyage of evolutionary discovery, had other ideas.
In 1854 FitzRoy was appointed to establish the Meteorological Department of the Board of Trade, later to become the Met Office, charged with enhancing the quality of wind charts with the aim of improving sailing times. He grew increasingly alarmed at the loss of life around the coastal waters of Britain; between 1855 and 1860 some 7,402 ships were wrecked at the cost of 7,201 lives, many of which, he believed, could have been prevented by a timely warning.
The tipping point was the night of 25th and 26th October 1859 when a storm, the worst to hit the Irish Sea in the 19th century, destroyed 133 ships, killing over 800 souls. One of the casualties was the Royal Charter, a steam clipper reaching the end of its two-month journey from Australia, which came to grief off the coast of Anglesey with the loss of all but 41 of its complement of 500 crew and passengers.
FitzRoy was detailed to issue storm warnings. Analysing data gathered from coastal stations and telegraphed to him, when FitzRoy thought a storm was imminent, in what he called “a race to warn the outpost before the gale reaches them”, he deployed the new technology, which the Daily News described “far outstrips the swiftest tempest in celerity”.
The storm warnings began to appear in September 1860. It was a logical step, having analysed all the data, for FitzRoy to use his findings to predict the weather, irrespective of whether a storm was imminent. On August 1, 1861 hidden away on page 10 of The Times was an unprepossessing item headed “general weather probable in the next two days”. The piece stated that the temperature in London was to be 62F, 61F in Liverpool and a pleasant 70F in Dover, the same as Lisbon. For good measure, it also covered Copenhagen, Helder, Brest and Bayonne.
The weather forecast had arrived, and not only did it prove to be extremely popular, it was surprisingly accurate. FitzRoy’s forecasts were soon syndicated across other newspapers and organisers of outdoor events and students of the turf took especial heed of his prognostications. Punch, the satirical magazine, christened him “The First Admiral of the Blew”.
FitzRoy was keen to manage down expectations, writing “prophecies and predictions they are not…the term forecast is strictly applicable to such an opinion as is the result of scientific combination and calculation”, but cynics were quick to point out their shortcomings. The Age, in its build up to the Epsom Derby in May 1862,noted that with “what satisfaction did the experienced interpreters of the prediction see that he had set down for the south of England – ‘Wind SSW to WNW moderate to fresh, some showers’, which of course indicated that it would be a remarkably fine day, and that the umbrellas might be left behind.” Proactively, FitzRoy took to the correspondence pages of the papers to apologise to “those whose hats had been spoilt from umbrellas being omitted”, when he was wrong, he had a bad run in April 1862, and to defend his methods.
Storm clouds were gathering, though. Politicians complained about the excessive costs of telegraphing back and forth, politics and public safety rarely mix, the scientific community were sceptical of his methods and his more egregious errors were seized upon by his critics. His last forecast, published on April 29, 1865, predicted thunderstorms over London. The following day, after preparing to go to church and kissing his daughter, FitzRoy went back to his dressing room, locked the door, and killed himself.
It had all proved too much, but the idea of forecasting the next day’s weather was one that would not die.
If you enjoyed this, check out The Fickle Finger by Martin Fone