The Norwood Society

FitzRoy Of The Beagle

The once renowned Admiral FitzRoy lived during the latter part of his life in Upper Norwood, at ‘Lyndhurst House’, now 140 Church Road. The house still stands on the corner of the drive leading to ‘Homelands’ old people’s home*, and the new housing estate being built, as I write, on the site of the mysteriously named mansion, ‘Ly-ee-Moon’, which was demolished some years ago. ‘Lyndhurst’ is a modest, semi detached Victorian villa and it seems odd that FitzRoy, whose address is given as Onslow Square, Kensington, up to the date of his death, should have rented accommodation so far out of town, and lived in such reduced style. However, he suffered from increasing melancholia for some time before he died, and it may have been for this reason that he sought the unpolluted air and quiet, if unfashionable, surroundings of Upper Norwood.

Robert FitzRoy was born in 1805. His grandfather was the third Duke of Grafton, the first Duke having been the son of Charles II by Barbara Villiers. For this reason the family always used to spell their name ‘FitzRoy’, the prefix ‘Fitz’ (derived from the Norman ‘Fils’ meaning ‘son of’) having been revived by Charles II as a surname for his illegitimate offspring. Robert’s uncle was the famous Tory statesman, Lord Castlereagh, who cut his throat with a penknife, overwork and depression having combined to unsettle his mind. At the age of 12, Robert entered the Royal Naval College at Portsmouth, and two years later he went to sea to complete his naval training, which was to last two more years. In 1828 he took command of H.M.S. Beagle, whose captain had committed suicide while engaged with H.M.S. Adventure in surveying the southernmost tip of South America.

FitzRoy’s orders were to examine the bleak and serrated coastline of Tierra del Fuego and the hitherto unexplored westerly reaches of the Magellan Strait: a highly difficult and dangerous task which he accomplished with surprisingly little loss of life either from disease, disaster, or attack by native tribes. The white men viewed the South American Indians with revulsion and distrust, particularly the Fuegians, owing to their primitive habits and treacherous behaviour. But FitzRoy only pitied them for their ignorance and tried to improve their lot. Having completed the survey, the Beagle sailed for England with four Fuegians on board, whom FitzRoy, imbued with philanthropic intentions, had decided to educate at his own expense and, in due course, repatriate to their native land in the hope that they would prove a civilising influence on their compatriots. The captives were name ‘York Minster’, ‘Boat Memory’, ‘Jemmy Button’ and ‘Fuega Basket’. The last two were a small boy and girl respectively. Boat Memory died of smallpox in England, but the others were eventually returned to Tierra del Fuego by FitzRoy in the Beagle in 1833. His well meant experiment unfortunately resulted in failure, as his proteges soon reverted to their barbarous ways on regaining their homeland.

FitzRoy’s name will always be associated with Charles Darwin, who accompanied the Beagle as naturalist on her surveying voyages from 1831 to 1836. During this time Darwin made the observations leading him to propound his theory of the origin of species, which revolutionised contemporary scientific thought and rocked the Christian world. It is ironical that FitzRoy, who held rigid views on the literal interpretation of the Bible, should have taken Darwin on his voyages, thus helping to shape Darwin’s revolutionary theory, which was anathema to FitzRoy. ‘FitzRoy’s character was a singular one…’ Darwin recalled. ‘He was devoted to duty, generous to a fault, bold, determined, indomitably energetic, and an ardent friend to all under his sway.’

But he added, ‘FitzRoy’s temper was an unfortunate one.’ He had ‘fits of passion which alternated with long continued periods of moroseness against those who had offended him’; and on occasions his behaviour was so unreasonable that it seemed to Darwin to be bordering on insanity.

The Beagle returned home in October, 1836 and shortly afterwards both FitzRoy and Darwin married. FitzRoy was highly praised for his work by the Admiralty, but their Lordships did not offer him another ship. He occupied himself with completing his charts and reports, compiling his Sailing Directions, and writing his narrative of the voyages of the Adventure and the Beagle, which was published in 1839. FitzRoy entered politics in 1841 through the influence of his uncle, Lord Londonderry. As a distinguished naval officer, a philanthropist, and an ardent Tory, FitzRoy was welcomed by Peel’s ‘Progressive’ administration. But in spite of these qualifications, FitzRoy’s unpredictable tempers and quarterdeck manner made him many enemies. In 1843 FitzRoy was appointed Governor of the recently created colony of New Zealand. From the beginning he was faced with all but insuperable difficulties. The colony was on the verge of bankruptcy; the settlers were flouting the Governor’s authority; and the warlike Maoris were resisting the white man’s domination with increasing violence. FitzRoy was unable to remedy either the financial straits of the colony or restore law and order. He jeopardised his standing both with the settlers and the Home Government by treating the Maoris with compassion and refusing to hang them for murdering the white intruders. He was recalled in 1845, his reputation temporarily under a cloud.

But high connections and influence in those days were powerful aids to advancement. With these cards in his hand, and his undoubted repute as a naval commander, FitzRoy’s fortunes soon prospered again. He was appointed Superintendent of the Woolwich Dockyard in 1848, and two years later he left the Navy on halfpay. The following year he was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society, and this was to lead to his appointment by the Board of Trade as Head of the first National Meteorological Service: a position he held until his death. During this time he invented the ‘FitzRoy Barometer’, and he published his ‘Weather Book’ a practical guide to weather recording and forecasting, which had never before been attempted until FitzRoy’s scientific study of the subject. He had in mind the fishermen along the coasts of Britain and elsewhere, who suffered from the unpredicted storm. Many of these men were equipped with ‘FitzRoy’ barometers, complete with simple instructions on their use, and copies of the Weather Book. FitzRoy was helped in this project by private subscriptions, donations from the recently formed British and Scottish Meteorological Societies, and by the Lifeboat Institution on whose Committee he had been coopted as a very active member. He reached the rank of Vice-Admiral in 1863 and by now was a person of considerable note in scientific circles.

But, despite these successes, FitzRoy became increasingly moody and despondent. The publication of Darwin’s ‘Origin of Species’ in 1859 shocked him profoundly, and its attack on his fundamental religious principles weighted heavily on his already disturbed mind. He sought relief from mental turmoil in obsessive overwork, although his wife wrote in April, 1865 that ‘the doctors unite in prescribing total rest and entire absence from his office for a time.’ The parallel between his own and Castlereagh’s temperament haunted him and increased Mrs. FitzRoy’s anxiety for her husband’s health. These fears proved to be only too well founded. On the morning of April 30, 1865, FitzRoy cut his throat with a razor in the dressing room of his Norwood house. He is buried in All Saints’ Churchyard.The story of his life, so bravely begun and so tragically ended, is probably unknown to the present day inhabitants of ‘Lyndhurst House’, and to many of those now living in the gay little modern homes springing up almost overnight around the once rural site of the last home of FitzRoy of the Beagle.

Note: FitzRoy’s house now bears a blue plaque

*Now (2008) receiving attention from developers.

Published Adelaide Lubbock 1969

The Norwood Review Edition #38.