British forecasting begins

The Royal Charter storm
by Philip Eden

Probably the most important storm in the history of British meteorology happened during the month of October. No, not that one. Not Michael Fish's hurricane. This one happened 145 years ago, and its consequences marked the beginning of official weather forecasting in this country.

The SS Royal Charter was a great hulk of a vessel; it had an iron-clad hull, and it had steam engines as well as sails. On October 25, 1859, she was nearing the end of a long journey, having set sail from Fremantle, Western Australia, several months previously, safely negotiating the Cape of Good Hope (more honestly in times past called the Cape of Storms), and traversing almost the entire length of the Atlantic Ocean. She was carrying some four hundred passengers and also a large quantity of gold bullion, then valued at around half a million pounds.

The storm sprang up that evening. As the northerly wind strengthened to gale force and beyond, the Royal Charter dropped anchor off the north coast of Anglesey, her sales lowered and her engines shut down. Other ships in the area were able to find shelter close to the Irish coast or nearer to Liverpool where the wind was much less strong. The location of the Royal Charter, however, exposed it to winds blowing the entire length of the Irish Sea. Nevertheless, she must have encountered more violent storms on the high seas of the Atlantic and Southern Ocean during her life.

The Royal Charter's captain preferred to ride out the storm rather than continue to Liverpoool, reasoning that such a northerly gale would tend to drive him towards the coast of North Wales. He was not to know that the strength of the wind was much lighter to the east of Llandudno. In the event, the ship foundered during the early hours of October 26 off the village of Moelfre with the loss of most of the passengers and crew, and the entire cargo. By daybreak the ship had completely sunk, and the villagers had succeeded in saving just a dozen or so people.

Five years before, the Meteorological Department of the Board of Trade had been founded - much later to become the United Kingdom Meteorological Office. Its first director was Admiral Robert FitzRoy - the FitzRoy, who had sailed to South America with Charles Darwin on HMS Beagle. The Department's work during those earliest years was to collect and collate meteorological observations, and to encourage people both on land and at sea to make these observations.

An enquiry was held into the disaster, and as a direct result of the storm of October 25-26, 1859, the British Association recommended to the President of the Board of Trade that FitzRoy's office be instructed to make use of the new electric telegraph to warn of storms in British coastal waters. Thus the first official gale warnings were inaugurated in June 1860. Between 25 October and 9 November 1859, a series of storms around the coast of Great Britain resulted in 325 ships being wrecked and 748 lives being lost.