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Report: “Trafalgar, the Weather and Collingwood” 19 March, 2010

Posted by Molly Joyful in Cuthbert Collingwood, Events, Nelson, Royal Navy, Talks.
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Granville Thompson attended last night’s illustrated talk “Trafalgar, the weather and Collingwood” by Dr. Dennis Wheeler. He was so kind to post about the event in a comment here, but it would be a shame if those who didn’t subscribe to the comment-feed would miss out on it. So I took the liberty to repost it here.


Last night, we were treated to the BBC Shipping Forecast for October 21st 1805 and saw the weather map of the day for the Iberian Peninsula, along with (had he had the technology) what Collingwood (and significantly, others too) would have seen as a satellite image of the gathering storm.  And this all based on actual weather data, including from the Spanish station at Cadiz, methodically recorded on ships and at shore stations at the time.  The speaker explained how this data has been rationalised with modern methods and how an accurate picture of the weather has now been built up for every single day back to 1685!!

We also saw reproductions of extracts from the Victory’s log book and Nelson’s personal journal, with their corresponding meteorological observations.

The conclusion of the discussion which followed Dennis Wheeler’s fascinating talk was that while Collingwood would have correctly interpreted the signs of the approaching storm and accurately assessed its severity, nobody could have predicted its duration.  And this was apparently a seriously unusual storm in that respect.  Therefore, perhaps anticipating a couple of days of bad weather, Collingwood believed that, for the most part, the ships could have ridden it out.

The question was also asked as to why Collngwood was not so strongly criticised at the time for the loss of so many prizes.  In addition to the focus being on the victory and the loss of Nelson, it was emphasised that the ultimate aim was the destruction of the Franco-Spanish Fleet and that if that happened on the rocks or from being overwhelmed by the sea, rather than from cannon fire, then it had anyway been fulfilled.  Prize money, although significant, was incidental to the strategy.

Dennis Wheeler is a cracking speaker and much more widely versed on the political and strategic elements of Trafalgar than I think we all thought he might be – easily able to answer wider historical questions than might be expected from a meteorologist!!

A nice balance to the mainstream topics and well attended too.  I also heard him say that some material from his presentation will be made available for the Festival website.

– Granville Thompson