7 February 2012

The Dickens Connection

Today marks the 200th anniversary of the birth of Charles Dickens. On days such as these, it has become something of a tradition to write a blog post linking the subject of the anniversary in question with the theme of the blog—no matter how tenuous the link. Charles Dickens and HMS Beagle? That's quite a tall order. All right, I'm game…

The link between Charles Dickens and HMS Beagle goes back to October, 1859. This happened to be one month before the publication of former Beagle occupant Charles Darwin's On the Origin of Species, but this story has nothing to do with Charles Darwin.

On the 25th and 26th October, 1859, a mighty storm passed along the west coast of Britain, from the English Channel, around Wales, across Liverpool Bay, and on up to Scotland. It is believed to have been the most severe storm to hit Britain in the entire Nineteenth Century, reaching force 12, hurricane force, on the Beaufort Scale. (Yes, there are numerous connections between Sir Francis Beaufort, inventor of the eponymous scale, and HMS Beagle, but this story is not about him either.)

The great storm of 1859 was responsible for the loss of around 800 lives, and the wrecking of 133 ships. Over half the lives lost, thought to have been around 459, resulted from the loss of a single ship, The Royal Charter, a steam clipper en route to Liverpool from Melbourne. Many of her passengers were returning rich from the gold fields of Australia. Having tried and failed to take on board a Liverpool pilot, the ship's captain, Thomas Taylor, decided to try to weather the storm by dropping anchor off the east coast of the Isle of Anglesey. But, early in the morning of 26th October, first one and then the other of the ship's anchor chains snapped. The Royal Charter was driven on to rocks just north of the fishing village of Moelfre, and broke apart. Only 39 crew and passengers managed to struggle ashore. The rest either drowned or were dashed against the rocks.

The Wrecking of the Royal Charter
The Wrecking of the Royal Charter [Wikipedia].



Two months after the dreadful wreck, Charles Dickens visited Moelfre to report on the aftermath for the new journal he had founded earlier that year, All Year Round. His moving report, The Shipwreck, was later included in his collection The Uncommercial Traveller. In the piece, Dickens describes visiting the scene of the wreck:

Even as I stood on the beach with the words ‘Here she went down!’ in my ears, a diver in his grotesque dress, dipped heavily over the side of the boat alongside the Lighter, and dropped to the bottom. On the shore by the water's edge, was a rough tent, made of fragments of wreck, where other divers and workmen sheltered themselves, and where they had kept Christmas-day with rum and roast beef, to the destruction of their frail chimney. Cast up among the stones and boulders of the beach, were great spars of the lost vessel, and masses of iron twisted by the fury of the sea into the strangest forms. The timber was already bleached and iron rusted, and even these objects did no violence to the prevailing air the whole scene wore, of having been exactly the same for years and years.

Yet, only two short months had gone, since a man, living on the nearest hill-top overlooking the sea, being blown out of bed at about daybreak by the wind that had begun to strip his roof off, and getting upon a ladder with his nearest neighbour to construct some temporary device for keeping his house over his head, saw from the ladder's elevation as he looked down by chance towards the shore, some dark troubled object close in with the land. And he and the other, descending to the beach, and finding the sea mercilessly beating over a great broken ship, had clambered up the stony ways, like staircases without stairs, on which the wild village hangs in little clusters, as fruit hangs on boughs, and had given the alarm. And so, over the hill-slopes, and past the waterfall, and down the gullies where the land drains off into the ocean, the scattered quarrymen and fishermen inhabiting that part of Wales had come running to the dismal sight—their clergyman among them. And as they stood in the leaden morning, stricken with pity, leaning hard against the wind, their breath and vision often failing as the sleet and spray rushed at them from the ever forming and dissolving mountains of sea, and as the wool which was a part of the vessel's cargo blew in with the salt foam and remained upon the land when the foam melted, they saw the ship's life-boat put off from one of the heaps of wreck; and first, there were three men in her, and in a moment she capsized, and there were but two; and again, she was struck by a vast mass of water, and there was but one; and again, she was thrown bottom upward, and that one, with his arm struck through the broken planks and waving as if for the help that could never reach him, went down into the deep.


Dickens goes on to describe how the recovered bodies of the deceased, which washed up along the shore over several weeks, were taken to a nearby chapel and cared for by the local clergyman. His piece ends with moving extracts of letters to the clergyman from the recently bereaved: a real Dickensian tear-jerker,

It is at this point that the link with HMS Beagle enters the story in the shape of her former Captain, now Admiral, Robert FitzRoy, head of the nascent Meteorological Office. FitzRoy's prime responsibility in his new role was to provide statistical data about the weather. But, being a former seaman, and convinced by the usefulness of barometric measurements for predicting changes in weather, FitzRoy's hidden agenda was to provide advance warnings to ships of impending storms. In other words, FitzRoy wanted to forecast the weather. Such an undertaking seemed preposterous to many, and FitzRoy, not for the first time, stretched his terms of reference to breaking point at times to pursue his goal, but the terrible results of The Royal Charter Storm, as the storm came to be known, provided the political impetus FitzRoy needed to develop his weather forecasts further.

The foibles of the British weather mean that, even in this age of supercomputers and satellites, providing accurate weather forecasts can still occasionally be problematical. FitzRoy never really stood a chance, and the inaccuracy of his weather forecasts, which began to appear in The Times newspaper in 1861, became something of a national joke. Indeed, the ridicule FitzRoy received, it has been suggested, might have been one of the contributing factors to his eventual suicide in 1865.

FitzRoy was, in many respects, ahead of his time. But his pioneering work, recognising the potential of weather forecasts to help prevent further disasters like the wrecking of The Royal Charter was rightly celebrated in 2002 with the renaming of the shipping area Finisterre in his honour.

Site of the wreck of The Royal Charter
Site of the wreck of The Royal Charter
[cc. Richard Carter]

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