The science of weather forecasting: The pioneer who founded the Met Office

Moved by a terrible shipwreck, Robert FitzRoy pioneered the science of weather forecasting. But for all the lives saved by his observations, he couldn't see the value in his own.

Peter Moore
Monday 27 April 2015 19:02 BST
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Strife on the ocean waves: a storm rages
Strife on the ocean waves: a storm rages (Rex)

On Tuesday 25 October 1859, the Royal Charter steam clipper skimmed over the Irish Sea on her way home to Liverpool. Sleek and swift, the Royal Charter was a star of her class. Half a century before Titanic, she ran like a graceful floating hotel. The saloon passengers could sip gin and tonics at the dinner table and waltz on deck under the moonlight.

The Royal Charter had left Melbourne in Australia 59 days before. The wind had bulged in her sails as she crossed the Pacific and cut around Cape Horn. For the last fortnight, she had been sailing under the familiar northern stars and, with a day to go, it seemed like the ship would fulfil her promise to sail across the world in 60 days.

Many of the 400 or so passengers were eager to see Britain again. Hundreds of them were returning from years of labour in the Ballarat goldfields, carrying their fortunes home. No one knows for sure just how much gold the Royal Charter was carrying. But locked in the strongroom, crammed in the passengers' pockets, or hidden in shoes and money belts was at least £300,000 in gold bullion and coins. The actual amount could have been twice that.

The disaster that ensued would traumatise Victorian Britain. With Liverpool so near, the captain opted to press on, ignoring the ominous signs of the sea: a thin mist, then a lurid sky, gaudy with smudged colour. By the time he passed Holyhead, the last safe anchorage, a swell was rising fast. Soon, a gale was bearing down on the Royal Charter. The sails were struck and the engines fired, but they were helpless in the face of nature.

After dark, the storm intensified to what locals called a true "West Indian" hurricane. Both anchors were thrown overboard but they couldn't stop the Royal Charter being blown back towards the rocks of Anglesey. In the hammering rain and screaming wind there was little hope for the ship. The locals later said that they had never seen a sea so violent. Forced back and back, the Royal Charter was eventually thrown against the headland of eastern Anglesey. It was like one of JMW Turner's nightmarish visions. A few hours later, she had vanished beneath the waves.

All told, only 41 passengers escaped to the shore, and not one of them a woman or child. It was a tragedy that stirred the nation. The Illustrated London News produced a terrifying woodcut of the scene. Charles Dickens visited Anglesey and wrote up an account, "The Shipwreck", for his new Uncommercial Traveller journal. But the news had its most significant effect on an old naval officer called Robert FitzRoy.

The Met Office office in Exeter
The Met Office office in Exeter (Rex)

In 1859, Robert FitzRoy was 54 years old and already had a vibrant career behind him. As a young man he had been one of the brightest stars of the post-Waterloo Royal Navy, captaining HMS Beagle and carrying a young Charles Darwin on his famous circumnavigation as he formulated his paradigm-shattering ideas about the past. After this, FitzRoy had entered the Commons as the Tory MP for Durham and had then served a short, fractious stint as Governor of New Zealand.

Daring, energetic and able, FitzRoy had the traits and aristocratic pedigree – he was descended from a lord, a prime minister and, distantly, from King Charles II – to carry him right to the top of British society. But his career had been hampered by bad luck and a recurring depressive condition. This left him prone to spells of despondency and outbursts of anger. His eviscerating, flaring temper was well known on the foredeck. Charles Darwin, who lived at close quarters with FitzRoy for five years during the Beagle's voyage, had once written of his captain's "extraordinary" character. "I never before came across a man whom I could fancy being a Napoleon or a Nelson."

But the sinking of the Royal Charter would mark the beginning of a resurgent period in FitzRoy's life. A sailor with deep humanitarian instincts, he had become appalled at the loss of life around Britain's coasts. In the 1850s, with the boom in merchant shipping, the waterways of the British Isles had filled with ships, carrying goods and people to all corners of the expanding empire. By the 1850s, more than a thousand ships and a thousand lives were being lost every year, many of them in bad weather. This made the Royal Charter unexceptional. The only thing that set it apart was the sheer loss of life and property.

That sinking feeling: the loss of the 'Royal Charter' in 1859 inspired Robert FitzRoy to try to predict the weather
That sinking feeling: the loss of the 'Royal Charter' in 1859 inspired Robert FitzRoy to try to predict the weather (Getty)

In 1854, FitzRoy had founded a new governmental office with the garrulous title of the Meteorological Department of the Board of Trade. Originally, the office had been intended as nothing but a chart depot, plotting wind maps of the world's oceans so that British captains could plan more intelligent routes from port to port. But with the recent introduction of the electric telegraph, a bewildering new technology, FitzRoy had conceived a bolder scheme. If a storm were imminent, he could use the telegraph to operate a storm-warning service. Amid the outrage over the Royal Charter, FitzRoy was given permission to do just this.

By 1861, FitzRoy's storm-warning service was up and running. Weather data was collected at the ports every morning – a smart breeze at Loch Lomond, a blustery shower at Scarborough, bright blue skies over Penzance – and telegraphed to FitzRoy's office in Whitehall at 9.30am. Then the data was read, reduced, corrected and analysed. If FitzRoy detected that a storm might be imminent he relayed a telegram to the ports, where a warning drum was hoisted in the harbour. It was, he wrote, "a race to warn the outpost before the gale reaches them".

FitzRoy's first storm warning was sent on 6 February 1861, cautioning of gales on the north-east coast, and from the off it was a success. FitzRoy was congratulated by The Times for his pioneering work. Swollen with ambition for his project, FitzRoy fired a letter back, declaring that "every frequented part of our coasts might have received information of the coming gale three days before it burst. The event was predicted with as much certainty as an eclipse and could have been announced with signals as conspicuous as fiery beacons".

Riding high, that summer of 1861, FitzRoy decided to extend the scope of his warnings. As he was computing the atmospheric data each morning, he thought that he might as well forward on the results of his calculations to the newspapers. These started to appear in The Times from 1 August 1861 under the title "General weather probable during the next two days".

People were used to reading weather predictions, but these were usually found in the almanacs and their formulae were based on the orbit of the planets. They were known by the lively term prognostications or as prophecies. But FitzRoy's predictions were something different. They were sanctioned by government and published in The Times, and as such bore the stamp of governmental and scientific approval. To clarify this new initiative FitzRoy gave his predictions a new title – he called them "forecasts". "Prophecies and predictions they are not," he wrote. "The term 'forecast' is strictly applicable to such an opinion as it is the result of scientific combination and calculation."

If onlookers were first startled by FitzRoy's audacity, they were soon to be surprised at his success. Dublin's Freeman's Journal wrote: "Persons have been astonished by the weather predictions of Admiral FitzRoy. They have been in the main most accurate, particularly in the direction of air currents." FitzRoy was elevated to the position of a national celebrity, with Punch dubbing him "the First Admiral of the Blew". The Morning Post complained that FitzRoy was destroying old English maxims. "The old adage 'As uncertain as the winds' had ceased, we are told, to be a correct comparison, for the winds are said to be governed by fixed laws. To call a man 'a weathercock' is no longer a term of reproach."

This response to FitzRoy's work was the beginning of an attitude that we reserve for our weather forecasters today. The papers enjoyed nothing more than conflating the role of the forecaster with that of God. Punch joked that FitzRoy kept the key to the wind cellar. A poem appeared in a Liverpool newspaper opening with the stanza: "I wish I was Admiral FitzRoy, Who up in the clouds calmly sits, Ordering here, ordering there, The wind and weather foul or fair." Writing up a report of the Epsom races in 1863, Bell's Life in London declared: "Admiral FitzRoy would have been in his glory, for the storm that raged during its continuance was worthy even of his patronage."

Between the years 1861 and 1865, FitzRoy appeared daily in the newspapers. But while his project was generally popular – particularly on the coast, where the number of shipwrecks dropped – he gained enemies elsewhere. At Westminster some politicians were becoming exasperated at the expenditure on telegraphing the reports. Among scientists, FitzRoy's work was treated with scepticism as he had no clear theory. Elsewhere his detractors lost no time in lampooning him in print when things went awry. After a bad run of forecasts the Bath Chronicle commented: "The weather today is unpromising but ever since Admiral FitzRoy took to telling us what to look for, the weather seems to have felt insulted, and to act as capriciously as a wit, who is asked out to dinner to amuse people, and revenges himself by alterations of dullness and petulance."

Robert FitzRoy
Robert FitzRoy (Getty)

FitzRoy responded to the barbs by working harder than ever. "As chief of the Meteorological Department of the Board of Trade," The Star would later write, "Admiral FitzRoy watched and toiled without relaxation, early and late. He allowed himself no holiday; he trusted to the service of no substitute. He was always to be found in his little room, surrounded by the appliances of his occupation and earnestly intent upon the calculations and the observations on which it required."

But FitzRoy was no longer the footloose youth who had scampered over the hills of Tierra del Fuego with Charles Darwin. His eyesight was failing him and his energy was almost gone. By the beginning of 1865, he was failing fast and suffering from another of his black depressions. He left his home in west London for the fresh air of Norwood to recuperate his strength. But every time he attempted to work, he collapsed in exhaustion.

On 30 April 1865, FitzRoy got out of his bed to get ready for the Sunday church service. On his way to his dressing room he paused to give his youngest daughter a kiss. A minute later, he turned the key in the lock, pulled out a razor, and cut his throat. He was 59 years old.

FitzRoy's weather experiment would finish with him. Seizing their chance, his critics called for a report into the accuracy of the forecasts and consequently they were halted within a year of his death. But FitzRoy's vision of a weather-prediction service funded by government for the benefit of its citizens would not die. In 1871, the United States would start issuing its own weather "probabilities", and by the end of the decade what was now being called the Met Office would resume its own forecasts in Britain.

In time, the revolutionary nature of FitzRoy's work would be recognised. Today, the Met Office is integral to our way of life, employing around 1,500 staff, providing minute-by-minute forecasts that are printed, broadcast, tweeted or passed on second hand. A 2007 consultancy report concluded that the Met Office delivered £353.2m of savings to the economy in social and environmental benefits, all from its headquarters on FitzRoy Road in Exeter.

All this, 150 years after his death, adds up to a true vindication of what he stood for. But perhaps the tribute that FitzRoy himself would most have appreciated came in 2002, when one of the BBC's fabled shipping-forecast regions was renamed from Finisterre to FitzRoy in his honour. As such, you can hear his name four times a day, midway through the informed predictions that he did so much to pioneer.

'The Weather Experiment' by Peter Moore is published by Chatto & Windus on 7 May

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