Navan’s most famous son

No Navan man has had an impact on the world stage like Francis Beaufort. A noted surveyor and hydrographer, he is best known for devising the Beaufort Wind Scale.

Like many people I was aware of the Beaufort Wind Scale long before I read that its developer was from my home town. It is only in recent times that Navan’s greatest son received some visible recognition in his native town, with Beaufort Mall in the Shopping Centre and a housing development close to his birthplace called Beaufort Place.

Sadly his home with its beautiful garden have fallen foul of progress. However, a commemorative plaque was unveiled in the early 1990’s adjacent to his home in the grounds of St. Ultan’s School.
Francis Beaufort was born at the family home at the top of Flower Hill on May 27, 1774, the third of seven children born to Daniel and Mary Beaufort, one of whom died in infancy and another as a teenager.

Had he been born he few years later, the people of Mountrath in Co. Laois would be hailing him as their greatest son. His family later settled in Collon Co. Louth.

Apart from being the local Church of Ireland rector, the Reverend Daniel Beaufort was a man of considerable talents and many interests, but hopeless with money.

When Francis was two the family moved to his father’s other parish of Mountrath, Co. Laois. However, he saw little of his father who continued commuting to Navan, while also managing two farms as well as working as a magistrate.

Daniel Beaufort excelled as a topographer and in 1792 published the Grand Topography of Ireland one of the earliest collection of detailed maps of the country.

When Francis was just five the family were on the move again, this time to South Wales after his father conceived a scheme to wipe out the family’s debts. Within five years the family were back in Ireland, settling in Dublin thanks to funds provided by Mary’s brother Waller.

A nomadic existence was not unusual for the Beauforts. Their line can be traced back to Francois de Beaufort, a survivor of the anti-Huguenot massacre of St. Bartholomew in 1572, who fled the Champagne region to settle near Sedan in northern France.

A century later and four generations down the line, another Francois de Beaufort, Francis’s great-grandfather, sought refuge in Westphalia in what is now Germany. His seventh child Daniel Cornelis de Beaufort was born in 1700.

After serving time in the Prussian Army he embarked on a career in the Church. Upon his ordination he moved to east London to minister to the Huguenot community in Spitalfields. His only son Daniel Augustus was born a decade later in 1739.

Daniel Cornelius Beaufort anglicized his name and was admitted into the Church of England on becoming a British citizen in 1742. He was befriended by William Stanhope, Earl of Harrington who in 1746 was appointed Viceroy of Ireland.

Francis grandfather followed his patron to Ireland where he expected to be given an elevated position within the Church and not the benefice of Navan. In 1765 he was succeeded by Daniel Augustus.
There was nothing in the Beaufort family to suggest a career at sea. His interest in matters maritime seems can traced back to marriage of aunt Leonora Waller to Captain Robert Mayne when Francis was just five years old.

From then on young Beaufort was set on a career at sea. When his family returned to Dublin in 1784, Francis was enrolled at the Master Bates Military and Marine Academy. The three years spent there were to be his only formal education.

Later he studied under Dr. Henry Ussher, first Professor of Astronomy at Trinity College. Rather than enlist in the Royal Navy, he joined the East India Company and by the time he set sail on the Vansittart from Gravesend on a voyage to China in March 1789, just two months short of his 15th Birthday he was an accomplished navigator.

The Vansittart was shipwrecked later that year and rather than wait for up to two years to find a position on new ship, Francis joined the Royal Navy where he enjoyed an illustrious career and rose to the rank of commander within a decade.

He was seriously injured during the Napoleonic Wars and spent a long time convalescing in Portugal before returning to London with his career in the Navy in jeopardy to be awarded a pension and half-pay as a Commander in the Royal Navy.

By now his family were resident at Glebe Farm, Collon, Co. Louth where his father was now rector and in early 1802, Francis returned to live there. During his time there he met Richard Lovell Edgeworth, one of the most remarkable men of his time, who shared many interests with his father.

The ties between families were furthered strengthened when Richard took Francis elder sister Fanny as his fourth wife. He later assisted his esteemed brother-in-law in constructing a prototype telegraph link between Dublin and Galway, which failed abysmally.

Around this time he met and fell in love with Richard’s daughter Charlotte, but she was in poor health and died young. After a few frustrating years, his naval career took off again with his appointment as commander of the Woolwich in 1805.

In the next decade he undertook a number of major surveys including that of the mouth of the River Plate in South America and later the south coast of Turkey. The results of the latter were published in Karamania (a medieval name for Asia Minor), which boosted his standing among the scientific community.

Beaufort is best known for his Wind Scale. He had kept detailed weather records since his early teens and in January 1806 produced the first draft of his scale of wind velocity, which initially has 14 stages ranging from calm (0) to storm (13).

Like many major developments the scale was developed for military applications. In 1826, the explorer Sir John Franklin, who later died in trying to navigate the North West Passage, led the expedition which explored the sea to the North of Canada and Alaska and named in honour of his friend.
This vast sea encompasses an area of 476,000 sq. kms (184,000 sq. mls, i.e. about six times the size of the island of Ireland.) and is covered by ice for most of the year.

His Wind Scale wasn’t totally his own creation, but was derived from earlier attempts by Alexander Dalrymple and the English engineer John Smeaton. Beaufort also improved on earlier attempts by Dalrymple to devise a system of weather notation, in which letter and abbreviations were used to describe the prevailing weather systems, e.g. b = blue skies,’s = sultry and gr. = grey threatening appearance.

His efforts to denote wind strength were based on the effect the various wind strength had on the amount of canvas carried by naval frigates. By the time the scale was adopted by the British Admiralty in 1838, it had been reduced to 13 points.

In 1810, he received his biggest commission yet, that of HMS Frederickssteen, and shortly afterwards proposed to Alicia Wilson whom he had first met 21-years earlier on the eve of his first voyage on board the Vansittart.

He didn’t feel as passionately about her as he did about Charlotte Edgeworth, but he shared a common interest in navigation and surveying with her father, who was also survived that fateful voyage two decade previously.

The marriage was delayed until Beaufort had completed his first tour of duty with his new frigate and took place in London in December 1812. Despite the unpromising start it was a happy marriage and they had six children before her death from breast cancer in August 1834.

In 1829 he was appointed Hydrographer to the Admiralty. In the 1830s his system of weather notation and his wind scale were adopted by the Royal Navy. In 1846, at the age of 72 he was promoted to Rear Admiral and Knighted by Queen Victoria two years later.

On November 11, 1838 Beaufort married Honora Edgeworth, who was twenty years his junior and half sister to his beloved Charlotte as well as being his sister’s stepdaughter.

He finally retired from the Admiralty in 1855 after 68 years service and died in Brighton in December 1857 in his 84th year and after a simple funeral service in St. John-at-Hackney Church on December 22, he was interred alongside his first wife in the Wilson family tomb.

As a scientist he never made any startling discoveries but his work as a surveyor and hydrogra-pher proved invalu-able and he surely deserves the accol-ade as the greatest ever Navanman

Taken from Royal County
December 2003