The Royal Charter Storm: The Storm That Transformed Weather Forecasting

Royal Charter Storm

On the 26th October 1859, one of the fiercest storms of the 19th century raged in the Irish Sea, leaving behind a trail of destruction stretching from Devon to the west coast of Scotland.

The Royal Charter Storm, also known as the Great Storm of 1859, claimed the lives of more than 800 people, twice as many that were lost at sea during the entire year previous.

Notably, the storm prompted wholesale changes to weather forecasting in Britain and Ireland.

A Rising Storm

In the days prior to the storm, deteriorating conditions and unsettled weather was recorded, with the storm front travelling north toward Britain from the Bay of Biscay.

By mid-afternoon on 25th October, conditions changed drastically, with a marked increase in wind speeds and a change of direction recorded in the English Channel. Continuing northward, the storm centre passed over Cornwall and toward Yorkshire.

Hurricane speed winds estimated to be well over 100mph were recorded in the Irish Sea while in Merseyside wind pressure of 28lbs per square foot was measured, more than ever previously recorded.

Some 133 ships were sunk during the storm while dozens more were left badly damaged. Extensive damage to property throughout coastal areas was also recorded.

The Royal Charter

Perhaps the most famous ship to have fallen victim to the storm was the Royal Charter, the vessel after which the storm is named.

The steam clipper, which by this point was nearing the end of an arduous journey from Melbourne to Liverpool, was caught in the storm while travelling along the Anglesey coast.

Initially, the poor conditions prompted discussions over whether the vessel should take shelter at Holyhead or continue on to its final destination. However, the captain made the fateful decision to sail onward.

Royal Charter Storm
The Royal Charter runs aground.

By the evening of the 25th, conditions had reached such a dangerous point that the pilot vessel could not safely reach the Charter. As such, the decision was made to anchor the ship, but within a few hours both the port and starboard anchor chains had snapped due to the relentless strain.

Beleaguered and adrift in the storm, the Royal Charter was driven toward the shore despite the best efforts of the crew. Driven aground at Point Alerth, the Charter struck the rocky shoreline and broke up as the waves continued to crash against the floundering clipper.

More than 450 lives were lost in the shipwreck, which to this day remains the worst shipping disaster on the Welsh coast. Crucially, the passenger list was lost in the wreck, so the precise number of dead has never been verified.

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In the aftermath of the storm, calls were made to improve weather forecasting across Britain and Ireland to prevent similar disasters.

Since 1854, the young Meteorological Office established by scientist and Royal Navy officer Robert FitzRoy had been conducting limited weather forecasting and monitoring.

FitzRoy and the Met Office began to accelerate forecasting efforts, which included the production of charts, models and the development of a national storm warning system.

Robert FitzRoy
Vice-Admiral Robert FitzRoy.

The British Government granted FitzRoy and the early Met Office permission to establish this system, which issued its first warning on the 5th of February 1861 via telegraph.

The use of telegraph communication radically transformed communication and enabled the service to issue warnings across the country quicker than previously.

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