We may have had the odd few scorching days this summer but nothing compares to the summer of 1976. Forty years ago, we were in the midst of the worst heatwave Britain has ever known. For 25 consecutive days the temperature was 27?C (80?F) or above.
Crops were failing, the ground was like dust and we’d all about had enough of Mr Blue Sky, thank you very much.
On August 5, even Big Ben suffered its first and only major breakdown from metal fatigue and stood still for three weeks – a symbol of what was going on around the country as Britain was grinding to an exhausted, red-faced halt.
The drought took hold from May until the end of August. But problems had been brewing well before that. In fact in September 1975, the Met Office expressed concerns after a dry but unmemorable summer. And when an unusually dry autumn, winter and spring followed, it wasn’t long before the worry – and endless heat – reached fever pitch.
Reservoirs and rivers had dried up and fire crews were at full stretch attending infernos blazing through forests and heathlands where the bone-dry earth kept spontaneously bursting into flames. As indeed, it seems, did our tempers.
Before June was out, the Metropolitan Police reported that they’d dealt with 600 more daily calls than normal to domestic disturbances.
Meanwhile, on the London underground, hundreds of hot and bothered commuters on the Bakerloo line smashed train windows to get a gulp of fresh air, but not before many passengers and the odd dog had fainted first!
Even in the ever-sophisticated realms of Wimbledon, decades-old rules of restrained behaviour were broken as umpires were allowed to remove their jackets for the first time since the tournament began nearly a century before. On the other hand, in the House of Commons, bar staff were ordered to keep their green jackets on and promptly staged a walk out. Meanwhile in Parliament, politicians worried about how to deal with a predicted rise in the cost of fresh produce caused by crop failures.
Even the weather presenters were getting fed up with slapping magnetic suns onto maps of Britain every single day. And still the truly unprecedented warm weather continued. When a plague of millions of ladybirds suddenly invaded it truly felt like the last straw.
In a bid to cool the situation, The National Water Council took out full-page ads in the newspapers lecturing us on how to beat the drought by halving water consumption.
T-shirts and badges were made with the slogan ‘Save Water – Bath With a Friend’ imploring us to jump in the tub together.
We were urged to get out the tape measure to make sure all baths didn’t exceed more than five inches of water, which should be tipped out onto the garden afterwards.
Standpipes were installed, one for every 20 houses, as homes were left at various times without a tap water supply, such was the dire water shortage. There were even talks of laying water pipes along the fast lane of the M5 so water could be pumped from the slightly less dry Midlands to the baked south-west.
A moment of relief came in mid-August when the crowd at a cricket match at Lord’s burst into cheers when drops of rain stopped play – but the shower only lasted 15 minutes.
Ironically, we had to wait for the appointment of a dedicated Minister for Drought – poor Denis Howell – before it rained. Denis, whose wife had just appeared on the front cover of a national newspaper washing the family laundry in used bathwater, was ceremonially turning on a stopcock at a housing estate in Yorkshire when at long last, the heavens opened.
Her husband explained to surprised reporters the need to conserve water while it poured down on his umbrella. Rather than the Minister of Drought, Denis was nicknamed the Rainmaker. His appointment heralded an autumn of biblical downpours.
As the rains washed away all our summer troubles, we were soon back to our proper national pastime – complaining about the miserable British weather.
- For more nostalgia, pick up the latest copy of Yours magazine