He was educated at Dr. Burney's academy, Gosport and joined the navy in 1854 onboard HMS Victory at Portsmouth. In 1855 he served in the Baltic and then the Black Sea in 1856. He served on HMS Retribution on the China station and in 1860 on HMS Ariadne.
On 22 May 1861 he was made Lieutenant. On 24 July 1871 he became a commander while serving as first lieutenant on HMS Hercules under Captain Lord Gilford. Was appointed to second in command of HMS Agincourt, flagship of the second division of the Mediterranean squadron, commander Captain Hopkins.
Hercules had been involved in the rescue of Agincourt when her previous commander had allowed her to run aground near Gibraltar. He spent three years on HMS Asia, which was an old hulk moored near Fareham. Lord Gilford was once again in command. The posting was a bad one for an officer concerned about his career, but allowed plenty of leave and hunting. The most onerous duty was that he was sometimes called to sit on courts-martial. In the summer he had a small yacht to sail about in the Solent so as not to get out of practice. After Asia he spent a period on half pay and while in Ireland had a bad hunting accident which required him to lie flat for most of a year while recovering.
On 4 January 1878 he was appointed to his first independent command in HMS Rapid in the Mediterranean. Lord Gilford was now a junior Lord of the Admiralty so was able to assist in obtaining the command. Rapid was the slowest ship in the fleet, so was normally used for 'detached' duties. It was fourteen months before Fitzgerald met the squadron commander, Admiral Geoffrey Hornby.
On 19 March 1880 he was promoted to Captain and was appointed to HMS Inconstant, flagship of the flying squadron. Although he wrote on the subject of sailing, he was an advocate of the complete removal of sails from naval vessels (which frequently were equipped with both engines and sails at this time).
In 1884 he was the Captain of the Royal Naval college, Greenwich. In 1886 he commanded HMS Bellerophon. He was one of the public supporters of a campaign for increased Naval funding (alongside Captain Lord Charles Beresford and Admiral Sir Geoffrey Hornby) which led to the Naval Defence Act 1889 and he continued to be involved in public debate on naval matters throughout his life.
On 7 November 1889 he was made captain of HMS Collingwood in the Mediterranean. He was a proponent of rear-admiral George Tryon's ideas that a simplified system of flag signals was needed for battle conditions. After Tryon's death, he distributed a pamphlet seeking to continue the campaign for their adoption.
Tryon drowned when his flagship HMS Victoria was sunk by a collision with HMS Camperdown during fleet manoeuvres, which caused both public and naval opinion to turn against him and his ideas. Tryon was held responsible for the sinking and his flag system also blamed. Fitzgerald wrote a biography describing Tryon's achievements during his career, but these efforts rebounded to the detriment of his own career.
He continued his writing career by contributing a biography of Admiral Rooke for From Howard to Nelson: Twelve sailors (1899) edited by John Laughton for Greenwich College. He became a naval aide de campe in 1892 and served on the council of the Naval Records Society.
In January 1893 he became superintendent of Pembroke naval dockyard. He became a Rear Admiral on 20 February 1895 and from 1897 to 1899 was second-in-command of the China station. He was retired with the rank of Vice-Admiral on 28 March 1901.
War with Germany and the White Feather Campaign;
In 1904 he was requested to write an article for the Deutsche review on British naval policy. He had no control over the German translation of his article and claimed it had exaggerated his statements, but the article expressed a British interpretation of the threat implied by German naval expansion to traditional British command of the seas. It included the observation that Britain would be better served by a war sooner rather than later when the German navy would be bigger. The article was used in Germany to whip up support for the naval program.
In 1914 Fitzgerald organised a group of thirty women in Folkestone to distribute white feathers to men not in uniform. This was reported in the press and rapidly spread nationwide. The government responded by issuing a badge which could be worn by civilians occupied in war work.
The Scourge of the White Feather
As millions of volunteers flooded to the recruiting offices in answer to call to arms, there were those who refused to join the ranks. For some this amounted to nothing less than cowardice.
In the Kent port of Folkestone, the contrast between those who had taken up arms and those who shunned any involvement in the war was more marked than elsewhere. As a garrison town, the regular troops, based at Shorncliffe Camp, had departed within days of the outbreak of war; these were the regular soldiers who formed the backbone of the British Expeditionary Force. They were soon followed by the local Territorials, the Buffs. Soon, the town would be swamped with the arrival of Kitchener’s Men.
And yet, as a seaside town, the leisured classes continued to stroll along The Leas, play tennis, lounge in hotel bars and generally embrace the notion of ‘business as usual’.
Admiral Charles Penrose Fitzgerald lived in Folkestone. Before the war he had predicted the coming conflagration and was a keen advocate of conscription; to many he was just an eccentric crank.
This combination of elements created the perfect climate for the birth of the White Feather Brigade.
Being incensed by the number of men of military age ‘loafing’ and ‘idling’ around town, Penrose Fitzgerald recruited 30 local young women and instructed them to accost any man of military age who was not in uniform and, with appropriate words of advice, and a reminder that ‘British soldiers are fighting across the Channel’, present him with a white feather, the symbol of cowardice. white feather.
Soon the movement had spread nationwide; initially this aid to recruiting found favour with the government but, once the terrible lists of casualties began to be published, and following white feathers being presented to soldiers on leave, the movement rapidly began to wane.
Nobody knows how many white feathers were handed out, nor how many men signed up as a result of being presented with one. In the 1960s when the BBC asked for White Feather Girls to come forward for a documentary programme, only two answered; one of them confessed that she had been ‘a chump’.
In February a number of girls from The Folkestone School for Girls and boys from the Harvey Grammar gathered at The Grand on The Leas. In surroundings that are reminiscent of bygone days, the students acted out their interpretation of the White Feather Movement. Uncompromising challenges by the girls were followed sometimes by obvious discomfort by the boys, and sometimes by heated verbal clashes.
This remarkable recreation of one of the less well known aspects of the First World War was filmed by BBC South East and is to be broadcast, possibly on 25 February 2014, as part of the Inside Out series.