History of the Shipping forecast

First issued in 1861 and broadcast on the BBC since 1924, the Shipping Forecast has become a cultural symbol and still serves a vital role providing gale warnings and sea-area forecasts four times a day.

The Royal Charter Storm

On the night of 25 / 26 October 1859 the British Isles were struck by a severe storm which became known as the Royal Charter Storm.

The Royal Charter sank off Anglesey in a major storm on the night of October 25 - 26 1859. Of 500 souls aboard only 29 survived; it was the largest loss at sea of the year and provoked a significant reaction about the need to try and predict storms to prevent ships from leaving port straight into poor weather conditions.

From the data which had been collected over the previous years, Vice Admiral Robert Fitzroy felt that he could give warning of approaching storms and designed a system of signals (which were lit at night) designed to give ships in port warning of approaching storms. The signals were hoisted at ports around the coast to warn those both in harbour and sailing past.

Fitzroy's early Storm warning system Fitzroy's early Storm warning system

The Royal Charter Storm was instrumental in launching the start of the Storm Warning system which was the first attempt at putting into practice the science of Weather Forecasting, which was pioneered and developed by Admiral Robert Fitzroy the founder and first director of the Meteorological Office.

The Meteorological Office was founded under the leadership of Admiral Fitzroy in 1854 with the purpose of looking into weather at sea but not forecasting, merely attempting to understand it better with the hope of being able to better safeguard life and property at sea. Self recording anemometers (which measure wind speed and direction) were positioned at various locations around the Atlantic Ocean most used by shipping (the earliest being Bermuda and Nova Scotia in 1859). Log books were also returned from ships travelling to all parts of the world from which data on pressure, sea temperature, currents, winds and various other meteorological data were extracted and collated in hopes of finding patterns and improving understanding of weather at sea.

Royal Charter Storm weather chart Royal Charter Storm weather chart

The whole system depended on Telegraph. Observations were sent from locations around the British Isles to the Met Office in London. Using these FitzRoy and his staff issued warnings to the coasts (where necessary) also be telegraph and then the relevant signal was hoisted.

The earliest forecasting system in the world

Permission to go ahead was given on 6 June 1860 and the first forecast was given on 6 February 1861. It is believed that this was the worlds first national forecasting system and the Storm Warnings went on to be known as the Shipping Forecast - the Shipping Forecast is therefore thought to be the earliest national forecasting system in the world. After the death of FitzRoy in 1865 the Storm Warnings were stopped in 1866 but there was such public outcry about the inevitable increased loss of life that parliament was forced to restart them in 1867.

Since restarting, the shipping forecast has been issued every day, regardless of sea conditions and its basic purpose of saving lives at sea remains unchanged from.

The shipping forecast today

The Shipping Forecast continues to be issued four times a day covering 31 sea areas around the UK from Southeast Iceland further north to Trafalgar covering the coast of Portugal. It is also updated online on the Met Office Shipping Forecast.

A cultural icon

The rhythmic, measured pace and clear diction with which the Shipping Forecast is recorded have without doubt cemented the Shipping Forecast as a cultural icon in the UK. Many listeners of the forecaster listen simply to enjoy the broadcast than act upon its content.

So popular is the forecast it has been quoted in songs by Blur and Radiohead as well as featuring in the works of prominent poets such as Carol Ann Duffy and Seamus Heaney and was prominent in Danny Boyle's London 2012 Opening Ceremony.

The Shipping Forecast's consistent broadcasting over nearly a hundred years caused a slight stir of controversy in 2011 when England closed in on retaining the Ashes and Test Match Special cut away to the scheduled Shipping Forecast a matter of moments before the final wicket fell. When the Shipping Forecast was finished its returned to Test Match Special and the game was all over, England had won.

Weather through time - Shipping Forecast

Last updated: 16 July 2015

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