Now, you know me, any chance to say hats off to the shipping forecast and I’m all over it like Donald Trump’s golf slacks over his ginormous behind.
Yet today is an exception. There are stories in the news hailing this day as the 150th anniversary of the shipping forecast when it isn’t. It really isn’t.
Why am I exercised about this harmless bit of PR cooked up by some suits in a meeting? Because of Robert Fitzroy, that’s why.
Those of you who have read Attention All Shipping and Bring Me Sunshine will be aware that I think Robert Fitzroy, the father of the weather forecast and the shipping forecast, is one of the greatest figures this country has ever produced and is criminally underappreciated. Countless thousands of lives at sea have been saved as a result of his work in creating the shipping forecast and indeed all the weather forecasts we know today.
To their credit the Met Office has tried to hail Fiztroy as the hero he was, from restoring his neglected grave in south London to renaming sea area Finisterre in his honour in 2002. Back in the mid-nineteenth century, however, Fitzroy was grossly mistreated by the Met Office’s ancestors at the Board of Trade, something I think is compounded by today’s spurious anniversary.
The basic facts are these (forgive me for being brief but I’ve got a big proper work deadline today). In 1854 Fitzroy was put in charge of a fledgling Met Office as a result of a pan-European convention on weather held in Brussels (meddling eurocrats, improving safety for everyone at sea, what about our sovereignty, eh?). So humpty were they about it, the Board of Trade didn’t even give Fitzroy his own office and he had to rent a room at his gentlemen’s club.
Fitzroy worked tirelessly from the start to achieve near miracles in the collection of weather data and by 1861 felt confident enough to predict when storms were approaching that might put lives in danger at sea. Advances in telegraphy meant the data from the coastal stations he’d opened around Britain could reach him quickly too, until, on 6th February 1861, Fitzroy began using a system of storm cones displayed around the coast warning ships of impending storms and the direction from which they were approaching. If anything has a claim to being the first shipping forecast, this is a good ‘un.
Countless lives were saved this way and later that year, on 1st August 1861, Fitzroy for the first time added a prediction of the weather – he invented the term ‘forecast’ to distinguish his work from prophecy and superstition – to his weather data tables in The Times newspaper. Here’s the table, with the first forecast below it (note how the locations are all coastal: the weather forecast began as a shipping forecast). Hence this is another strong candidate for being recognised as the very first shipping forecast.
Fitzroy’s Times forecasts ran for the next four years or so. Given the limited technology available to him their accuracy was a bit hit and miss, and many people, from the Board of Trade to editorials in The Times itself, were laughing up their sleeves and actually lampooning a man who was achieving extraordinary things.
Eventually Fitzroy, troubled by depression for most of his life and frustrated that people were still dying in storms at sea despite his herculean efforts, committed suicide in 1865.
Almost immediately the Board of Trade had Fiztroy’s hardworking staff stopped from issuing forecasts. Unsurprisingly there was a subsequent increase in maritime losses of ships and lives until the weight of opinion forced the powers that be to reintroduce shipping forecasts in August 1867.
That’s what is being marked today – the capitulation of the meteorological authorities after they had tried to stop the tireless work and achievements of the man who literally invented the weather forecast. Even when they reversed the decision it was because of external pressure.
The shipping forecast was broadcast for the first time in the form we recognise and love on January 1st 1924. The ninetieth anniversary in 2014 passed without a whisper of commemoration, while instead a reluctant, grumpy bit of bureaucracy in 1867 is today greeted with a-whoopin’ and a-hollerin’.
Yes it’s essentially a harmless bit of PR tied in with the flimsy premise of the forecast being produced ‘continously’ since 1867 and I am being a bit of a grumpy bollix, but I’m being a bit of a grumpy bollix because I see this as yet another small but significant dent in the achievements and legacy of Robert Fitzroy. That’s why I’m not wearing the paper hat and blowing the hooty streamer today.
The shipping forecast did not begin two years after Fitzroy died. It began because he started work on it in 1854, introduced it in 1861 and worked so hard and zealously on it that it drove him to suicide four years later. I just think the man’s legacy deserves a wee bit better than this.
As for the 150th anniversary of the shipping forecast, that was either in 2011 or will come around in 2074. One thing’s certain, it isn’t today.
Image courtesy of: Aukland War Memorial Museum.