Robert FitzRoy (1805-1865) could trace his ancestors back to Charles II. He was the man who sailed Darwin around the world. He was also a politician, a governor, a scientist and a civil servant had many influential and famous friends.
He was appointed commander of the Beagle at the age of 23. He lead his crew with courage and skill. But he was also a fractious character with a raging temper and a tendency towards severe depressions. Shortly after meeting FitzRoy in 1832, Darwin wrote to his sister; ‘He is a very extraordinary person. I never before came across a man whom I could fancy being a Napoleon or a Nelson.’
Although he and Darwin were friends, Fitzroy was a fierce opponent of Darwinism and believed in a literal interpretation of the Bible.
After On The Origin Of Species was published, he expressed his regret that he’d brought Darwin on the Beagle, giving him the opportunity to conceive such a shocking theory.
After his sailing adventures FitzRoy was elected the Tory MP for Durham, and was later dispatched to New Zealand as governor in 1843. He sailed around half the world to find the colony nearly bankrupt and a bitter conflict raging between the Maori tribes and western settlers.
He was unable to resolve the conflict, finding he agreed with both sides, and was recalled to Britain after two years.
FitzRoy was really ahead of his time. He was not mistaken or eccentric, he was just at the start of a very long journey, one that continues today in the Met Office.
Robert FitzRoy came up with a theory as to why the dinosaurs had become extinct. He believed that they, and mammoths, died out because they couldn’t fit through the doors on Noah’s Ark.
Although he was often mocked for his weather forecasting, his Noah’s Ark theory was widely accepted. Dinosaurs and mammoths were often referred to as ‘ante-diluvian creatures’ because they hadn’t survived the flood.
After tragically losing his wife, Mary who died suddenly, he founded the Meteorological Department, now known as the Met Office in 1854, as a weather prediction office, offering warnings of bad weather for sailors at sea. He coined the term 'weather forecast. If he thought a storm imminent, warning symbols of drums and cones were displayed from a mast so that nearby ships could act accordingly.
On August 1st 1861, he issued the first general weather forecast in The Times; ‘moderate westerly wind; fine’. Fitzroy’s weather forecasting claims were widely mocked. When one MP suggested in 1854 that scientific advances might mean people might know the weather ‘twenty-four hours beforehand’, the House ‘roared with laughter’. But his forecasts soon gained traction. Queen Victoria once sent messengers to FitzRoy’s home requesting a weather forecast for a crossing she was about to make to the Isle of Wight.
By 1865 his health was failing and his depression returned. He moved to Norwood for rest but on Sunday, 30 April he cut his own throat with his razor.
FitzRoy’s temper gained him the nickname ‘Hot Coffee’.
In 2004, the shipping forecast area Finisterre, was renamed FitzRoy by the Met Office.
In 1860 FitzRoy introduced a system of hoisting storm warning cones at the principal ports when a gale was expected.
FitzRoy invented a barometer for ships.
In 1818 at 12 years old, FitzRoy entered the Royal Naval College, Portsmouth. In the following year he entered the Royal Navy.
The last forecast of FitzRoy's lifetime was published in his absence on 29 April 1865. It predicted thunder storms over London.
Fitzroy’s department, which began with a staff of three, now employs more than 1,500 people.