Sunday, June 26, 2016
What do YOU remember about the scorching summer of 1976?
What do YOU remember about the scorching summer of 1976? Forget the torrential downpours and bask in this magical slice of nostalgia from a very different Britain
• June 25, 1976, was the hottest day on record for many places, with temperatures pushing 100 degrees fahrenheit
• Heatwave had begun two weeks earlier and would last until the end of August, the worst drought in 300 years
A lioness fainted in Norwich.In Yorkshire, the surface of the M1 started to buckle and to crack. Proceedings in the notorious ‘Black Panther’ murder trial at Oxford Crown Court had to be suspended while a woman was carried out of the public gallery suffering from ‘heat exhaustion’.
At the Wimbledon tennis championships, umpires were allowed to remove their jackets for the first time in living memory and at a Newcastle hospital, laundry staff walked out complaining of intolerable temperatures.
On Merseyside, the AA reported: ‘Nearly every major road was littered with overheated cars.’ And it wasn’t just cars that were overheating. In Hampshire, there was a ‘tremendous upsurge’ in 999 calls to domestic disturbances.
Meanwhile, fire raged across Bellerby Moor in North Yorkshire. It was the most extraordinary 24 hours of an extraordinary summer, and it was June 25, 1976 — 40 years ago today.e
But the stories from around the country that day — in some parts of Britain, the hottest recorded, with temperatures pushing 100 degrees fahrenheit — don’t just show the intensity of the epic heatwave that had begun two weeks earlier and would last until the end of August, causing the worst drought in England in 300 years.
They illustrate what a very different country it was from the one we inhabit now: more innocent, less knowing and sophisticated.
The Southern Echo newspaper proclaimed ‘the Tropic of Hampshire’, and quoted the manager of the Cowherds pub overlooking Southampton Common, who said the heatwave was having a ‘quite ridiculous’ effect on customers, who were asking for up to ‘six lumps of ice in their drinks, instead of the usual one’.
Any kind of drinks would have done for the hundreds trapped for an hour and a half on five Tube trains backed up between Finchley Road and Baker Street stations on what was then the Bakerloo Line, following a signal failure at 10.34am.
On the day that the London-set horror film The Omen went on worldwide release, the real horrors in the capital were underground, where dozens of passengers fainted and others stripped to their underwear.
The suffocating heat was alleviated only slightly when people started smashing windows, initiated by a man later described as ‘a blond sun-tanned giant, bare to the waist’ who began swinging from two straps, launching himself at the glass.
Next day, one passenger described the nightmare: ‘In our carriage, the first window shattering, which seemed to set the fashion for the rest, came approximately 50 minutes after the train had juddered to a halt and some time after the first fainting fit.
‘The blond man glanced at the fainting woman, muttered something inaudible and let fly with his foot at the glass. Everybody else, brushing glass off each other, said that it was a very good idea, but we wished he’d warned us first.
‘After that, every few minutes or so, we would hear distant tinkling sounds from up and down the tunnel. As more windows hit the track it made things a little less hot but not much.’
Eventually, just after noon, the stricken trains limped into Baker Street station having taken 90 minutes in life-threatening conditions to complete an eight-minute journey.
If today’s compensation culture had prevailed back then, who knows what claims would have followed? Yet London Transport, far from offering compensation, scarcely even mustered an apology, pointing out tersely that nobody required hospital treatment.
It was a day on which those who sought respite from the remarkable heat had to pay a price. At Southampton Lido — on a weekday, remember — people queued for three hours to get in. On the coastbound carriageway of the M5 in Devon, there was a 17-mile tailback (or ‘bumper-to-bumper queue’, as it was then known). Indeed, that Friday was the prelude to a weekend which saw more cars on Britain’s roads than ever before, an estimated eight million, described by the RAC as ‘the biggest motoring bonanza ever’.
Packed roads into Margate and Brighton were described as ‘a giant centipede of steel’. Inevitably, there were thousands of breakdowns.
For the AA in the Midlands, June 25 was the busiest day of the year so far, and the burns unit at Birmingham Accident Hospital reported more than 20 cases of motorists scalding themselves by removing radiator caps after their cars had overheated (those were hands-on times).
The AA warned motorists: ‘Flush your radiator regularly, empty out the anti-freeze and check your fan belt.’
Cars did not have air-conditioning and neither did most department stores. In Southampton city centre, only Debenhams had air-conditioning, installed at considerable cost eight months earlier — but it was too expensive to switch on.
An hour’s use would exert the same strain on the electricity tariff as ‘maximum demand’ for an entire month, costing the then unimaginably extravagant sum of £2,500. ‘We didn’t appreciate the full implications,’ said the store manager.
The sweltering temperatures afflicted even buildings where treally serious business was going on.
At Oxford Crown Court, the judge in the trial of kidnapper Donald Nielson, who was nicknamed the Black Panther and accused of murdering coach-company heiress Lesley Whittle, 17, ruled that most of the hearing should take place in the morning, before the heat got too intense.
However, the trial still had to be suspended when the woman in the public gallery fainted. It was the proceedings in another courtroom that blistering Friday, however, that properly showed how dangerous the heat could be. At an inquest in Tadcaster, North Yorkshire, the coroner recorded a verdict of death by misadventure on 16-year-old Stephen Drinkwater who, the week before, had dived into the River Ouse to cool off after spending the day, during a break in his O-Level exams, working in a nursery greenhouse in temperatures of up to 95F.
The sudden shock of the cold water triggered a fatal heart attack.
Animals were also at terrible risk, even those expected to cope with the heat. At Roberts Brothers Circus in Norwich, it all got too much for Roberta the lioness, who fainted and came round only when a bucket of water was thrown over her.
At nearby Norwich market that morning, potatoes cost only 8p a pound, having been 13p a pound a week earlier. This was deeply worrying for growers, forced to deal with a glut because the weather had brought the crop to early maturity.
The situation wasn’t quite as promising as it seemed for shoppers, either. In other parts of eastern England the price of potatoes had dropped so low that many farmers stopped lifting them.
The farmers were facing all sorts of headaches; perhaps it seemed symbolic to them that The Wurzels song I’ve Got A Brand New Combine Harvester had just been knocked off number one in the charts.
More probably, they didn’t notice. They had other problems, the National Farmers’ Union lamenting that, because the grass wasn’t growing, their members were having to feed the cattle with hay that, in a normal year, would be stored until the autumn.
By that Friday, the heatwave was still only a fortnight old in England and Wales, and only just reaching Scotland, where ‘around 50’ anti-apartheid protestors turned up to heckle French President Valery Giscard d’Estaing, as he arrived in Edinburgh to meet the Queen, whose ‘brilliant yellow dress and yellow turban-style hat’ perfectly matched the dazzling sunshine.
In Scotland, as elsewhere, just about everyone expected the freakish weather to break at some point, but already there were dire warnings that Britain was on the verge of suffering the most severe drought for centuries.
While the Wessex Water Authority began a ‘frantic’ search for ‘new sources’, the Anglian Water Authority announced a hosepipe ban. There was one already in the Bristol area, saving an estimated million gallons a day. It wasn’t nearly enough though. A Bristol Waterworks Company spokesman went on local TV news to explain that reservoirs, already low after a dry summer the year before, were losing nearly six million gallons a day through evaporation.
Soon, hosepipe bans would spread to the rest of the country, with tap water rationed in some areas and dramatic plans even drawn up to run a pipeline along the outside lane of the M5, so that water might be pumped from the Midlands to the stricken South-West.
Not that the Midlands weren’t parched. The June 25 editorial in the Birmingham Post, unwittingly hinting at the climate-change debate that rages today, asked whether ‘some radical change’ might be taking place in ‘the weather pattern of the British Isles and Western Europe’. Its verdict was that it was ‘far too soon’ to draw conclusions.
Nevertheless, it is odd now to look back and see how much trouble the 1976 heatwave caused, at least for those of us who were children at the time, and recall it with fondness.
Trying to mitigate the effect of the sun could be fun in itself. The most widely reported piece of medical advice that Friday came from a casualty doctor at London’s Charing Cross Hospital who solemnly recommended a pint of beer and a packet of crisps ‘to replace the liquid and salt you lose through sweating’.
In Huddersfield on the same day, soft drinks manufacturer Benjamin Shaw & Sons proudly declared that it was increasing output by 100 per cent. And the Wall’s ice-cream factory in Gloucester reported an ‘all-time peak’ in production.
Not even ice-cream was without its controversies, however. Gwilym Roberts, the Labour MP for Cannock, was quoted in the Yorkshire Post deploring reprehensible vendors’ tactic of ‘fobbing kids off with smaller dollops in their ice-cream cornets than they dare give grown-ups for the same money’. He vowed to raise the matter with Prices Secretary, Shirley Williams.
For those who didn’t cool off, with short measures of ice-cream or anything else, the heat was overwhelming just about everywhere.
A public information notice warning about the drought, erected by the road in the Bridport area of Dorset in September 1976
At Wimbledon, in the hottest conditions anyone could remember, dozens of people were treated for sunstroke. An Egyptian spectator caught pinching women’s bottoms turned out to be an official at the Egyptian Embassy who promptly claimed diplomatic immunity. A Scotland Yard spokesman said: ‘There was nothing we could do.’
On Centre Court the next day, a young Englishwoman took advantage of the debilitating heat; 20-year-old Sue Barker storming back from a set and two games down to beat Maria Bueno 2-6 6-2 6-1. Bueno, 36, from Brazil, later said that, like a flower, she had wilted in the sun.
For Miss Barker, who was already that year’s French Open champion, victory came as consolation after the announcement on Friday, from Air Chief Marshal Sir Brian Burnett, chairman of the All-England Club, that he would not give in to the women’s demands for the same prize money as the men; they got £10,000 against the men’s £12,500.
‘You are not worth the same,’ he said. ‘You don’t work as hard, and in the early rounds especially your matches aren’t as attractive.’
This year, both men and women winners will each get £2 million.
Those truly were different times.