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Safety networks: fishery barometers and the outsourcing of judgement at the early Meteorological Department

  • SARAH DRY (a1)


In 1854 Admiral FitzRoy, acting as the first head of the Meteorological Department of the Board of Trade, initiated a project to distribute fishery barometers to poor fishing communities. Over the next eleven years until his untimely death in 1865, FitzRoy oversaw the distribution of dozens of barometers. The distribution continued after his death and many of the original barometers are still in place. FitzRoy's tenure at the Met Department is today remembered for his innovative and controversial development of weather forecasts, the first of their kind in Britain, which were telegraphed to coastal towns to warn of impending storms. Against the backdrop of this dramatic attempt to predict the weather using the tools of telegraphy and synoptic mapping, the barometer distribution project looks like an unexceptional piece of administration, a routine shuttling of correspondence and instruments. Closer inspection reveals a case study in Victorian governance that shows how individuals could contribute to elite forms of science by remaining independent of them in key respects. Rather than providing disciplined and trustworthy registrations of nature's language, the fishery barometers distributed by FitzRoy and the Met Department were explicitly excluded from the wider project to map British and global weather. By being thus excluded, they helped augment the autonomy of their intended users, the poor fishermen who were thereby made into better, more independent, interpreters of the Met Office forecasts. By revealing the potential for an instrument to be useful when not registering, this episode suggests that instruments could augment as well as replace the autonomous judgements of individuals.



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1 Parliament sanctioned a vote of £3,200 to the Board of Trade and £1,000 for the Admiralty to establish a ‘uniform system of meteorological observations at sea’ in order to help determine the ‘very best tracks for ships to follow in order to make the quickest as well as safest passages’. Letter from James Booth, Committee of Privy Council for Trade, September 1854, in ‘Report of the Met Department for 1857’, Parliamentary Papers (henceforth PP) 1857 XX, 283–372. These annual grants would remain unchanged for the first five years of the office.

2 See Public Record Office, National Archives, Kew (henceforth PRO) BJ 7/4 iv for the letter from the Earl of Rosse and PRO BJ 7/4 v for replies from five foreign meteorologists: Adolphe Quételet, Matthew Fontaine Maury, Erman (of Berlin), Kreil (of Durazzo, Albania) and Heis (of Münster, Westphalia).

3 Royal Society letter from Earl of Rosse, 19 June 1854, PRO BJ 7/4 iv.

4 From a Royal Society letter of 22 February 1855, published as Appendix 2 in ‘Report of a Committee appointed to consider questions relating to the Meteorological Department of the Board of Trade’, PP1866 XLV, vii.

5 See G. L'E. Turner (ed.), The Patronage of Science in the Nineteenth Century, Leyden, 1976; M. Boas Hall, All Scientists Now: The Royal Society in the Nineteenth Century, Cambridge, 1984.

6 W. Whewell, History of the Inductive Sciences from the Earliest to the Present Time, 3rd edn, Vol. 1, London, 1857.

7 The literature on Victorian government is large. The foundational article of the post-war era is MacDonagh, O., ‘The nineteenth-century revolution in government: a reappraisal’, Historical Journal (1958), 2, 5267. For a review of the extensive literature this article spawned see P. Mandler, ‘Introduction: state and society in Victorian Britain’, in Liberty and Authority in Victorian Britain (ed. P. Mandler), Cambridge, 2006, 1–21, 6–13; and R. MacLeod (ed.), Government and Expertise: Specialists, Administrators and Professionals 1860–1919, Cambridge, 1988, 1–26. Liberty and Authority in Victorian Britain is a collection that typifies the Foucauldian approach.

8 F. Turner, Contesting Cultural Authority: Essays in Victorian Intellectual Life, Cambridge, 1993.

9 Cooter, R. and Pumphrey, S., ‘Separate spheres and public places: reflections on the history of science popularization and science in popular culture’, History of Science (1994), 32, 237–67, 252.

10 See Turner, op. cit. (5); and MacLeod, op. cit. (7).

11 On the Northcote–Trevelyan reforms see J. Agar, The Government Machine: A Revolutionary History of the Computer, Cambridge, MA, 2003, 45–74; Clark, G. K., ‘“Statesmen in disguise”: reflections on the history of the neutrality of the Civil Service’, Historical Journal (1959), 2, 1939; and E. Cohen, The Growth of the British Civil Service, 1780–1939, London, 1941.

12 Airy to Cardwell, 11 November 1853, PRO BJ 7/114.

13 Washington to FitzRoy, 15 April 1858, PRO BJ 7/216; underlining in original.

14 See, for example, ‘Notes of Admiralty and Board of Trade barometers sent out of and to places in London’, 1 July 1857, PRO BJ 7/370; and ‘Extensive correspondence of Capt Sulivan of HMS Merlin with Fitzroy, Washington, and Patrick Adie on broken barometer’, 20–6 February 1856, PRO BJ 7/182. Barometers were broken in transit as well as on board ship. John Washington, hydrographer to the Navy, mentioned a breakage rate of twenty-one per cent in a 12 May 1858 letter to FitzRoy, PRO BJ 7/217.

15 FitzRoy's ‘copy of specification’ in form of a letter to Negretti & Zambra, re: supply of land barometers, 9 December 1857, PRO BJ 7/615; underlining in original.

16 Notes on provision of barometers to poor local fishing towns that otherwise could not afford them, draft of a letter from FitzRoy to Farrer, undated, PRO BJ 7/19. On Farrer see T. H. Farrer, DNB.

17 Negretti & Zambra, A Treatise on Meteorological Instruments: Explanatory of Their Scientific Principles, Method of Construction, and Practical Utility, London, 1864.

18 R. FitzRoy, Barometer and Weather Guide, London, 1858.

19 FitzRoy, op. cit. (15).

20 For indirect evidence, see FitzRoy minute to Farrer, further to Lord Stanley's approval in principle of the proposal to aid fisheries with weather-glasses, 28–9 January 1858, PRO BJ 7/616.

21 Burton, T., ‘Robert FitzRoy and the early history of the Meteorological Office’, BJHS (1986), 19, 147–76.

22 FitzRoy to Primrose, 16 February 1858, PRO BJ 7/617.

23 Primrose to FitzRoy enclosing returns, 29 March 1858, PRO BJ 7/618.

24 Barometer return from Eyemouth, PRO BJ 7/622.

25 Fitzroy, op. cit. (15).

26 For debates over religious and scientific authority on board ships, see Winter, A., ‘“Compasses all awry”: the iron ship and the ambiguities of cultural authority in Victorian Britain’, Victorian Studies (1994), 38, 6998; and Smith, C., Higginson, I. and Wolstenholme, P., ‘“Imitations of God's own works”: making trustworthy the ocean steamship’, History of Science (2003), 41, 379426. For a book-length study of how authority and trust for steam and telegraph technologies was established, see B. Marsden and C. Smith, Engineering Empires: A Cultural History of Technology in Nineteenth-Century Britain, Basingstoke, 2005.

27 FitzRoy, op. cit. (15); underlining in original.

28 Extracts from Fraserburgh fishery officer's letter to Primrose, 1 July 1858, and extract from Leith fisheries officer's letter, ‘Primrose report on the distribution and location of first eight barometers and manuals, including letters of thanks from fisheries’, 28 June 1858, PRO BJ 7/647.

29 Walker to Farrer, 2 June 1858, PRO BJ 7/644.

30 Primrose to FitzRoy, 19 July 1858, PRO BJ 7/645.

31 On the significance of such varied forms of weather wisdom see K. Anderson, Predicting the Weather: Victorians and the Science of Meteorology, Chicago, 2005, 41–82.

32 Walker to FitzRoy, 7 July 1858, PRO BJ 7/659.

33 Petition from Burghead, 2 December 1862, PRO BJ 7/651.

34 Brambles to Secretary, Marine Department Board of Trade, 5 January 1859, PRO BJ 7/662.

35 Petition, signed by twelve men, sent to FitzRoy, 29 November 1861, PRO BJ 7/664.

36 Request for barometers from Budleigh Salterton, undated, PRO BJ 7/663; underlining in original.

37 Gates to FitzRoy, 20 October 1863, PRO BJ 7/660.

38 Barometers for Cawsand Bay, William Walker to FitzRoy, 12 August 1858, PRO BJ 7/665.

39 FitzRoy to H. R. Williams, Esq., accountant, 6 August 1858, PRO BJ 7/17; underlining in original.

40 Barometers for Cawsand Bay, Walker to FitzRoy, 17 August 1858, PRO BJ 7/665; underlining in original.

41 Barometers for Beadnell, 12 July 1858, PRO BJ 7/659 f3.

42 Barometers for Beadnell, Board of Trade Marine Department Minute Paper, undated (July 1858), PRO BJ 7/659 f5. Edgar Alfred Bowring (1826–1911), the son of Sir John Bowring (Jeremy Bentham's literary executor and later governor of Hong Kong) served as librarian and registrar at the Board of Trade from 1848 to 1863 and was secretary to the Royal Commissioner of the Exhibition of 1851. He kept a journal in which he recorded daily weather observations. See Edgar Bowring journal (1841–57), 14 vols., William Perkins Library, Duke University.

43 Barometers for Beadnell, Board of Trade Marine Department Minute Paper, undated (July 1858), PRO BJ 7/659 f5.

44 For number of wrecks caused by Royal Charter gale see ‘Abstract Returns of Wrecks and Casualties on Coasts of United Kingdom, 1859’, PP1860, LX, 501. Of the 223 wrecks, 133 were total wrecks and ninety were casualties that resulted in serious damage and loss of life.

45 FitzRoy to Washington, 23 December 1859, HO Misc 29 f15.

46 FitzRoy to Washington, 15 December 1859, Hydrographic Office Archives, Taunton (henceforth HO) MLP 29 f14.

47 ‘Report of a Committee Appointed to Consider Questions Relating to the Meteorological Department of the Board of Trade’, PP1866 LXV, 18; correspondence between Airy and FitzRoy, 6–9 June 1860, Royal Greenwich Observatory Archives, Cambridge University Library, 6/702/19/230.

48 ‘Report of a Committee Appointed to Consider Questions Relating to the Meteorological Department of the Board of Trade’, PP1866 LXV, 18–19. On Le Verrier's weather forecasting system see F. Locher, ‘Le Nombre et le temps: La Météorology en France (1830–1880)’ (EHESS Ph.D. dissertation, 2004).

49 On forecasting see Burton, op. cit. (21), 161–4; and Anderson op. cit. (31), 110–15.

50 R. FitzRoy, The Weather-Book: A Manual of Practical Meteorology, London, 1863, 194.

51 FitzRoy, op. cit. (50), 218.

52 The Times, 13 February 1861, 8–9.

53 FitzRoy correlated changes in pressure indicated by barometrical observations with the movements of two postulated contrary currents of air, one warm and moist from the south or southwest, the other cold and dry from the north or northeast, based on Heinrich Dove's theory of rotatory storms. FitzRoy's internal verification of the forecasts consisted of a list of warnings used, observations made at coastal stations and an informal collection of extracts on weather from local newspapers. An external committee set up to monitor the forecasts reported to Parliament in 1864. See ‘Tables of observations by Board of Trade for recording Actual Weather Corresponding to Admiral FitzRoy's Daily Forecasts and Warning Signals’, PP1864 LV, 341.

54 On the response of astro-meteorologists and the Royal Society to FitzRoy's weather forecasts see Anderson, op. cit. (31), 83–131. On laughter in Parliament see Burton, op. cit. (21), 151.

55 On the claims made by scientific naturalists for authority see Turner, op. cit. (5). On meteorology in particular as a feature of the contest for cultural authority see Anderson, op. cit. (31), 285.

56 ‘Report of a Committee Appointed to Consider Questions Relating to the Meteorological Department of the Board of Trade’, PP1866 LXV, 20.

57 FitzRoy to John Street Adelphi, secretary of National Lifeboat Institution, 14 January 1861, PRO BJ 9/8.

58 Request for barometer for Filey, Yorks, February 1858, PRO BJ 7/670.

59 ‘Report of the Meteorological Office of the Board of Trade for 1863’, PP1863 LXIII, 27.

60 ‘Report of the Meteorological Department of the Board of Trade’, PP1864 LV, 125; ‘Report of the Meteorological Office of the Board of Trade for 1863’, PP1863 LXIII, appendix 2.

61 ‘Barometers for Life-Boat Stations’, Lifeboat, 1 October 1860, 336.

62 Buchan, A., ‘Third report on the relations of the herring fishery to meteorology’, Journal of the Scottish Meteorological Society (1879), 5, 240–51; M. Deacon, ‘Some 19th-century research on weather and fisheries: the work of the Scottish meteorological society’, in British Marine Science and Meteorology: The History of their Development and Application to Marine Fishing Problems, Buckland occasional Papers No. 2, Buckland Foundation, 1996, 117–32; and ‘Report of the Meteorological Department of the Board of Trade’, PP1864 LV, 125.

63 Rear-Admiral Fitz-Roy, ‘Weather reports and forecasts in the daily newspapers’, Lifeboat, 1 October 1862, 147.

64 Fitz-Roy, op. cit. (63), 148.

65 J. Glaisher, ‘On the variations of the reading of the barometer and the weather in the months of September, October and November, 1865’, Lifeboat, 1 January 1866, 14.

66 J. Glaisher, ‘On the connection between the recent gales of wind and the readings of the barometer’, Lifeboat, 1 January 1864, 355.

67 ‘Kingsdown House, near Dover, March 23rd, 1863’, ‘Report of the Meteorological Office of the Board of Trade, 1863’, PP1863 LXIII, 65.

68 S. Schaffer, ‘Late Victorian metrology and its instrumentation: “a manufactory of Ohms”’, in Invisible Connexions: Instruments, Institutions and Science (ed. R. Bud and S. Cozzens), Bellingham, WA, 1992, 23–56; S. Schaffer ‘Accurate measurement is an English science’, in The Values of Precision (ed. M. N. Wise), Princeton, 1995, 135–72.

69 Winter, op. cit. (26).

70 Winter, op. cit. (26).

71 ‘Report of a Committee Appointed to Consider Questions Relating to the Meteorological Department of the Board of Trade’, PP1866 LXV, 20.

72 Burton op. cit. (21), 173; and ‘Return of Establishment and Cost of Meteorological Department of Board of Trade, 1862–66’, PP1867 LXIII, 497–512. The Met Office was run by the meteorological committee of the Royal Society until 1877 when it was renamed a meteorological council, with similar responsibilities. See Anderson, op. cit. (31), 144.

73 ‘Return of Establishment and Cost’, op. cit. (72), 68–70.

74 ‘Return of Establishment and Cost’, op. cit. (72), 68–70.

75 ‘Report of the Meteorological Committee of the Royal Society for 1867’, PP1867-–68 LXIII, 297; original emphasis.

76 ‘Report of the Met Committee to the Royal Society on work done in the Met Office since their appointment, 1866 to 1875’, Proceedings of the Royal Society (1875–6), 24, 189–210, 202–3.

77 Dorson, R., ‘The great team of English folklorists’, Journal of American Folklore (1951), 64, 110; Gregor, W., ‘Some folk-lore of the sea’, Folk-Lore Journal (1885), 3, 52–6.

78 Dickson, H., ‘Weather folk-lore of Scottish fishermen’, Journal of the Scottish Meteorological Society (1889), 8, 349–55, 349–50.

79 Dickson, op. cit. (78), 351; original emphasis.

80 Dickson, op. cit. (78), 353.

81 Dickson, op. cit. (78), 355.

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Safety networks: fishery barometers and the outsourcing of judgement at the early Meteorological Department

  • SARAH DRY (a1)


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