Beaufort, Sir Francis (1774–1857), rear-admiral and hydrographer, was born 27 May 1774 at Flower Hill, Navan, Co. Meath, younger son of Daniel Augustus Beaufort (qv), rector of Navan, and Mary Beaufort (née Waller). He attended David Bates's Military and Naval Academy in Dublin, and spent five months studying with Dr Henry Ussher (qv), professor of astronomy at TCD. He was thus equipped in 1789, when aged only 14, to join an East India vessel, the Vansittart, on a trading and surveying voyage to Indonesia, and survived a shipwreck the same year. He transferred to the Royal Navy as a midshipman on the Latona, and subsequently served on the Aquilon and the Phaeton. He saw much action, including Cornwallis's retreat, and in 1800, as lieutenant on the Phaeton, was the hero of a daring exploit when a well defended Spanish ship was captured. After recovering from nineteen wounds, he spent some months in Ireland (1803–4), helping his brother-in-law Richard Lovell Edgeworth (qv) to establish a line of telegraphs from Dublin to Galway.
In 1807, in command of the Woolwich, he surveyed the coast of the Rio de la Plata in South America, and in 1810–12 on the Frederiksteen he surveyed the coast of Turkey. His charts of Turkey were not superseded for 150 years, and he was one of the first travellers to examine classical monuments there. After being shot by a fanatic he had to return to England, and in 1817 he published an important volume, Karamania, or a brief description of the south coast of Asia Minor, and of the remains of antiquity.
Beaufort's desire for objectivity and accuracy in meteorological observation led to the development of the wind scale, with which his name is most often associated today. It was first devised in 1806, was several times amended, and is still in use. He attained the rank of post captain in 1810, but was dissatisfied with the lack of progress in his career, though eventually at the age of 55 his merits as a surveyor were recognised and he was appointed in 1829 hydrographer to the navy. As such, he began the reforms and initiatives that resulted in the development of his department into a model for all other hydrography offices worldwide, and the surveys and charts for which he was responsible in the twenty-six years of his tenure became a byword for accuracy, so encouraging geographical exploration and numerous scientific observations, and saving thousands of lives.
As well as the almost herculean labours of his profession, Beaufort found time to serve on royal commissions on pilotage and tidal harbours, and on Thomas Drummond's (qv) parliamentary boundary commission. He was a major figure in the establishment of University College, London, and (by rising every morning at 5.00 or 6.00 a.m. for years on end) found time to compile a series of maps for the Society for the Diffusion of Useful Knowledge. He was involved with founding the Royal Geographical Society, was FRS, MRIA, fellow of the Royal Astronomical Society, and hon. fellow of the Geological Society of London. He helped organise searches for the unfortunate polar explorer Sir John Franklin, and may claim some credit for the inclusion of Charles Darwin on the expedition of the Beagle in 1831.
Surviving letters to family members in Ireland, his lengthy journals, and official correspondence provide invaluable insights into private and public life of the period, and reveal the force and charm of his personality. They also contain thousands of meteorological and scientific observations. In 1846 he was forced to go on the retired list as a rear-admiral, rather than retire as hydrographer, and in 1848 was made KCB. His workload continued to increase, and in 1855 he retired at the age of 81. He died 17 December 1857 in his London home, and was buried in Hackney church.
He married (3 December 1812) Alicia Wilson (d. 1834), daughter of his first captain; they had seven children. After her death, Harriet and Louisa Beaufort, his unmarried sisters, looked after his household until 1838. On 8 November of that year he married Honora, daughter of Richard Lovell Edgeworth and his second wife Honora Sneyd; though the marriage was contented, she had become by the time of his death completely disabled physically and mentally. One of Beaufort's sons was Francis Lestock Beaufort (1815–79), a judge in India. There are several portraits of Beaufort in the National Portrait Gallery, London.