During the recent Olympic opening ceremony, a short clip was played of the infamous weather forecast in which Michael Fish dismissed the idea that a hurricane was on the way. In a ceremony that was a celebration of ‘Britishness’, this was a highly appropriate clip. The British obsession with the weather, and the sometimes unreliable science of predicting it, is well known. What is less well known is the role that Robert Fitzroy, MP for Durham from 1841 to 1843, played in pioneering the weather forecast.
In 1854 Fitzroy, who at the time was best known for his command of the HMS Beagle, on which Charles Darwin voyaged, was appointed superintendent of the newly established Meteorological Department. Motivated by the huge loss of lives at sea from storms, he assiduously investigated the relationship between the gravity of sea water and changes in the weather, and concluded that a falling barometer signified oncoming storms. Using the newly invented electric telegraph, he compiled weather reports from around Britain and Europe, and drew up ‘synoptic charts’, a term still in use today, which revealed any brewing storms. The warnings were then telegraphed to coastal stations. In 1863 he published his Weather Book, which introduced the term ‘forecast’ into meteorological vocabulary, though he warned that forecasts were not ‘prophesies or predictions’.
Despite this caveat, the British press were sceptical about his ‘forecasts’, and when Fitzroy’s storm warnings, which from 1861 were published regularly in The Times, went wrong, he was widely ridiculed. Fitzroy, who had always been a sensitive and erratic figure, took the criticism badly, and following further disapproval from the Board of Trade, he committed suicide in 1865.
After his death, the ‘Fitzroy barometer’, consisting of a siphon barometer with attached thermometer, began to be manufactured. It was still being produced in the late twentieth century. In 2002 a shipping forecast area off north-west Spain was named after him.
Although Fitzroy’s parliamentary career as Conservative MP for Durham was a short one, his contributions to debate in the Commons reflected a mastery of the issues facing maritime affairs, and his proposals for an entrance examination for masters of merchant vessels was later incorporated into the 1850 Mercantile Marine Act. His unpredictable and paranoid behaviour, though, was never far from the surface, and the first few months of his time in the Commons was overshadowed by a spat with a former prospective MP for Durham, whom he subsequently assaulted outside the United Service Club in London.
For details of how to obtain access to Robert Fitzroy’s biography on the House of Commons 1832-68 preview website, please see here.