My posts are usually random and unconnected, but this time I find myself unable to move on. This post remembers a woman who, like Susannah Darwin, died before her children had grown up and explores the effect this might have had on the youngest of her two sons. Her name is Frances, (1777-1810) the mother of Robert Fitzroy, captain of HMS Beagle. Frances died aged 33 when Robert was 5 years old.
Frances was the daughter of the Marquis of Londonderry, and the half-sister of Lord Castlereagh, foreign minister and leader of the House of Commons from 1812 -1822. I can’t tell you anything more about her, i can find no portrait, no letters, no memories. You’ll just have to imagine this aristocratic young woman married to Lord Grafton, a descendant of Charles II, who lived at Wakefield Lodge, an imposing Palladian house with a large park; see https://www.parksandgardens.org/places/wakefield-lodge
When he was 12 years old Robert was sent to the Royal Naval College at Portsmouth where he was a brilliant student. He was only 26 when, as Captain of HMS Beagle, he set sail with a commission to survey the coasts of South America.
Fitzroy knew there was mental instability in his family, his uncle Lord Castlereagh had become insane and committed suicide when his political actions were fiercely attacked. The last Captain of the Beagle had also committed suicide and Fitzroy looked for a companion to help to relieve the loneliness and strain of being Captain during a long voyage; Darwin was a good choice as he was pleasant and easy going and he admired Fitzroy’s brilliance, his dedication to the surveys and to the welfare of his crew. Mostly the two young men got on well, though Fitzroy had outbursts of temper and suffered from bouts of depression.
On his return Fitzroy got married, he and his wife had 4 children. He wrote an account of the voyage and was awarded a Gold Medal by the Royal Geographical Society for his surveying work. In 1853 he was appointed Governor of New Zealand. This wasn’t a success, the posting needed a diplomatic person to sort out land disputes between the Maori and the settlers and Fitzroy was forceful and autocratic, and he even made the mistake of thinking that the rights of the Maori should be respected. He was recalled.
His next major venture was as meteorological statist to the Board of Trade. He began collecting data on the weather from ships and ports, and pioneering the science of weather forecasting. He aim was to save lives by predicting storms.
In 1862 he gave a talk on British storms to the British Association for the Advancement of Science, when he also attended a debate on Darwin’s work. At this stormy meeting people traded insults and Fitzroy, an ardent Christian and creationist, stood up and waved a large Bible. Fitzroy was distressed to know that it was though his agency that Darwin had come to have heretical ideas that opposed the Biblical account of creation.
Fitzroy’s worked tirelessly at forecasting, using the recent invention of the telegraph to receive and collate the data more quickly, but accurate forecasts are still impossible and his mistakes were mocked. Exhausted, dissapointed and depressed, Fitzroy committed suicide in 1865 when he was 59.
Fitzroy’s name has been just a footnote to Darwin’s work, but he deserves much more fame on his own account, his pioneering science of weather forecasting has saved many lives. To most people though, if they’ve heard of him at all, he’s just a name on the shipping forecast.
Frances is long forgotten, but I like to think that maybe the unremembered loss of his mother’s life was part of the reason why Fitzroy worked so hard to save lives.
FOR FRANCES Frances had faded into the distance before the early mists had cleared. He wouldn’t find her when he scanned the night sky or studied the position of heavenly bodies on astronomical charts. He didn’t hear her pulse beat in the twenty-two chronometers he carried on the Beagle, or see her face glow in phosphorescent seas. She never appeared in his precise cartography of the coasts of Patagonia or Tierra del Fuego , but her blood surged through his sudden storms and flooded into his quiet havens. He didn’t hear her speak when he deliberated on the justice of the Maoris’ cause or the wickedness of denying the Bible. He heard no echo of her voice on the telegraph lines that fed him the data for weather forecasts. When his calculations failed to make sense of chaos and his storm warnings fell into a mocking abyss he found himself alone at the end of the earth. His name drifted in the wake of his legendary voyage but in the end Finisterre made way for him. Now his name is recited daily in the litanies of rainfall and wind speed, storms and mists that save us from the perils of the sea. Anne Bryan