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Many Victorians will recognize the iconic landmarks of the Gonzales Heights Observatory and Craigdarroch Castle, but few are likely to be aware of their common history.
Daily weather forecasts for Victoria and Southern British Columbia first began on November 1, 1898 under the direction of meteorologist Edmund Baynes Reed who was joined later by assistant observer and forecaster Francis Napier Denison. They were also responsible for taking readings of the recently installed Milne seismograph, the first seismograph in British Columbia and one of the first routinely operated instruments of its kind in the world.
Baynes Reed died in 1916, and Francis Napier Denison took over as Director of the newly constructed Gonzales Hill Meteorological Observatory of which he had played a prominent role in designing. Numerous papers and articles on weather patterns and seismic observations were published by Denison to scientific journals and societies throughout North America and the UK. His reports of earthquake activity not only included epicentre and magnitude, but often exceeded similar reports provided by US counterparts where there was limited continuity or interest. Similarly, the marine warnings and weather forecasts Denison issued for the west coast were regarded with more favour as they were tailored to the Puget Sound area whereas the US forecasts for Washington State were generated in San Francisco.
In his 1923-24 annual report to the Meterological Service, Denison writes in part:
“From the first of July, 1923, a special weather summary and general forecast of the winds is sent out, …broadcasted to the ships within a radius of 3000 miles, and in some cases ships have reported receiving these messages at much greater distances, and appreciated knowledge of weather conditions both on the coast from Alaska to California, and also the positions and movements of some of the great Pacific storms are given westward to the 150th Meridian.
“Time is also sent out….. to shipping within a 3000 mile radius.”
“During the past year the Milne-Shaw seismographs have been in continuous operation and have given very satisfactory results. The total number of earthquakes recorded was 226… “
In 1936, after three postponements, Denison was finally allowed to retire after 37 years of service. He had not taken a statutory holiday in 21 years.
Forever the scientist, he appealed to the Board of School Trustees for a small amount of space, regardless of heat or light, in Victoria College to carry on his life’s work. In a letter dated May 6, 1938 from “Craigmyle” where he was boarding, he thanks them for their consideration:
Dear Prof. Cunningham,
Replying to your letter of April 30th, I am very pleased to learn that Principal Elliot and your Department will allow me the use of the small room in the basement of your college, and the key for the main door if required.
I have moved the seismograph into the new room under the stairs and find it will suit my purpose perfectly.
Thanking you for your kind service respecting the above,
I am sincerely yours,
F. Napier Denison.
Francis continued with his seismic research and weather observations at Craigdarroch using instruments he had either taken on loan from the Victoria Fire Department or built and erected himself at his own cost.
In a letter of October 1940, this time from the Stadacona Hotel, he sadly concedes that failing health will not allow him to continue and he graciously relinquishes his key and instruments to the College. He also encloses a copy of his last paper “Further Notes on Certain Horizontal Pendulum Movements” which was dated 1938 from the Victoria College address and published in the 1940 Bulletin of the Seismological Society of America.
Citizens of Victoria would lament the passing of “their weatherman” whose dedication to the service still provided competitive local forecasts from his hotel suite for several years even after his retirement. His “courtly, old-world manner” made him a most gracious host at the Observatory, and it was said that his clear and deep thinking, so often associated with the inventive mind, could easily describe in a few short, understandable phrases, any matter pertaining to his research.
As wrote the Seattle Post-Intelligencer of Francis Napier Denison:
“…(he) had something on the ball”.
Article by F. Tosczak, Restoration Manager, Craigdarroch Castle
For more great stories about Victoria’s past please visit the City of Victoria Website