Tuesday, 27 January 2015

A Brief History of the Shipping Forecast

There now follows a brief history of the shipping forecast:

Daventry. 5XX. 1925. Later Droitwich increasing in strength nationally.
Wartime. Sea strength rough. Visibiity poor.
Postwar. Home then Light. 1500 metres. Veering Radio 2 at 1967 later.
Station Change. Radio 4. 1978. Sailing By imminent. Continuity announcer calm.

In this post I unpick the history of the broadcasting of the shipping forecast, come to a few conclusions, correct some misconceptions and raise a few questions.
Question: When exactly was the shipping forecast first broadcast?

The answer to that one is either 89, 90 or 91 years ago.
In Charlie Connelly’s hugely enjoyable Attention All Shipping (in which he attempts to visit all the sea areas) he tells us that “the shipping forecast first appeared in something approximating its current format on January 1, 1924” with the waters round Britain divided into thirteen regions.

The Met Office elaborates on this further: “On 1 January 1924, in appreciation of the valuable help given to the meteorological service of this country by the radio weather reports from ships, a weather bulletin called Weather Shipping was started, broadcast twice daily at 0900 and 2000 GMT, from the powerful Air Ministry station G.F.A. in London, on a wavelength of 4,100 metres using CW (continuous wave) transmission which was capable of being received at a distance of up to 2,400 miles to the west and some 2,000 miles to the south”.
There are no clues as to who read these bulletins but it’s clear that the BBC didn’t get involved with them until the following year when, from October 1925, the forecast was “was broadcast by telephony from the BBC station 5XX at Daventry twice daily on 1,600 metres”.  The long wave transmitter at Daventry had been in operation since July of that year and provided excellent coverage to most of the UK.

The BBC Handbook from 1928 tells us more about the ‘Daventry shipping forecasts’: “This forecast briefly covers the various coastal areas, giving probable weather and winds. When it is given for the first time, at 10.30 a.m., it is read twice – once at normal speed and again at long-hand dictation speed so that ships’ captains may have it taken down for reference”.  
Meanwhile, a quick check of the BBC Genome website reveals that the first listing of a shipping forecast in the Radio Times is at 21.10 on 14 February 1926 on the 5XX station. So the shipping forecast started in either 1924, 1925 or 1926, take your pick.
What we do know is that the shipping forecasts continued on 5XX from Daventry until 6 September 1934 when the National Programme switched to the new Droitwich transmitter on the now familiar 1500 metres long wave. Those forecasts stopped for the duration of the war, the last being 2 September 1939, and resumed on the cessation of hostilities on 3 June 1945.

Question:  Has the shipping forecast always being carried on long wave?

That’s a clear and definite no. When the bulletins returned after the Second World War it was on the Home Service, at that time on a number of medium wave frequencies, and not the Light Programme. It continued on the Home Service for the next eleven years.

There had already been a re-drawing of the shipping areas in 1949 but further tweaks were discussed in 1955 and implemented the following year. They included Heligoland becoming German Bight, Iceland renamed South East Iceland and the dividing of Dogger and Forties to create the new areas of Fisher and Viking. To coincide with the changes the BBC moved the shipping forecast from the Home Service to the Light Programme on 1500 metres from Sunday 22 April 1956. To mark the occasion there was even a one-off 10 minute programme on long wave just before Two-Way Family Favourites titled Ships at Sea. Presented by announcer Sandy Grandison for the “benefit of landlubbers” seamen gave their points of view on the importance of the new shipping areas.      

At this juncture it’s also worth mentioning the other shipping forecast, that for coastal waters, later referred to as the Inshore Forecast. This was first heard nationally on the Home Service on 6 March 1965. That week’s Radio Times explained: “Additional informal shipping forecasts for coastal waters will be broadcast as from tonight, just before close-down on most Home Service wavelengths – normally at about 11.45. These forecasts are being issued by the Meteorological Office at the request of the BBC”. It went on to say that listeners in Northern Ireland would get their own bulletin whilst the Scottish Home Service, which already enjoyed this service, would have the forecast at a fixed time.  

Meanwhile the shipping forecast over on the Light Programme made the transition to Radio 2 in September 1967. Here’s the bulletin read by Douglas Smith on the morning of 2 January 1970.

Question: When was the final shipping forecast on Radio 2?

Well if your answer is November 1978 then you’re kinda right but also technically wrong.

The shake-up of the wavelengths in 1978 meant that 1500 metres long wave would become the new home for “Radio 4 UK”. On the evening of Wednesday 22 November 1978 Jimmy Kingsbury, the then Presentation Editor for Radio 2, read the final Radio 2 long wave only shipping forecast during the John Dunn show.

And here at midnight-fifteen on 23 November is part of the first Radio 4 forecast with David Symonds.

Although Jimmy Kingsbury had been a continuity announcer for many years, by 1978 he rarely appeared on air but managed to add his name to the rota for that final long wave forecast and the following morning to open up Radio 2 on VHF and the new medium wave frequencies. But in fact it wasn’t Jimmy’s final shipping forecast nor was it the last forecast on Radio 2. That happened just over a year later. Here’s why.

On Monday 17 December 1979, 90 mph winds battered the country and one casualty was the long wave transmitter. The following day The Times reported that “More than a million Radio 4 listeners were left without sound when the transmitter at Droitwich, which serves England and Wales, collapsed”.

As a consequence Radio 4 couldn’t broadcast the 17.50 shipping forecast on long wave and it fell to Radio 2 to air it on the medium wave. My notes from the time read: “Mon 1750-55 Jimmy Kinsgbury. Shipping forecast, R4 LW aerial blown down.” The Droitwich transmitter was out of action for a few days and Jimmy’s name appears again for the 17.50 forecasts on Wednesday and Thursday (I have no record for Tuesday). I can only assume that the other forecasts went out on Radio 4 VHF/FM only. Does anyone remember?      

Question: Has Sailing By always preceded the late shipping forecast on Radio 4? 

Ronald Binge’s soothing waltz is firmly associated in the public consciousness with the end of the day on Radio 4 but for a while in 1993 it was dropped from weekday schedules, seemingly to save money.

Writing for the Radio Waves column of The Sunday Times on 29 August 1993, Roland White (who was not a fan of the tune, likening it to the Grim Reaper’s theme song) observed that Sailing By had sailed into the sunset: “Not so that Radio 4 listeners could fall into cheerful sleep, but to save money. Each time Sailing By was played, Radio 4 paid a royalty to Mrs Vera Binge, widow of composer Ronald Binge, who wrote the tune to celebrate his love of the sea. Michael Green, controller of Radio 4, dropped Sailing By as a cost-cutting measure, but he will allow it to be played on weekends and bank holidays, when the news is normally shorter. Fans can stay up specially”.   

Needless to say there was a public outcry from the ever vociferous Radio 4 listeners and Sailing By was re-instated some months later, though I’ve seen one online source that puts the length of this ‘no-play’ period as two years.

Simon Elmes’s book And Now on Radio 4 also recalls the storm in a teacup about Sailing By, though seems to get his wires crossed: “Three years before (James) Boyle took his hot seat in the controller’s office, a storm force 10 had broken out over a plan to axe the tune. Marion Greenwood was the press office in the firing line: ‘I don’t think we had quite expected the huge great onslaught that there was, because it was just this bit of music!’ The move wasn’t just a whim on the part of the controller, Michael Green. He need to make some space (and save some cash - £30,000 in royalties no less) to schedule his Late Book, and the fixed timing of the forecast (in those days fifteen minutes earlier at midnight-thirty) made it all just too tight to have Sailing By as well”.

There’s a small flaw in this description. The Late Book didn’t appear in Radio 4’s schedules until October 1995, some two years later. And indeed there was an outcry about that at the time, but that was because the new programme delayed the shipping forecast by a further 15 minutes. The Radio Times reported that the time shift “has upset some mariners, not to mention listeners’ group, Radio 4 Watch”.

Question: When was Sailing By first used as a prelude to the late-night shipping forecast?

The recognised date for the first appearance of Sailing By before the shipping forecast is 23 November 1978 (listen to my recording of it above). Even then, printed sources seem confused about this.

Peter Jefferson, a continuity voice long associated with reading the forecast, wrote And Now the Shipping Forecast in 2011. On the use of Sailing By Jefferson states that “in 1967 Jim Black, the Presentation Editor of Radio 4, chose it as a piece to precede the shipping forecast. It proved to be a remarkably enduring choice…” Unfortunately this is misleading, perhaps it’s just a typo. The shipping forecast wasn’t on Radio 4 in 1967 and neither was Jim Black the Presentation Editor in that year. Separate network Presentation Editor posts were not created until 1972 and Black joined Radio 4 from Staff Training, prior to that he’d worked as a studio manager in London and then a producer at the newly established Radio Merseyside.

And Now on Radio 4 has this to say on the matter: “It sailed on to Radio 4’s airwaves as a timing buffer for the shipping forecast (which must start on the dot at midnight-forty-eight) when Radio 4 acquired the BBC’s long wave frequency in 1978.” Indeed the November 1978 schedules list “followed by an interlude” between the midnight news and weather and, as it was then timed, the midnight-fifteen forecast. But before the change from medium wave to long wave Radio 4 had carried the Inshore Forecast at the end of its broadcasting day, following the 23.30 News and Weather – no late nights for the network back then – and there was an interlude until the Inshore Forecast at 00.20. Did that interlude include Sailing By? Perhaps those of you with longer memories or recordings of Radio 4 output could enlighten.

Just to confuse the issue Paul Donovan’s The Radio Companion tells us that Sailing By is a “soothing instrumental lullaby … which has been used to close down Radio 4 since 1973”. Pedants will note that Sailing By has never closed the network, that’s the National Anthem of course.

The mention of 1973 is apposite. Firstly from 1 October that year there was a Radio 4 schedule change that saw the Closedown and Inshore Forecast swapped round. Previously the programmes ran, with some very precise timings, as: 23.15 News preceded by Weather, 23.31 Market Trends, 23.36 Closedown and 23.45-23.48 Inshore Forecast. From October this changed to: 23.30 News preceded by Weather, 23.46 Inshore forecast, 23.49 Closedown.
In addition in October 1973 BBC Records issued a single version of Sailing By played by the John Fox Orchestra. Coincidence?

Interestingly it seems that Sailing By was not unknown to radio audiences prior to its use on Radio 4. As I’ve previously mentioned the tune cropped up on Tony Brandon’s midday show on Radio 2 in 1972 and 1973 when he used it as background music to a daily gardening spot with a character called Ebeneezer Growmore.

Edit 240817: Since I wrote this piece I've found the sleeve notes to the 1977 album by the John Fox Orchestra in which announcer David Willmott writes that from 1974 Sailing By was just one of the tracks used before the Inshore forecast. Listeners wrote in to ask for the title and that it became such a firm favourite that it was used just before the forecast. So that suggests Radio 4 was using it before it moved over to long wave.    

So there you have it: a few questions answered and a few unanswered ones too. One final question: how well do you know your shipping areas? The colour map at the top of this post comes from a 1995 edition of the Radio Times, but one area was inadvertently missed. Can you spot the missing one?


Michael said...

Hi there I also have an interest in The Shipping Forecast and have produced a wonderful poster titled 150 years of The Shipping Forecast and it is divided into 3 sections 1) A brief account of how Robert FitzRoy invented forecasting 2) A full text of a typical forecast 3) the map showing the shipping areas - I would like to sell copies of it to raise funds for the RNLI if you have any ideas or could feature it on your boog ? - Regards, Michael

Andy Walmsley said...

Hi Michael. Email me and I'll see what I can do. radiojottings (at) gmail (dot) com

Brian Winter said...

Hi Andy. During the three days Droitwitch was out in 1979 Radio 4 continued to broadcast the shipping forecast on medium wave and the two newly introduced Scottish long wave transmitters. Also BBC Humberside Merseyside Brighton and Solent took the forecasts. They opened with the phrase "calling all ships, calling all ships". I believe the forecasts were additionally transmitter from marine radio stations as well.

Unknown said...

Hello. I remember there was sometimes a medley of songs that was played prior to the Forecast. Do you know what all of these were???

Malcy said...

That medley was the Radio 4 UK Theme, a selection of British folk songs arranged by Fritz Spiegl and it went out in the early mornings at 5.20am before the Shipping Forecast then.

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