The great drought of 1976: The summer Britain sweltered

The 1976 heatwave
Image: Shutterstock.com | Lyme Regis beach in 1976 | Image: Trevor Rickard / Lyme Regis Beach / CC BY-SA 2.0

As the UK is facing the prospect of drought, we look back at the summer of 1976 and what lessons can be learned from the period that saw hose pipe bans, plagues of ladybirds and standpipes in the streets.

The UK drought of 1976 was one of the most unusual weather events in British history. The drought of 1976 began six years earlier following a record five-year dry period between 1971 and 1975, the lowest since 1850. By the time 1976 came around the water table was severely depleted -reservoirs, ponds and lakes were already half-full- then things took a turn for the worse.

How dry was it in 1976?

It had already been a dry winter, by the time the UK hit May it was obvious that, even if it had rained, there wouldn't be sufficient to refill the depleted stocks of water. Indeed, the period between May and August was the driest since records began in 1776, but it wasn’t until mid-June that the mercury began to climb, creating a perfect storm of too little water and too much heat.


What were the initial consequences?

It’s worth noting that the Drought Act didn’t come into play until the 6th of August, the hottest month of the year, but authorities responded to the crisis sooner by forcing an emergency action bill through parliament. On 3rd July water rationing came into force, but nothing could prevent the wildfires that had begun tearing through woods and forests and sudden, almost apocalyptic, swarms of greenflies. These were followed by their natural predators, numerous and aggressive, ladybirds, that crunched underfoot on pavements, obscured windows and smashed into windscreens.

Lawns and parkland dried up, hardened and cracked into crazy paving, railway lines buckled and the tarmac on the roads began to melt.


How did the drought affect the UK population?

The Drought Bill couldn’t have arrived sooner. Now hosepipes were banned and the authorities took control of domestic and industrial water supplies: in parts of Wales, taps were turned off for 17 hours a day.

Standpipes (upright taps) began to arrive in towns and cities to deliver fresh drinking water supplies to parched residents and the cheeky slogan ‘Save Water, Bath with a Friend’ found its way onto badges, T-shirts, stickers and posters up and down the country, representing more than a degree of humour in the face of adversity. It may be worth noting that taking a shower was relatively uncommon in 70s Britain, so the nation was advised to bathe in no more than 5 inches of water. It was further advised that the former bath water should be saved for other purposes such as adding to toilet cisterns, washing dishes or contributing to the wellbeing of hardy plants.


Working in a heatwave

In the city, it was business as usual. The concept of dressing down was virtually unheard of in 1976, alongside the idea of air conditioning, so even in sweltering temperatures, male office workers were expected to work in the mandatory suit and tie. As a subsequence, heatstroke became a common side effect of the unusual conditions and it’s reckoned that the mortality rate may have increased by as much as 20% in some regions.

August 1976

The month that saw the introduction of the Drought Bill was when the drought was at its peak. Coinciding with the summer holidays, children that were unable to escape to the coast with their parents had to make do with ex-bathwater paddling pools and maybe the odd water pistol.

The concept of sunscreen was virtually unheard of too, the link between sunshine and skin cancer was little known outside of medical circles and suntan lotion, still, a relatively new concept to the UK public, maxed out at factor 15. But none of this mattered to the kids, the summer of 1976 was all about having fun.

Being used to mild, often rainy summer holidays when you couldn’t go out, 1976 was all about being outdoors with friends while the parents sweltered in desert-like gardens or undertook miserable trips to offices or shops in overheated cars with plastic seats and dirty paintwork. Indeed, having a filthy car was even a symbol of doing one’s bit for the greater good.


End of the heatwave

Unsurprisingly, the heatwave came to an abrupt end on the day famous for rain: the August bank holiday. And, boy, did it rain.

In fact, it rained pretty much solidly throughout September (breaking the 1918 record for the wettest September on record) and into October with the most rainfall the UK had seen in 250 years. On the bank holiday alone, two inches of rain hit parts of the UK, now factor in the bone-dry earth onto which the water landed. The initial joy of seeing rain for the first time in, literally, months, turned to dismay with the arrival of flooding.

It was so severe in Polperro, a sleepy fishing village on the southeastern coast of Cornwall, that a man was swept out to sea by a torrent of rainwater that gushed through the streets on the evening of September the 24th. But it wasn’t just ferocious thunderstorms, unseasonal cold weather hit parts of Scotland as early as the 9th of September with some regions recording three feet of snow.


The legacy of 1976

Global warming wasn’t a phrase in 1976, but, arguably, it was responsible for the drought of ’76. Either way, global warming is having an impact on our weather in the here and now, and we can expect more of the same soon. But it’s not all doom and gloom, at least we don’t have to suffer quite as much as the generation that witnessed the drought of 1976. We have air-con at least.