In 1831 Darwin, the Government Naturalist, took passage on the long, long, 5-year voyage in HMS Beagle which was commanded by the autocratic, yet sensitive, Admiral Robert Fitzroy. In 1865 at the end of his career Fitzroy came to live at 140, Church Road, Upper Norwood, where he tragically died by his own hand on the 30th of April. Although in poor health at the time through self-imposed overwork, perhaps it was other frustrating events in his life which led him to this so final and dreadful step. He was buried in our All Saints’ Churchyard on Beulah Hill.
At this time Robert Fitzroy held the appointment of Head of the newly-created Meteorological Service at the Board of Trade. He was 60 years of age and had retired from the Royal Navy after many years’ service. He had held various important appointments at home and also in New Zealand where his compassionate treatment of the Maoris did not stand him in good stead. Adelaide Lubbock gave a very interesting resume of his life in the Autumn 1969 issue of the ‘Norwood Review’.
Also interesting is a letter I have received from Mr. David Stanbury who was Historical Adviser to the television series on Charles Darwin’s voyage. Incidentally, he may well be writing a biography of Fitzroy.
Anyway, he has visited All Saints’ Churchyard and located the Fitzroy grave there. He was shocked at the neglected condition of it and stated that the footstone which bears a meteorological symbol with the initials ‘R.R.’ accompanied by a verse from Ecclesiastes, was erected by Fitzroy’s colleagues in the Met. Service as a token of respect. Mr. Stanbury hopes to persuade present-day members of the Meteorological service to consider restoring or replacing the footstone.
Some years ago strenuous efforts were made by our Society to get Croydon interested. Contact was also made with the Fitzroy family who were grateful to learn of the existence of their distinguished kinsman’s grave: they made enquiries about estimates for restoration. Croydon, however, did not co-operate and nothing was done.
David Stanbury also sent me a copy of a unique document in the form of a letter dated 8th May, 1865, written by Lieutenant Sulivan. This naval officer had served in HMS Beagle during the long voyage and was attached to the Board of Trade at the time of Fitzroy’s death…
My dear Darwin,
I was going to write to you to-day thinking you would like to know that I saw the remains of poor Fitzroy laid in their last resting place on Saturday. I was in Cornwall when I heard of it, having received a letter from him the day before.
Fitzroy wrote to me saying that he was anxious about what he ought to do. We have been urging him here for some time to take a long rest. In his note he said he had been very ill but his wife and a skilful Doctor had under God saved his life. He also remarked on never really feeling the value of blessings and particularly of health until losing them. Though he trusted in his case it was only temporary. This I think shows he had no previous idea of taking away his own life and that it could only have been done through the sudden impulse of insanity.
I cam back Thursday night hoping to be in time for the funeral. I found a note from Mellersh asking me to tell him it was to be but I found no one knew anything it at this Board of Admiralty and I should not have known had not Mrs. Fitzroy’s mother come to his office to lock up his papers and they told me it was early on Saturday at the Norwood Church close to his house, and they had told no one but relatives as they thought under the circumstances it ought to be very private but they were sure it would be gratifying to Mrs. Fitzroy if we were present. A French Naval Officer (Capt. Pigeaid) of the Embassy came to me afterwards to know when it was as he wished to attend on behalf of the Freench Navy as they all thought so highly of him and many had received much kindness from him.
Mellersh came up in time and he and I, Capt Pigeaid and Babbington, Fitzroy’s assistant, were the only strangers. His brother, two of Mrs. Fitzroy’s brothers, …Wood and his brother I think made up the party. It was a very quiet and plain funeral, just what I think all funerals should be. Poor Mrs. Fitzroy would go and the two daughters were with her. We all waited outside and walked after her carriage and the same back, the brothers only going into the house. It was a trying scene at the grave. Poor Mrs. F. and the girls looked dreadfully ill and Mrs. F. gave way very much. The coffin was plain black wood with ‘Robert Fitzroy: born… died… on a brass plate.
You may suppose what a trial it was for me and the thoughts of old times and scenes that would be mixed up with it all. The relatives were much pleased at the French Captain showing such a desire to be present. I have no doubt many would have been there if they had known it, but no answer could be given to numerous letters to the office, only when it was to be, even from detached ports…
A sad letter and a sad affair altogether. Could not the Norwood Society try once more to get Fitzroy’s grave recognised and renovated?*
*It did, successfully - see the 1981 article by Hilda Gilbert!
The Norwood Review Edition #72. Published 1979