Think it’s hot now? How Britain roasted in TEN-WEEK heatwave during summer of ’76

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By Paul Homewood

Amid the hysteria over the coming heatwave, the Mail reminds us all about the really roasting summer of 1976:

Wildfires have raged, speed restrictions have been imposed on some railway lines and hospitals have already declared ‚critical incidents‘.

The hot weather in Britain this summer is set to peak next week, when the mercury could top 39C (102F) in London.

The current non-stop sunshine has evoked memories of the summer of 1976, when there were 15 consecutive days that saw temperatures of 89.6F (32C) somewhere in the UK.

Overall, there were ten weeks of blazing heat that saw widespread drought, mass standpipe use, and even the pausing of the murder trial of the notorious ‚Black Panther‘, after a woman suffering from ‚heat exhaustion‘ collapsed.

During a First Division football match between Manchester City and Aston Villa, City player collectively lost four stone in weight, prompting the team’s captain to call for an end to ’summer soccer‘.

At that year’s Wimbledon tennis championships, umpires were allowed to remove their jackets for the first time in living memory, whilst major roads were littered with broken-down cars that had overheated.

The extreme weather also caused an increase in the number of 999 callouts to domestic disturbances, as tempers buckled due to the heat.

The summer of 1976 was caused in part by very hot air that had originated in the Mediterranean. The warm weather and lack of rain began on June 23 and did not abate for more than a month.

The highest temperature recorded in the summer was on July 3, when the mercury hit 96.6F (35.9C) in Cheltenham. The average maximum daily temperature was 67.8F (19.9C).

At the Wimbledon championships, where Bjorn Borg would go on to win the first of his five titles and a young Sue Barker made it to the quarter-finals, 400 people were treated for ‚exposure to the sun‘ in a single day.

The conditions were what prompted officials to relax the strict dress code for umpires for the first time since the tournament began nearly 100 years earlier.

The trial of kidnapper Donald Nielson, who was nicknamed the Black Panther and was accused of murdering a 17-year-old woman, had to be suspended at Oxford Crown Court when a woman in the public gallery fainted

In the House of Commons, bar staff walked out in protest when officials refused to allow a similar relaxation in costume rules that would have allowed them to remove their traditional green jackets.

Above them, the Big Ben clock on what is now named the Elizabeth Tower suffered what was its only major breakdown due to metal fatigue caused by the heat. It took three weeks for the clock to be fixed.

Elsewhere, dozens of people desperately dived into the water of Trafalgar Square’s fountains in an attempt to cool off. 

As well as the weight loss seen in the football match between Manchester City and Aston Villa, the Metropolitan Police dealt with 600 more daily calls to domestic disturbances than normal.

As the drought worsened, a strict hosepipe ban was imposed in most places and residents were encouraged to alert the authorities if their neighbours used any water unnecessarily.

Showers instead of baths were encouraged, with the latter only allowed if there was no more than 5inches of water in the tub. 

The drought was worsened by the fact that there had been a lack of rainfall the previous summer, meaning reservoirs and rivers were already low.

The lack of water prompted fires to break out. As well as blazes in Essex and Yorkshire, 300 residents in an old people’s home in the New Forest had to be evacuated when a wild fire took hold nearby.

Farmers struggled too as thousands of acres of crops failed, prompting concerns that there would be huge increases in the price of food.

Street traders in London’s Hyde Park were slammed for charging the grossly inflated price of 40p for a bottle of Coca-Cola, even though they were costing 22p in the Dorchester Hotel across the road.

The weather also caused problems for couples, prompting a newspaper to give them advice on how to keep cool in the bedroom.

The drought became so severe that the then Labour government, led by James Callaghan, considered getting water by tanker from Norway.

Legislation – the Drought Act of 1976 – was passed in rapid time to both impose a nationwide hosepipe ban and to grant the government emergency powers that allowed them to reduce or turn off water supplies to industry.

The then sports minister, Dennis Howell, was made the new minister for drought. 

In Wales, the mains water supply was switched off for up to 17 hours a day.

Each standpipe – an outdoor tap installed on streets – that people had to use was shared between 20 homes.

By late August, there were only 90 days‘ of water supply left in London. In Leeds, the figure was 80.

It prompted t-shirt manufacturers to start selling clothes bearing the slogan: ‚Save Water – Bath With A Friend‘.

Thanks to the dry reservoirs and sections of rivers, fish died in their thousands, whilst birds died of botulism – a disease caused by stagnant, de-oxygenated water.

The heat also caused an invasion of ladybirds, with their numbers so high that they were often unavoidably crushed underfoot. 

The heat on stricken trains on the London Underground became so severe that people took to smashing train windows. 

The trial of kidnapper Donald Nielson, who was nicknamed the Black Panther and was accused of murdering a 17-year-old woman, had to be suspended at Oxford Crown Court when a woman in the public gallery feinted.

However, a week after Mr Howell’s appointment in late August as minister for drought, the rain finally arrived and the hottest and driest days of Britain’s most famous summer were finally at an end.  It had been the worst drought in England in 250 years.

The hot weather of the past few weeks has prompted many Britons to draw on their memories of the summer of 1976.

On Twitter, one wrote: ‚I’m a survivor of the summer of 1976. What a time to be alive. It was amazing. I was 15 and the No government as I remember instructed me in how to behave.‘

Another said: ‚I have no idea how so many of us got through summer of 1976, unscathed. We didn’t have social media to try to frighten the life out of us.‘

A third wrote: ‚A few hot days in July and they’re trying to pretend this weather is somehow unusual. Anyone else remember the summer of 1976, when we had comparable temperatures to now, except it went on for more than two months rather than the usual week or two? This is *not* an emergency!‘

Their comments came as Downing Street called the week’s second Cobra meeting on the heatwave, with temperatures set to rise up to 39C (102F) from Monday. 

Cabinet Office Minister Kit Malthouse chaired the meeting of the Cobra (Cabinet Office Briefing Rooms) civil contingencies committee, just three days after the first crisis meeting was held on Monday.

Rivers are at 30 per cent of normal levels, farmers are using a third more water and Britons have been told to take shorter showers after the lowest rainfall in more than a quarter of a century in parts of the UK.

Farmers warned today of a ’significant challenge‘ posed by the extremely dry weather as they try to keep crops fully watered in the face of rising fuel, electricity and fertiliser costs during the heatwave gripping Britain.

East Anglia is particularly parched this summer after it saw just two thirds of its normal rainfall in the first half of 2022, making it the region’s driest six-month period since 1996 and the 11th driest since records began in 1836.


JULY 15, 2022