HOW THE HEATWAVE HIT OUR ANCESTORS

This summer has been one of the hottest in UK and rest of Europe. With long hot days and little or no rain for the last two months many of us are thankful for the relief of air conditioning in offices, shops, cars and homes. In the heatwave of July 1757 however, there were no such luxuries and the people of Paris sizzled in the hottest month ever recorded with average temperatures of 25 degrees and reaching a high of 37.5 degrees on July 14th.

What impact did the heatwaves of the past have on life in Britain?  Working patterns sometimes changed.  In the 1911 heatwave, factories and quarries in Lancashire began work at 4.30 am and finished at noon to avoid the heat.  There were many strikes around the country with workers demanding breaks and shorter hours and in August the workforce at the Victoria and Albert Docks walked out bringing the whole area to a standstill.  Harvests were taken early as crops began to ruin due to the lack of rain and cattle had little grass to graze on. This affected agricultural prices meaning food and milk was more expensive.

Food spoiled quickly in the days when homes were without refridgeration and this could cause health problems.  Storing ice gathered from lakes and rivers during the winter was only possible in ice stores such as those built on large estates. The UK began to import more ice on ships, mainly from Norway, around the 1850s. This was stored at the London docks in huge ice warehouses, blocks being 330lbs heavy and dragged by horses from the barges.

During the heatwave of 1915, there is Pathe film and photographs of the people of London jumping into the Thames and the Serpentine to escape the high temperatures while on the Battlefields of WW1, the Germans and French dug into their trenches.  During the heatwave of 1949 Londoners took to sleeping in Hyde Park and other open spaces rather than in the small, hot confines of their rooms.

Many people remember the long hot summer of 1976 when drought meant that in many areas of the UK water rationing took place and standpipes were installed in every road. A Minister for Drought was appointed for the first time and in parts of the country a  plague of ladybirds descended. According to the British  Entomological and Natural History Society, 23.65 billion of them were swarming on the South and East Coasts by late July.

There are several websites you can access which will tell you what the weather was like on certain days such as the one you were born: https://www.metcheck.com and for more detailed historical weather data the Met Office have their own archive resource, much of which is online. Go to https://library.metoffice.gov.uk/Portal/Default/en-GB/Search/SimpleSearch.

Photograph is from a scene in Westminster in 1930.

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