A Brief History

An abstract from a presentation by Dr. Terence Meaden at the first TORRO conference in 1985.

TORRO was formed in 1974 when I came to realise that only by means of a nationwide organisation specifically set up for the purpose would it be possible to determine with acceptable accuracy the extent to which Britain suffers from tornado damage every year.

For many years I had been amassing data on my own, and had carried out several site surveys. These early investigations (1966 October 16, Oxford, five houses damaged beyond repair; 1967 June 13 Trowbridge/Melksham, cricket pavilion with 50 people in it lifted off the ground) and eye-witness descriptions of these and other cases showed me how important individual events could be to life and property. Also, by 1974 my file on British tornadoes was bulging with nearly 750 events, and it was beginning to appear that perhaps 30 - 40 documentable tornadoes annually might be added in ensuing years if enough people were involved in the task. It was hoped by this means to assemble for Britain, future tornado data with minimal omissions, and to analyse and publish the data for the public good. Thus the original aims were to determine with as high an accuracy as possible:

  • The distribution and severity of British tornadoes, past and present.
  • The conditions of their development, so that, ultimately, forecasting guidelines might be feasible by which tornado-producing synoptic conditions could be efficiently recognised.
  • Estimation of return periods so that the future tornado risk at any place may be established.
  • To demolish the text-book misconception that tornadoes occur infrequently in Britain, and hence create a public awareness about the true dangers that exist.

So, in 1974 the first tornado reporting-forms were issued, the first reports produced, and the TORRO intensity scale privately circulated. The scale, based on Beaufort, was devised in 1972. Testing continued for three years, until its publication at a conference in 1975.

Early in 1975 I had the good fortune to discover that Mike Rowe had also been compiling tornado reports for some years. Parts of our collections overlapped, for example with regard to much of the historical search 800 AD to 1800 AD, using Britton's Chronology, Phil. Trans. Royal Society, and Gentleman's Magazine. In several other aspects the collection dove-tailed usefully. I should add that, besides tornadoes, we had both been compiling data on waterspouts and other whirlwinds, hailstorms, ball lightning, and remarkable falls of unusual matter from the sky.

The launching of The Journal of Meteorology in 1975 (October) provided a great impetus for TORRO at just the right moment. It put us rapidly in touch with an expanding group of collaborators and provided an effective publishing medium for the monthly and occasional reports of TORRO. And so it was in 1975, also, Bob Prichard suggested that TORRO should cover conventional thunderstorm reporting with reports being published monthly. Since 1977, this division has been run by Keith Mortimore, and in 1984 the 60-year old Thunderstorm Census Organisation (founded by Morris S. Bower) joined us too.

A hailstorm division was also begun in 1975. A lot of data is on file, and one series of storms had been thoroughly investigated (1983 June 5th). We even have specimens from such storms "on file" in a freezer. Since 1984 this division has taken off anew under the direction of Dr. Derek Elsom. Derek joined TORRO in 1980 and has contributed extensively to TORRO's research studies and site investigations on tornadoes.

Ball lightning has always been of particular interest to us. Several dozen reports have been collected, direct from eye-witnesses, especially through the enthusiasm of Mike Rowe, and a lot of accounts published. In 1985 Mark Stenhoff joined us. He has spent more than a decade in ball lightning study, and has conducted several investigations into particular incidents. His own files included over a hundred known ball lightning cases for Britain.

Next, there is the unusual subject of remarkable showers or falls which offers considerable scope for site investigations and the analysis of hard evidence. The difficulty usually lies in the supposed circumstances of the fall. Many case-histories are on file, but the only one which is definitely "cast-iron" in the sense of being a tornado-related fall from a cumulonimbus is the Bournemouth coke-fall of 1983 June 5th.

Finally I must also mention Mr. Albert Thomas whose speciality interest is weather disasters. He commenced his monthly bulletins of world weather disasters in 1975 and also compiles an annual bulletin of British weather-related deaths.

Authors Footnote: Mr. Thomas has since retired and has been made an honorary member in recognition of his longstanding commitment to the Organisation and its research. Although retired he continues to collate data today.