Who Would Have Predicted It?



It is said the British are obsessed with the weather and some say they speak of little else, so maybe it’s appropriate that the daily weather forecast is a British creation.

People complain about the accuracy of the weather forecast today with all its mind-blowing science and technological wizardry. Just think what it must have been like in 1860’s…

Actually surprisingly advanced – although any leap from studying the behaviour of cows in fields, frogs in jars and birds in bushes, was always going to be a significant scientific stride. It was also born out of necessity, not for the benefit of those hoping to hold a garden party at the weekend or play cricket, but for those at sea around the island of Great Britain who needed this breakthrough.

And Admiral Robert FitzRoy was the man to deliver it.

Admiral Robert FitzRoy (1885)

Source: Wikipedia

FitzRoy may still be best known as Charles Darwin’s captain on HMS Beagle, or to some as an area name for the UK’s shipping forecast. But this is the man who, in 1854, established what was to become The Met Office and created a system of information gathering, predicting and rapid information spreading that had never been seen before.

Between 1855 and 1869 7,402 ships were wrecked off the coasts of Britain and 7,201 lives were lost.

Something better than guesswork was needed!

FitzRoy created the word “forecast” and began producing storm warnings in 1860 then the following year he was producing probable for two days ahead.

Despite his extraordinary advances, critics voices rung long and loud and they jumped on each and every forecast that didn’t turn out to be accurate (whilst ignoring all the ones that were extraordinarily on the mark). Utterly exhausted from his efforts, FitzRoy left his central London home at 38 Onslow Square, Kensington (where his blue plaque can be found) and ‘retired’ to Norwood in south London.

Ill-health, a recurrence of depression and concerns about the financial viability of his meteorological office began to engulf him. On April 29th 1865 his published forecast predicted thunderstorms over London. The next day Admiral Robert FitzRoy kissed his daughter, entered his dressing room, locked the door and slit his throat with a razor.

HMS Beagle

Royal Charter sinking in 1859 storm (source: Wikipedia)

Following his death it was discovered that he had spent his entire remaining fortune of £6,000 – £400,000 by today’s costs – on public expenditure. When this was uncovered, a Testimonial fund was set up to prevent his wife and daughter from living in poverty. The government paid back £3,000 and Charles Darwin paid £100. Queen Victoria offered his wife and daughter grace and favour apartments at Hampton Court Palace.

Robert FitzRoy is buried at All Saints’ Church in Upper Norwood, South London. His memorial was refurbished by the Meteorological Office in 1981.

His department began with a staff of three in the 1860’s. It now employs over 1,500 and has a budget of £80 million.

He was a man truly ahead of his time.