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.
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.