Julian Humphrys investigates the history of weather forecasting…


When did public weather forecasting begin in Britain?

In 1854 Britain’s Board of Trade established its Meteorological Department (today’s Met Office), headed by former naval officer Robert Fitzroy. Five years later, nearly 500 people drowned when the steam clipper Royal Charter was wrecked in a storm off Anglesey. This led Fitzroy to develop weather charts to allow ‘forecasts’, as he called them, to be made to improve safety at sea.

In 1861, using data telegraphed from 15 land stations across the UK, Fitzroy produced the first daily weather forecast in The Times, and, that same year, he launched a gale warning system for ships using a system of cones which were hoisted at ports around Britain.


How long have weather forecasts been broadcast?

For more than a century. The Met Office broadcast its first forecasts via radio in 1911. The BBC launched its Shipping Forecast in the mid-1920s. It has become a cultural icon, featuring prominently in the opening ceremony of the 2012 Olympics. As the forecast has to go out at a predictable time, listeners to Test Match Special on long wave in 2011 famously missed the climax of all three English victories because each time the programme had cut to the forecast.


When did weather forecasts appear on our TVs?

The BBC transmitted its first weather chart at the start of a trial series in November 1936. BBC Television closed down during the Second World War but, in July 1949, it began broadcasting weather maps with captions again. On 11 January 1954, it put out the first live weather forecast from Lime Grove Studios in London.

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Who was the first TV weatherman?

George Cowling made that first five-minute broadcast. Armed with pencils, a rubber and a pair of dividers, he informed the viewers that the following day would be a good one to hang out washing. Subsequent presenters have included Bert Foord, Barbara Edwards, who became the first female presenter in 1974, Ian McCaskill and Michael Fish, whose dismissal in 1987 of the prospects of a hurricane has entered national folklore.

Julian Humphrys is development manager at the Battlefields Trust, the UK charity dedicated to the protection and promotion of Britain’s historic battlefields. To find out more, visit www.battlefieldstrust.com. You can also follow Julian on Twitter @GeneralJules


This article was first published in the November 2015 issue of BBC History Magazine