The Wayfarer: This young lad was going places

We are no doubt all familiar with the name of Charles Darwin who travelled around the world studying life in all forms and publishing ‘On the Origin of the Species’ in 1859.

To this day references are made to this work and to the man who made such a study of the many forms of life and how they evolved. However whilst giving credit to Charles Darwin perhaps we overlook another name who at the same time made profound advances in the lives of seamen. Robert Fitzroy was a fourth great grandson of Charles II who at the age of 12 was sent to the Royal Naval Academy at Portsmouth. A very young age for anyone to leave home, but this young lad was obviously meant to go places as he qualified to enter the navy the following year where his ability was such that he quickly climbed the ranks. However Robert Fitzroy’s main interest was in forecasting and dealing with all the various types of weather he came upon.

His studies earned him a place as meteorologist on board HMS Beagle a hydrographic survey vessel exploring dangerous waters subject to storms and unexpected blizzards. These were long voyages and when the captain of the ship died Fitzroy now a lieutenant was made captain at the young age of 23.

He made such a good job that his promotion to Captain was confirmed on his return and he took HMS Beagle on its second expedition this time charting South America and the Galapagos Islands in the company of a young Charles Darwin.

This was a five year excursion both following their own studies, Darwin on various life forms and Fitzroy on charting the weather and how to predict it. He took the vessel through treacherous waters, studied various weather conditions and corrected existing charts. Both men covered themselves in glory and Fitzroy was made a Vice-Admiral.

Fitzroy became firm friends with Francis Beaufort creator of the Beaufort Wind Force Scale and between them they made advances into the study of forecasting the weather.

Robert Fitzroy became MP for Durham and pushed through parliament, improvements in the safety of merchants vessels before becoming Governor of New Zealand where he did his best to protect the Maori from the flood of settlers into the territory. He returned to the UK retired from active service and was appointed chief of an experimental government department, the forerunner of today’s Meteorological Office.

See you next week.