Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Fitzroy, Robert

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FITZROY, ROBERT (1805–1865), vice-admiral, hydrographer, and meteorologist, second son by a second marriage of Lord Charles Fitzroy [q. v.], was grandson of Fitzroy, Augustus Henry, third duke of Grafton [q. v.], and on the mother's side of the first Marquis of Londonderry. He was born at Ampton Hall, Suffolk, on 5 July 1805; entered the navy from the Royal Naval College in 1819, and was promoted to the rank of lieutenant on 7 Sept. 1824. After serving in the Mediterranean and on the coast of South America, he was appointed in August 1828 to be flag-lieutenant to Rear-admiral Sir Robert Otway, commander-in-chief on the South American station, and on 13 Nov. 1828 was promoted to the command of the Beagle brig, vacant by the melancholy death of Commander Stokes. The Beagle was at that time, and continued to be, employed on the survey of the coasts of Patagonia, Tierra del Fuego, and more especially of the Straits of Magellan, under the orders of Commander King in the Adventure [see King, Philip Parker]. The two vessels returned to England in the autumn of 1830, and in the following summer Fitzroy was again appointed to the Beagle, to continue the survey of the same coasts. The Beagle sailed from Portsmouth on 27 Dec. 1831, having Charles Robert Darwin [q. v.] on board as naturalist of the expedition. After an absence of nearly five years, and having, in addition to the survey of the Straits of Magellan and a great part of the coast of South America, run a chronometric line round the world, thus approximately fixing the longitude of many secondary meridians, the Beagle returned to England in October 1836. In July 1835 Fitzroy had been advanced to post rank, and his work for the next few years was the reduction and discussion of his numerous observations. In 1837 he was awarded the gold medal of the Royal Geographical Society, and in 1839 he published the ‘Narrative of the Surveying Voyages of H.M. ships Adventure and Beagle between the years 1826 and 1836, describing their Examination of the Southern Shores of South America, and the Beagle's Circumnavigation of the Globe,’ 8vo, 3 vols.; but the third volume is by Charles Darwin. Of Fitzroy's work as a surveyor it is unnecessary now to speak in any detail. Though the means at his disposal were small, the results were both great and satisfactory, and even twelve years later Sir Francis Beaufort, in a report to the House of Commons (10 Feb. 1848), was able to say: ‘From the Equator to Cape Horn, and from thence round to the river Plata on the eastern side of America, all that is immediately wanted has been already achieved by the splendid survey of Captain Robert Fitzroy.’ At the general election in June 1841 Fitzroy was returned to parliament as member for Durham, virtually as a nominee of his uncle, the Marquis of Londonderry. The preceding canvass led to a violent quarrel with a Mr. Sheppard, who agreed to contest the city in the conservative interest in concert with Fitzroy, but afterwards withdrew, without, as Fitzroy thought, giving him proper notice. The quarrel led to a challenge; a meeting was arranged, but Sheppard failed to appear, alleging that his affairs compelled him to go to London. He afterwards assaulted Fitzroy in front of the United Service Club, and was summarily knocked down. The matter was referred to a few naval and military officers of high rank, who decided that, under the circumstances, Fitzroy could not give his opponent a meeting. And so it ended, both Fitzroy and Sheppard publishing pamphlets giving the angry correspondence in full detail (‘Captain Fitzroy's Statement,’ August 1841, 8vo, 82 pp.; ‘The Conduct of Captain Robert Fitzroy …, by William Sheppard, esq.,’ 1842, 8vo, 80 pp.). In September 1842 Fitzroy accepted the post of conservator of the river Mersey, but resigned it early in 1843, on being appointed governor and commander-in-chief of New Zealand. He arrived in his government in December, at a time of great excitement. Questions relating to the purchase of land were then, as for a long time afterwards, the source of much trouble. The settlers conceived their interests to be of paramount importance. Fitzroy held that the aborigines had an equal claim on his care, and said so with more candour than prudence. His sentiments roused the fiercest indignation among men whose near relations had been massacred by the Maoris. His manner, in face of this opposition, was not conciliatory. It was spoken of as arrogant and dictatorial, as savouring more of the quarter-deck than of the council chamber. His financial policy, too, proved unfortunate, and incurred the bitter enmity of the New Zealand Company, which was strongly represented in parliament. The government yielded to the storm, and superseded him in November 1845.

In September 1848 he was appointed superintendent of the dockyard at Woolwich, and in March 1849 to the command of the Arrogant, a screw frigate, which had been fitted out under his own supervision, and in which he was desired to carry out a series of trials. In 1850 he retired from active service, though in course of seniority he became rear-admiral in 1857 and vice-admiral in 1863. In 1851 he was elected a fellow of the Royal Society, and in 1854, after serving for a few months as private secretary to his uncle, Lord Hardinge—then commander-in-chief of the army—he was, at the suggestion of the president of the Royal Society, appointed to be chief of the meteorological department of the board of trade. His reputation as a practical meteorologist already stood high, and it is by his more popular work in this office that his name is now best known. A cheap and serviceable barometer, constructed on a plan suggested by him, is still commonly called ‘the Fitzroy barometer,’ and his ‘Weather Book,’ published in 1863, inaugurated a distinct advance in the study of the science. He instituted, for the first time, a system of storm warnings, which have been gradually developed into the present daily forecasts; and by his constant labours in connection with the work of the office, and as secretary of the Lifeboat Association, built up a strong claim to the gratitude of all seafaring men. The toil proved too much for a temperament naturally excitable, and a constitution already tried by the severe and anxious service in the Straits of Magellan. He refused to take the prescribed rest, and under the continued strain his mind gave way, and he committed suicide 30 April 1865. He married, in December 1836, Mary Henrietta, daughter of Major-general Edward James O'Brien, by whom he had several children. His eldest son, Robert O'Brien Fitzroy, is at the present time (1888) a captain in the navy and a C.B.

Besides the works already named, he published:

  1. ‘Remarks on New Zealand,’ 1846.
  2. ‘Sailing Directions for South America,’ 1848.
  3. ‘Barometer and Weather Guide,’ 1858.
  4. ‘Passage Table and General Sailing Directions,’ 1859.
  5. ‘Barometer Manual,’ 1861.

He was also the author of official reports to the board of trade (1857–65), of occasional papers in the ‘Journal of the Royal Geographical Society’—of which society he was for several years a member of council—and in the ‘Journal of the Royal United Service Institution.’

[O'Byrne's Nav. Biog. Dict.; Journal of the Royal Geogr. Soc. vol. xxxv. p. cxxviii; A. S. Thomson's Story of New Zealand, ii. 82; E. J. Wakefield's Adventure in New Zealand, ii. 504; Report from the Select Committee on New Zealand, 29 July 1844 (Parliamentary Papers, 1844, xiii.); Parliamentary Debates, 3rd ser. (11 March 1845), lxxviii. col. 644, and (5 May 1845) lxxx. cols. 172, 183.]

J. K. L.