The European wide heatwave of '22 produced some extraordinary health warnings but as Britons also sizzle in the unbearable temperatures, minds are cast back to the iconic summer of '76.
The summer of 1976 is seared into the memory of all that lived through it, just what makes the summer of '76 so powerful in the cultural consciousness of the Albion isle?
What was life like in 1976 Britain?
In 2013 an economic survey analysed 17 different countries from 1950 onwards and 1976 was concluded to be the year the UK reached its highest “genuine progress indicator”, a measure considered more accurate than GDP.
In January of that year the Concorde had made her first commercial flight from Heathrow to Bahrain, John Curry then won the first British gold medal in skating at the Winter Olympics and then the UK won the Eurovision song contest with Brotherhood of Man's song "Save all your kisses for me". Harold Wilson resigned as Prime Minister to be replaced by James Callaghan, Liverpool won the UEFA cup and the league title while Southampton overcame Manchester United in the FA Cup final. Number one singles prior to the summer included "Bohemian Rhapsody" by Queen and "Mamma Mia" and "Fernando" by ABBA. Bugsy Malone, The Eagle has Landed and The Man Who Fell to Earth were among the films to grace the British cinemas.
The average wage was £72 a week. A pint of beer cost 32p, a loaf of bread was 19p, petrol was an astonishing 77p a gallon. Half the country owned a telephone, a land line that usually had pride of place on a hallway table or affixed to the wall. Later in the year the Ford Fiesta and Mark IV Cortina would be launched and the Intercity 125 entered service. A humiliating loan of billions from international bankers, strikes and inflation soaring at 17% would sow the seeds for the winter of discontent that was to follow in 1978-79. But the sweltering summer of 1976 was far removed from the cold despair to come.
How hot was the summer?
The glorious, eternal, shimmering heatwave of 1976 is considered one of the longest, driest, sunniest summers on record, although, the summer of 1995 has since been recorded as the driest. The country registered 15 consecutive days from 23 June to 7 July when the temperature somewhere in the country reached 32.2°C (95 °F). 1976 was the hottest summer for more than 350 years according to the Central England Temperature series. The average temperature over the whole summer (June, July, August) was 17.77 °C (63.99 °F), compared to the average for the unusually warm years between 2001–2008 of 16.30 °C (61.34 °F). There have been hotter and more intense heatwaves since, what makes 1976 so embedded in the national psyche was that the hot summer was relatively unusual for the decade and the drought which coincided with the barmy summer.
The Long Drought
A 1976 paper published in Nature by two Met Office scientists states that rainfall in England and Wales in the period 1971-1975 was the lowest for any five-year period since the 1850s. Furthermore the period from May 1975 to August 1976 was the driest since records began in 1717. This was considered a once-in-500-year event, even though the summer of 1995 was drier the ground water supplies were not in such a depleted state.
During the winter of 1974-75, the jet stream that influenced so much of European weather, moved north of the Hebrides, and stayed there for much of 1975. In 1976 it shifted toward Iceland. All of Western Europe was affected by drought – there was a genuine concern for economic collapse in France due to drought. By the end of Winter 1975, most reservoirs in England and Wales were barely half full, and then the spring rains did not arrive in 1976.
The warm spring had seen an increase in the aphid population which led to a boom in the ladybird population. As the dry summer killed off the plants the aphids depended on, the ladybirds swarmed together to seek new food supplies. People reported seeing light aircraft "disappear" in the clouds of bugs. The estimated near 24 billion strong ladybird swarm reportedly started biting people in a desperate attempt to find food and moisture. Butterfly swarms were abound too. These swarms were just another element that secured the summer of 1976 in the national memory.
The government created a Ministry of Drought, with Dennis Howell appointed in late August. Inevitably, the drought led to water restrictions and the first introduction of the dreaded hose pipe ban. Signs and patrols were common place and water rationing came into force. In South Wales, mains water supply was switched off for up to 17 hours a day and stand pipes (water provision from roadside taps) was widespread. People were encouraged to save water by bathing with a friend.
Cultural changes & tension
Many remember the summer of '76 as a sultry shift in cultural norms. People behaved in a rather un-English way, flirting openly in the streets and removing clothes. Office dress code was disregarded. At Wimbledon, where 400 spectators were treated for heat exhaustion on a single day, the stewards rejected the rules and removed their jackets. It is often joked that shorts made their first appearance on the streets of South Wales as fashion choice for everyday use rather than just sport. The simmering heat of the summer is claimed by many to be part of the cause of the emergence of Punk which burst upon the music and fashion scene that year.
Further tensions mounted over the summer which saw violence on the streets of Knotting Hill over the bank holiday weekend and the local carnival festivities. Clashes between frustrated black youths and overbearing police were not the only incendiary outcomes of the summer. Widespread fires across rural and forestry land stretched fire fighting services beyond breaking point. The Daily Mirror urged people to cool off as pub brawls and family bust ups started to increase. The newspaper suggested, like our European neighbours, we should consider taking “sensible siestas”, “stop rushing to the seaside like lemmings”, and “change our nonsensical licensing laws so it’s possible to get a refreshing pint at four in the afternoon”. (At the time, pubs closed from mid-afternoon to early evening).
Those who live in countries such as Spain and Greece must marvel at such stories of infrastructure collapse and social disorder for record temperatures that fall some way short of ordinary summer conditions for the south of Europe. With average summer temperatures in the UK normally well below 20 degrees, the country is not prepared for such heat. Air conditioning is nowhere near as widespread, reflected in the increase in cinema attendance during heatwaves in the UK. Buildings are not designed with such heat in mind. Many homes are designed to retain heat, not release it. The world famous Big Ben clock even broke down in early August. Trains caught fire, car radiators overheated, roads melted.
The stormy conclusion
Mercifully and spectacularly, the heatwave came to a climactic end on 29 August with thunderstorms across the country. As ever, despite a heatwave summer, the August Bank Holiday was a wash out, some things never change. Dennis Howell, only recently announced Minister of Drought was sarcastically rechristened Minister of Floods. This was to herald the coming wet autumn and winter.
Surviving extreme heat - Some Spanish advice
Some advice from our Spanish associates and colleagues who have been surviving extreme temperatures since long before air conditioning was invented.
"It might seem counter-intuitive but you need to close the windows, well, not all of them, keep two open to create a through-flow of air. You want the air to move through your home and not stay still, so open a window in one room and a window in another room." - Juan, English student
"You want to make your home like a cave. It is a bit depressing being indoors in the dark but it is the best way to stay cool. Put your blinds down (at this point we remind María that the English don´t often have blinds) ah yes, well draw the curtains, or... I saw that some people put baking foil on the windows with the shiny side facing out. Keep the sun out because it heats the air. Stay indoors." - María, English student
"Drink very very cold beer or other frozen drinks if you are younger, but very cold beer is the best!" - Diego, Teacher
"It is a something of a cultural phenomenon but I would say drink a nice cup of tea. Not any other hot drink, just tea, coffee tends to dehydrate whereas tea is refreshing and contrary to what you would believe actually helps to cool you down." Ben, Bulldogz contributor
"Freeze a big bottle of water. It should stay frozen all day and is a good cold drink to keep you cool. If you have a fan, you can put it in front of the fan and get some cool air on your face. Good for the office or home office." - Pedro, Accountant