Navan born, Francis Beaufort, is best remembered as the originator of the Beaufort Scale which classifies the velocity and force of winds at sea but he had a many faceted life.
The Beaufort family were French Protestants who fled France after the revocation of the edict of Nantes. Francis’s grandfather, Daniel Cornelius Beaufort, relocated from Germany to England where he took Church of England orders. In 1746 the family moved to Ireland where Daniel took the position of chaplain to the Lord Lieutenant.
In 1747 Daniel Cornelius was appointed rector of Navan, a position he held for eighteen years until he relinquished it to his only son, Daniel Augustus. Daniel Augustus was educated first at Preston’s endowed school in Navan and then at Trinity College. Daniel Augustus replaced his father as rector of Navan parish in 1765 and remained in that position for 53 years
John Foster, Speaker of the Irish House of Commons, presented Daniel to the vicarage of Collon, Co. Louth where he designed the new church, inspired by King’s College chapel, Cambridge. There was a vicarage house at Collon and with no house at Navan Daniel moved there with his family. Daniel was a very poor businessman and was often in debt. He and his family often resided with different relatives or at different locations depending on which ever was cheapest at the time. In 1767 Daniel had married a local heiress, Mary Waller of Allenstown, but that did not solve his financial problems. His two sons spent much of their lives paying off their father’s debts. Daniel delegated Navan to his curate and was often absent from his duties at Collon as well. He once stayed for five years in South Wales, never returning to his care in Navan or Collon.
Daniel was a noted road-maker, map-maker and topographer. In 1792 he published a map of Ireland which was the most complete and exact of that time. Francis as a young boy was involved in devising the latitude and longitude of Athlone for the map. Daniel Augustus was also an amateur architect, designing the new church at Navan, which was completed in 1818. He was also involved in much of the design and building of new glebe houses, schools and churches in the diocese, including plans for the Bishop’s palace at Ardbraccan. Daniel Beaufort was a man of wide interests which included architecture, topography and agriculture and was involved in the foundation of the Royal Irish Academy. Retiring as rector of Navan in 1818 he died at his son’s home at Upton, Innishannon, Co. Cork in 1821. Former Navan rector, Canon C. C. Ellison, wrote a biography entitled “The hopeful traveller: the life and times of Daniel Augustus Beaufort, L.L.D., 1739–1821.”
Francis Beaufort was the second son of Daniel August Beaufort. His brother, William, became a clergyman in Cork. Francis came to rely on him for Latin and Greek history particularly in relation to his book on the south coast of Turkey. His sister, Frances, married Richard Edgeworth, father of the writer, Maria. Harriet and Louisa, sisters of Francis, never married and kept house for aged relatives and for Francis himself when he was widowed.
Francis was born in 1774 at Flowerhill, Navan. Francis adored his father though out his life. Daniel called him “a giddy whelp” on one occasion. A delicate boy a doctor advised his father to take Francis for seawater baths in order to toughen him up. Francis spent his first two years of life at the family home in Flowerhill. The family left there and re-located to Britain. Francis and his brother were rejected by a school in Cheltenham on the ground that their Irish accents would corrupt the speech of the other boys. Instead he attended a Military and Naval Academy in Dublin, and spent five months studying with Dr. Henry Ussher, professor of astronomy at TCD, at the newly founded Dunsink Observatory.
From early boyhood Francis was determined to go to sea, two months short of his fifteenth birthday Francis joined an East India vessel, the Vansittart, on a trading and surveying voyage to Indonesia, and survived a shipwreck later that year. At the age of fourteen he met his future wife, Alicia Wilson, daughter of his first captain. The following year, 1790, he enlisted in the Royal Navy, remaining in active service until 1812, serving throughout the Napoleonic Wars. He received nineteen wounds in one incident in which an enemy vessel was captured from under the guns of a Spanish fortress. Disabled by wounds, and forced to remain at home from November 1803 to June 1804, he devoted his time, in conjunction with his brother-in-law, Richard Edgeworth, to the construction of a telegraph from Dublin to Galway. Using the devise it was possible to send a message from Dublin to Galway in only eight minutes. He later married Richard Edgeworth’s daughter as his second wife, becoming both uncle and brother-in-law to Maria Edgeworth.
Francis inherited his father’s love of maps and map making. Indeed some of his charts were so well executed that they were still in use up until recently as the official maps of certain areas. In 1807 he surveyed the coast of the Rio de la Plata in South America, and in 1810–12 he surveyed the coast of Turkey. He came close to death from a fanatic’s bullet while mapping the south Turkish coast.
At the age of sixteen Francis began keeping a meteorological journal with brief comments on the weather, a practice he continued until his death. His desire for objectivity and accuracy in meteorological observation led to the development of a wind scale. He first devised the scale in 1806. The original Wind Force Scale that Beaufort developed consisted of thirteen degrees of wind strength, from calm to hurricane. It was first used officially in 1831 and adopted by the British Admiralty in 1838. The scale was altered over the years. In 1946the International Meteorological Committee extended the scale to 17 values.
Francis was a major figure in the establishment of University College, London, and involved with foundation of the Royal Geographical Society. He helped organise searches for the missing polar explorer, Sir John Franklin. Francis trained Robert Fitzroy, the captain of the Beagle. Fitzroy requested of Beaufort “that a well-educated and scientific gentleman be sought” as a companion for the planned voyage to the Pacific. Beaufort’s enquiries led to an invitation to Charles Darwin, who later drew on his discoveries in formulating the theory of evolution.
In 1829 Francis was eventually became Hydrographer of the Admiralty and succeeded in building the Hydrographic Office into the best chart making and maritime centre of its age. Sir Francis Beaufort, famous son of Navan, died in 1857.
A sea north of Alaska is named the Beaufort Sea in his honour. Closer to home the mall in the Navan Shopping centre is called the Beaufort Mall. His birthplace was removed in the 1990s to make way for a road junction but a plaque was erected to honour Beaufort. A housing development close to his birthplace is called Beaufort Place.