HC Deb 19 July 1867 vol 188 cc1728-40

rose to call the attention of the House to the subject of the suppression by the Board of Trade of Storm Warnings, and in doing so briefly adverted to the establishment of the Meteorological Department of the Board of Trade, which was due, he said, to the representations of the celebrated Maury as to the importance of ocean hydrography, and to the fact that subsequently an international congress on the subject sat at Brussels in 1853, by which an inquiry into ocean meteorology was recommended, which meant that the logs of ships should be collected and compared by a central Board, whose duty it should be to deduce laws from them which might be advantageous to our Mercantile Marine. The Meteorological Department was consequently established in 1853, Mr. Cardwell being at the time President of the Board of Trade, and Admiral Fitzroy, whose name was distinguished as a meteorological observer, was placed at its head in 1854. In 1862, Admiral Fitzroy, after having spent eight years in collecting information in the discharge of his duties, recommended that the operation of his department should be extended to land observations with the view of communicating intelligence which might be of use to the shipping interest. The origin of storm warnings, however, was to be traced to a meeting of the British Association, which was held at Aberdeen in 1859 under the Presidency of the late Prince Consort, and especially to the mathematical section of that Association, which was composed chiefly of scientific men. Their object was to provide a system of giving storm warnings from one part of the kingdom to another, and their recommendation on the subject was adopted and acted upon by Admiral Fitzroy until his death. On this event a Committee was appointed by the Board of Trade, then under Mr. Milner Gibson, to examine the system followed by Admiral Fitzroy. This Committee made an elaborate Report on the subject, in which they declared themselves not to be very favourable to the continuance of the system which had been pursued. They, in the first place, stated that they thought that in the present state of meteorological knowledge daily forecasts of the weather should not be continued, and in that view he (Colonel Sykes) concurred; but then they concluded by saying that they were of opinion that storm warnings should be carried on. He might illustrate what was meant by that, by observing that at Valentia, for example, the barometer might suddenly fall, and that as electricity travelled faster than the wind, notice of this fall might be given in London by means of an electric message some two days before it actually reached the metropolis. Nothing could be simpler or more intelligible than that. Predictions of that kind were at first received with considerable doubt, and were compared by an hon. Member of that House to Royal Speeches, which had no meaning; but he found from the Report of the Committee of the Board of Trade that in 1862–3 there were 160 such predictions, and that 81 per cent of them turned out to be right with respect to the number of storms, though the percentage was not equally high with regard to the point from which the wind would blow, a fact which was capable of being easily explained; for in the case of great storms a diminished pressure of the atmosphere was created, and, the winds blowing from all sides to restore the equilibrium of the atmosphere, a rotatory motion was communicated to the wind, so that it often happened that in its progress over a long distance it did not ultimately blow from the same quarter as when it began. In 1863–4 there were 125 predictions by Amiral Fitzroy; and sixty-eight out of every hundred were right with respect to the number of storms, the instances in which they were correct as to the direction of the wind being 52 per cent. Again in 1864–5 there were 129 predictions, 75 per cent of which were right with regard to the number of storms and 33.6 percent in reference to the wind. The result for the three years was that 75 per cent of the predictions of coming storms were right, and 38 per cent with regard to the directions of the wind. Upon whatever basis these predictions might have rested they had undoubtedly proved of great importance to the Mercantile Marine and to deep sea fishermen. But be that as it might, the result of the Report of the Committee was that they recommended that a scientific body should be formed to carry on observations on a more extended footing. Communications with the Royal Society took place, and ultimately a Committee of the Royal Society, with the Hydrographer of the Admiralty and others was sanctioned. The Committee recommended that £10,000 should be annually granted for meteorological purposes, and in that sum was included the item of £3,000 for telegraphy and storm signals. His right hon. Friend communicated with the Council of the Royal Society, who said that preceding predictions had not been founded on scientific data, and that they could not take on themselves to predict storms. Nevertheless they accepted the £10,000 a year, and the result is that the storm signals have been suspended since the 7th of December, 1866. The responsibility for that suspension, therefore, rested entirely with those gentlemen of the Royal Society, who were appointed a Committee to take charge of the Meteorological Department of the Board of Trade, In spite of the opinion expressed by various public bodies as to the expediency of the storm warnings being restored on the score of humanity, the Committee still abstained from publishing them. There had been presented to the House twenty-eight Petitions in favour of the resumption of storm warnings, five of which came from incorporated bodies, others from different ports, and the number of the signatures to the Petitions amounted to 1,744. The Scotch Meteorological Society had sixty-three stations in Scotland, and sent communications to the Registrar General, who made use of them in his Reports to the House of Commons. This eminent body asked for their restoration. The eminent French astronomer, M. Leverrier, had lately expressed his astonishment at hearing that they had been disused, and an address had lately been delivered before one of the eminent scientific bodies of Manchester, by a gentleman who stated that he had written to Lieutenant General Sabine, President of the Royal Society, but had received no reply, and who added that the Scientific Committee of the Royal Society had shown themselves utterly indifferent to public opinion and feeling, and quite unfitted to carry out the duties so ably discharged by Admiral Fitzroy; and the lecturer expressed a hope that, in the interests of humanity, science, and commerce, the Board of Trade would assume the management of the Meteorological Department. There were 50,000 fishermen along the Eastern coast of England, and the Scientific Committee of the Royal Society offered to send to the ports and to the fishermen, not storm warnings, but the state of barometers, leaving seafaring men and fishermen to judge for themselves: moreover the persons wanting information were to pay half the expense of sending it; but it was a perfect mockery to require them to pay half the expense of telegraphing. Such an arrangement would be of no more use than the daily meteorological report in the papers, telling what had occurred yesterday, but not what then was, or would be to-morrow. What would the Committee do prospectively? They said that after they had got their six new stations and their self-registering instruments they would be able, perhaps, to obtain normal conditions; but all the necessary observations had been registered at Greenwich and elsewhere for the last fifty years, and why should the country wait ten or fifteen years before the signals, which had saved so much life and property, were restored? He appealed to the common sense of the House whether they would tolerate such a mockery? The Astronomer Royal, Sir Henry James, of the Ordnance Survey, a man of profound science, and Professor Piazzi Smith, the Astronomer Royal of Scotland, were decidedly in favour of the continuance of the storm signals, and he hoped the Board of Trade would insist on their restoration. There was no reason why this should not be so, except the supposed fear on the part of the Scientific Committee of the Royal Society that their scientific dignity would be compromised, in case they failed always to foretell rightly. Suppose it were compromised, what then, if the public gained in the end? The objection to restoring the storm warnings seemed only a piece of scientific pedantry. The Board of Trade had no right to spend £10,000 per annum in the manner he had described, the expense formerly having only been £4,300 per annum. In the name of the taxpayers, therefore, he should hold the Board of Trade responsible for the future.


seconded the Motion, and, in doing so, remarked that it would be of real importance to many branches of business in the Midland counties and inland districts if they were made acquainted with the condition of the temperature at various points. He hoped the Committee of the Royal Society would take this subject into their consideration with a view of furnishing such information inland.

Amendment proposed, To leave out from the word "That" to the end of the Question, in order to add the words "it is inexpedient, in consequence of the suspension of 'Storm Warnings,' to continue the present arrangement with the Committee of the Royal Society, at an expense of £10,000 per annum, the average cost of the Meteorological Department of the Board of Trade having been £4,300 per annum,"—(Colonel Sykes,) —instead thereof.

Question proposed, "That the words proposed to be left out stand part of the Question."


had presented a Petition from the seaport town in the county he had the honour to represent, praying for the resumption of storm warnings, and he could speak from practical knowledge as to their value to the fishermen along the East coast of Scotland. He hoped they would be resumed.


said, that the present Government were not responsible for the change in reference to storm warn- ings, as they found the arrangement almost concluded when the change of Government took place. The operations of the Committee of the Royal Society comprised three distinct, branches:—1, collection of ocean statistics; 2, issue of weather reports; 3, establishment of meteorological observations in the British Isles. All these three were distinct objects, the first being that to which the Meteorological Department of the Board of Trade owed its origin. The Royal Society stated in their letter of 1865 that these objects, which were specified in their letter of 1855, were as important for the interests of science and navigation as they were then considered. This branch of which he had last spoken was practically in abeyance during the last few years, Admiral Fitzroy having obtained permission to organize the system of storm warnings, and almost the whole of the funds voted for the purpose of observations were diverted from the original scientific object to an object deemed more immediately practical. This branch was now resumed and in active operation, and the Committee, in order to render it more efficient, had secured the services of a gentleman of the Mercantile Marine as marine superintendent, whose practical knowledge and experience were calculated to render the greatest assistance to the office. He need not go into details respecting these three branches. They were well known to hon. Members who took an interest in these matters, and fully described in Papers already laid before Parliament, especially in the Report of the Joint Committee referred to by the hon. and gallant Member. The hon. and gallant Officer, with that perseverance for which he was distinguished, and with which no one could find fault, had exerted himself to obtain a return to the old system. He took two objections to the course which had been lately adopted. In the first place he objected that the Committee of the Royal Society were busying themselves with abstruse inquiries which might, or might not, turn out of any value, instead of giving practical information which was of acknowledged advantage in the saving of life and property; and secondly, that in so doing they were spending, not only the money, the £4,300 which was the cost of the signals, but a great deal more besides. Well, perhaps, with one exception, there were no questions upon which people had in all ages been so willing to burn each other as on questions of science. The Royal So- ciety stated that the so-called storm warnings were based upon imperfect data, and were therefore liable to frequent inaccuracy. They seemed on this point to be at direct issue with the gallant Officer. "Who shall decide when doctors disagree?" He had already reminded the House, in answer to a Question a few weeks ago, that, as was sometimes the case with individuals, so it seemed to have been with regard to these storm warnings—their good qualities were not discovered till after their decease. During their existence they met with but little approval in that House. They were stated to be like both Queen's Speeches and Ministerial answers, which might be read a hundred different ways, and it was said that they were twice wrong for once right, and that they would be very mischievous but for the fact that no one paid any attention to them. But the gallant Officer relied upon the Report of the Joint Committee of the Admiralty, Board of Trade, and Royal Society. Without questioning the accuracy of the gallant Officer's quotations, he submitted that he had drawn an inaccurate conclusion; and in support of his own view he would read to the House the conclusions to which the Committee came after a patient and careful investigation. It would not only answer the first objection as to storm warnings, but also the second point, which had reference to expense—and they must remember that the predictions were "deemed successful if a gale followed within two or three days"— The expense of what we propose is larger than the expense hitherto incurred. But this is unavoidable unless either the original object of the Meteorological Department or the system of storm warnings is to be abandoned. The meteorology of the ocean is, as we have stated, as important an object now as it was in 1854; and we feel ourselves justified in believing (especially with such a promise of success as is held out by the meteorological registers already collected) that the Government and Parliament will not now abandon an object taken up by them after much consideration in 1854, and that they will not be satisfied to leave the matter in its present incomplete and useless condition. If the grant originally made had been steadily applied to this object, and had not been diverted to other objects, the work would by this time have advanced far to wards completion; and we do not doubt that it may be completed within the time and for the sum we have mentioned. The prognostication of storms is a branch of practical meteorology which has been superadded to the original functions of the department, and to which a large part of the funds originally granted for the purpose of meteorological observations at sea has been devoted. It is one far too important, too popular, and too full of promise of practical utility to be allowed to die. But the present treatment of it is, as we have shown, incomplete and unsatisfactory, and it cannot be made complete or satisfactory without the new system of observations, and consequent additional expense, which we have recommended. These observations are the foundation; the telegraphy and storm warnings are the superstructure; and we have no hesitation in saying, in the interest of practical utility as well as of science, that if the expense we have recommended is thought to be too large, and any part of what we have proposed is to be postponed for the present, on account of expense, the part to be postponed should be that part which recommends the present continuance of the attempts to prognosticate weather. To continue them in their present condition without an endeavour to determine the principles and rules on which they should be founded, would, in our opinion, be injurious to the fame of the eminent officer who has originated them, and discreditable to the country. … The system of weather telegraphy and of foretelling weather is not in a satisfactory state. It is not carried on by precise rules; and has not been established by a sufficient induction from facts. The storm warnings have, however, been to a certain degree successful, and are highly prized. We think that the daily forecasts ought to be discontinued, and that an endeavour should be made to improve the storm warnings, to define the principles on which they are issued, and to test those principles by accurate observation. Above all, we think that steps should be taken for establishing a full, constant and accurate system of observing changes of weather in the British Isles. Our detailed recommendations on these heads are given at the end of the second part of our Report. The whole amount asked was £10,500, not as the gallant Officer said, to do, or rather not to do, what Admiral Fitzroy did for £4,300—that portion of the work in its modified form, to which he had alluded, would now cost only £3,000—but to do, in addition, what Admiral Fitzroy latterly sacrificed to the storm warnings—namely to collect ocean statistics, and to carry on observations with self-recording instruments in the British Islands. "But," said the gallant Officer, "why not use existing observatories?" Well, Kew, which had self-registering instruments, was used. Greenwich and Oxford were too near to be of use. The places selected by the Committee were Falmouth, Stonyhurst, Armagh, and Glasgow, where there were competent observers. They would have to set up a new establishment at Valentia, and they had offered to use the existing establishment at Aberdeen; but from some cause—perhaps the hon. and gallant Member for Aberdeen could say why—they had received no answer, and they were looking out for another place in the North of Scotland. He thought this would be a sufficient answer to the charge of careless expenditure, and he must again repeat that the services of these gentlemen, their great experience, their high scientific acquirements, and their valuable time were given gratuitously to the service of the country; and he thought that they ought to have credit for what they did, and that they did not deserve the somewhat strong expressions which had been used with respect to them by the gallant Officer. There was but one other point on which he would touch before sitting down; the gallant Officer complained of the charge for sending telegrams to poor fishing villages. Well, in deference to his appeals and those of other hon. Members representing fishing populations, the Government had applied to the Committee to know whether they could not furnish this information gratis; they had, in reply, expressed their willingness to do so to localities of this description. He had now stated all he could on this subject. He hoped it would be satisfactory to the hon. and gallant Member and to the House, and that this small grant—very small when the objects in view were considered—might not be grudged as an adjunct to the gratuitous labours of the Meteorological Committee of the Royal Society. It was not likely that the Board of Trade would wish to discontinue what was really of use; at the same time they were bound to regard the expressed opinions of scientific men. The Board of Trade had done all they could to urge them to send such information as they considered could be sent with advantage. This those gentleman had undertaken to do, and he did not know what more could be done at present. He hoped that the information which would be collected would enable them to arrive in future at more accurate conclusions. The Board of Trade was a practical and not a scientific department, and they were not at all likely to value science above what was practical in these matters. He might further say that information as to where storms were blowing was sent by telegram, and those who received them were in as good a position for prognosticating the arrival of a storm in their locality as the people in London were; though in truth no person could prognosticate with accuracy. There would be no objection to send the information inland as well as to the coast, if the hon. Member for Derby (Mr. Bass) thought it desirable. He hoped that the House would not assent to the Motion, for if this grant were refused a heavy blow would be struck at a very great and important object.


said, it was quite true, as had been stated by the right hon. Gentleman, that the arrangements with respect to this subject, were more than half completed when the late Government left office, and that they had appointed a joint Committee to inquire into the manner in which the system had been carried out, and whether the money had been spent in a useful manner and in accordance with the intentions of Parliament; but he could not admit that the late Government was at all responsible for the action which had resulted from these inquiries. However, in fairness to the right hon. Gentleman opposite, he desired to say that so far as he understood his statement he thought the course which the Government had taken was a reasonable one. He (Mr. Milner Gibson) believed that the whole difficulty in the case had arisen from the fact of their having gone a little too fast in this matter. Meteorological science was far from being a perfect one; and time was required to thoroughly digest the data which had been already obtained, and to acquire fresh data. Complaints were made that storm warnings were not given; and certainly if it were possible for them to be given, it would be the bounden duty of the department which managed this matter to take care that they were given. The feeling was that storm warnings could be given, and that the Government would not give them; but the truth was that it was impossible to give storm warnings. Scientific authorities had stated that there were not reliable rules at present in existence upon which storm warnings could be given. He agreed with the hon. and gallant Member for Aberdeen (Colonel Sykes) that if storm warnings were to be given at all they should be accurate; and he looked upon what was now going on as the best mode of laying a foundation for a most valuable system of storm warnings. The late Admiral Fitzroy was a most zealous man, who honestly desired to communicate that information to the public generally which he believed his meteorological observations justified him in giving. The Admiral was an enthusiast, and after his lamented death the late Government found it difficult to meet with any gentleman who would undertake to do what Admiral Fitzroy had done. There was no doubt that he had made many successful prophecies; but it was not ascertained that he had based his prophecies upon any system which could be carried out by others, and therefore it became absolutely necessary to institute an inquiry for the purpose of ascertaining whether a meteorological department should be recognized by the Government or whether the system should be materially altered. He trusted, from the result of those inquiries, that it would be possible fit no distant time to resume the storm warnings, and that at present the facts of the day as to the weather might be sent all over the kingdom, so that persons in different localities might draw their own inferences, and lay down what rules they pleased for their own guidance. He had seen on the Continent, at certain places, a table giving certain daily information respecting the weather obtained from a number of selected stations, so that any person looking at the table could at once judge for himself whether it was prudent to go to sea or not. For his own part he should prefer having such information given to him, rather than to hear prophecies which might be based upon erroneous data. He trusted that the hon. and gallant Member would not divide the House; while, at the same time, he hoped that the now course of observations would be carried out with the view that in the future they might be able to resume the storm warnings, based upon the rules founded upon a satisfactory number of observations. He thought that the Government were right in renewing the system of collecting ocean statistics, which were most valuable, and the collection of which had been the original object of the grant. He hoped that the system would be further developed, and that at no distant date storm warnings might be given, which would be useful to the commerce of this country.


thought that the subject was one of vast importance to the shipping interest of this kingdom, and wished to know whether the Board of Trade had taken steps to collect all the facts they could in relation to this study of meteorology. He was much surprised to hear from the right hon. Gentleman opposite (Mr. Milner Gibson) that the late Government felt it to be impossible to find a successor to the late Admiral Fitzroy. It appeared to him (Mr. Liddell) that it was hardly possible to suppose that a gentleman could not be found to whom such an office as that held by the late Admiral Fitzroy might be intrusted. There was some misapprehension abroad as to what the late Admiral did say, and it was only due to his memory to state that he had never professed to prognosticate the wea- ther; but that all he undertook to do was to collect throughout a certain radius accurate accounts of the state of the weather in various ports, and to publish the same, leaving it to the public generally to draw their own conclusions. He trusted that that valuable practice would not be given up, and that nothing would be done to curtail the very limited means at the disposal of the Government for obtaining the best information upon the subject.


having originally submitted to the House an estimate in reference to this question, wished to make a few observations on the subject under discussion. The inference he drew from the candid statement which had been made by the right hon. Gentleman the Vice President of the Board of Trade was that there was not much difference of opinion on this subject. The way the system originated was this—Lieutenant Maury, an able and distinguished gentleman from the United States, came over to this country in 1854 and made certain suggestions to the late Sir James Graham, who was then at the head of the Admiralty, and to him (Mr. Cardwell), at that time connected with the Board of Trade. These suggestions regarded the advantages which would arise to navigation, if certain scientific observations were carried on on board Her Majesty's ships, as well as by experienced captains in the merchant service. The then Government determined, therefore, to ask Parliament for the means by which ships in both services would be supplied with the necessary scientific instruments for making the observations. It then occurred to him (Mr. Cardwell) that these scientific investigations might be carried much further; and he, accordingly, consulted both the Astronomer Royal and the principals of the Royal Society, as to the possibility of reducing more to a science the whole subject of meteorology. They were all agreed in the opinion that, if those scientific experiments were carried on for a few years, they would probably lead to most important results. The suggestions of Lieutenant Maury were consequently improved upon to the extent indicated. That most able and excellent man (Admiral Fitzroy) was there-upon appointed to conduct the system under the Board of Admiralty, as well as of the Board of Trade. The Government thought that, by telegraphic communication—by ascertaining what was doing at the same time at different parts of the coast of Ireland and of Europe, and by tabu- lating the state of the weather at all these places—valuable results might be obtained in regard to the immediate prognostications of the weather. He thereupon established the system of storm warnings, and subsequently his daily prognostications appeared in the newspapers. The latter plan, he thought, to say the least of it, was premature. It was generally agreed upon that these daily prognostications of the weather should be discontinued. The late Admiral's storm warnings were, however, he thought, of great practical value. It appeared to him to be a great disgrace to this maritime country that there should be such an immense sacrifice of life and property on our coasts, and he was glad to hear that the practical mode of preventing such calamities by the continuance of these storm warnings would not be given up. Though the poor fishermen living on the coasts of this country might be good mariners, they were not accustomed to compare tabulated scientific results. Admiral Fitzroy and his subordinates had been able, he thought, to arrive at important practical results, and many lives had, he believed, been saved in consequence of the information which they supplied. He trusted that under the able management of the Duke of Richmond and his right hon. Friend opposite the subject would not be lost sight of, and that they would do everything in their power, by continuing the system of storm prognostications so far as was possible, to contribute to the safety of those whose occupations obliged them to go to sea.


said, he thought it was desirable in the interests of commerce and humanity that a diurnal record should be published of meteorological facts, so that people might read as they ran.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Back to