It can get hot in Britain. In 1906, 1911, 1955 and – boy – 1976 (‘Save water, bath with a friend’) the heat was unbearable. So terrible is a British heatwave that enduring the scorching sun becomes a sign of indomitable British spirit. Weather that would be routine or simply ‘summer’ in other parts of the world – see newspaper headlines declaring “It’s hotter than Spain / Miami / Hell” -becomes the Great British Heatwave.
These photographs show how Britons coped with heat in the 20th Century.
1st August 1911: Men sleeping on the sands at Westcliff during a heatwave. (Photo by Topical Press Agency/Getty Images)
In The Perfect Summer: Dancing into Shadow in 1911, Juliet Nicolson writes:
On 17 July, 1911, most of the country was perspiring in 80F (27C) temperatures. It became too hot to work after midday, so the managers of the cotton mills and stone quarries in Clitheroe, Lancashire, decided to shut down in the middle of the afternoon. To compensate for lost hours, the quarrymen’s day would now begin at first light, 4.30am.
The managers were delighted that the Daylight Savings Bill had not yet been made law, so they were able to take advantage of the early dawn.
The Times began to run a regular column under the heading “Deaths From Heat”. And the weathermen forecast that temperatures would continue to rise.
By 20 July there had been 20 consecutive days without rain, and Richard Stratton, an elderly farmer in Monmouth, reported gathering his earliest harvest since 1865…
21st August 1911: Nude swimming in Regents canal during a heatwave in 1911. (Photo by Topical Press Agency/Getty Images)
In London the sky seemed unusually clear, and in King’s Lynn in Norfolk a temperature of 92F (33C) broke all previous records for that part of the country…
In London on the first day of the month the temperature maintained a steady 81F, and just as the dock owners were hoping that the strike action of earlier in the summer was a thing of the past, between four and five thousand men employed in the Victoria and Albert Docks stopped work, and the place was at a standstill…
…the temperature recorder at South Kensington registered 92F, and people found themselves crossing over to the shady side of the street. There was still a severe water shortage in pockets of the country, wool workers in Bradford Mills being laid off because there was no water for the night-time cleaning of the wool.
On 11 September the average temperature suddenly dropped by 20 degrees and The Times forecast good news: “The condition over the kingdom as a whole is no longer of the fine settled type of last week and the prospects of rain before long appear to be more hopeful for all districts.”
The Lady magazine was already devoting several pages to new autumn fashions, and sumptuous furs had arrived on the rails of Peter Robinson’s. The long, hot summer was over.
1st July 1913: Men cover their heads with newspapers to protect them from the summer sun. (Photo by Topical Press Agency/Getty Images)
1913: Nannies with their charges under a tree in Kensington Gardens, London, during a heatwave. (Photo by Topical Press Agency/Getty Images)
August 1919: London schoolboys relax in the park during a heatwave. (Photo by Topical Press Agency/Getty Images)
20th September 1926: A group of friends cooling off in Mill Weir, Berkshire during a heat wave. (Photo by Brooke/Topical Press Agency/Getty Images)
circa 1928: Workers at a hat manufacturers in Luton carrying piles of men’s straw hats, which were in demand due to a heatwave. (Photo by Topical Press Agency/Getty Images)
August 1930: A water cart man turns the water main on a group of boys to help them cool off in a street in Westminster, London during a heatwave. (Photo by Fox Photos/Getty Images)
19th August 1932: A bus conductor wipes the sweat from his face as he climbs the stairs to collect fares from the top deck of his bus in Trafalgar Square during a heat wave. (Photo by A. Hudson/Topical Press Agency/Getty Images)
:27th July 1933: London schoolchildren crowding into a padling pool at King Edward Memorial Park, Wapping during a heatwave. (Photo by Fox Photos/Getty Images)
A group of naked boys jumping into the lake at Hyde Park during a heat wave. (Photo by Topical Press Agency/Getty Images)
Two divers jumping off the Embankment into the River Thames in London, near Westminster Bridge. (Photo by H F Davis/Getty Images) May 13, 1934
July 10, 1934. Three women on Blackpool promenade during a heatwave. One wears a divided skirt and the other a straight skirt, both over swimwear. The middle one has a ‘copy’ of the Letty Lynton dress made popular by Joan Crawford in the film of that name. Adapted for the mass market the triple row of frills at the hem are matched by frills at the shoulder forming cap sleeves. (Photo by E Dean/Getty Images)
A group of people take refuge from the heatwave with a hose-pipe shower in their garden pond, Streatham, London. (Photo by Fox Photos/Getty Images) August 26, 1933
circa 1935: A bus driver and conductor stop for a water break during a heatwave in London. (Photo by Topical Press Agency/Getty Images)
circa 1935: A policeman carrying a consignment of straw helmets at Luton Police Station. The straw version replaces the standard blue helmet in a bid to beat the hot weather. (Photo by Fox Photos/Getty Images)
A group of children having a hose-down from firemen during a heatwave in London. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images) 1935
27th July 1935: Pupils have a lesson in the open air in the shade of a tree at Winterbourne, Gloucestershire, during a spell of hot weather. (Photo by Fox Photos/Getty Images)
circa 1935: Typists working on a Cardiff roof-top during a heatwave. (Photo by Fox Photos/Getty Images)
19th June 1936: Valuable racing greyhounds taking exercise in the grounds of Wembley Stadium protected from the blazing sun by a large umbrella. (Photo by Fox Photos/Getty Images)
25th June 1935: Three little boys shelter from the sun under a battered umbrella during London’s summer heatwave. (Photo by E. Dean/Topical Press Agency/Getty Images)
23rd July 1936: Welsh quarrymen work in their vests during a heatwave in Abercarn, Monmouthshire. (Photo by Richards/Fox Photos/Getty Images)
June 1936: A worker distributing blocks of ice for the Pure Ice company during a heatwave. (Photo by Fox Photos/Getty Images)
6th August 1937: Children enjoy a cooling drink from the fountain on Clapham Common. (Photo by H. Allen/Topical Press Agency/Getty Images)
29th August 1936: St John’s Ambulancemen handing out oatmeal drinks in the heat at the football match between West Ham United and Tottenham Hotspur at Upton Park. (Photo by E. Dean/Topical Press Agency/Getty Images)
Chorus girls from the show ‘Sauce Tartare’ at the Cambridge Theatre in London, keep cool on the roof of the theatre with a block of ice, 28th June 1949. From left to right, they are Audrey Hepburn (1929 – 1993), Enid Smeedon and Aud Johanssen of Norway. (Photo by Ron Case/Keystone/Hulton Archive/Getty Images) June 28, 1949
19th April 1952: 19 year old usherette Margaret Lewis from Carmaethen, Wales, who lives in Kensington, caused a stir in Piccadilly when she decided to beat the heat wave and travel to work clad only in bikini and high heels. (Photo by Reg Speller/Fox Photos/Getty Images)
29th June 1957: Spectators shading themselves from the sun at the Wimbledon tennis tournament, during a heatwave in London. (Photo by Keystone/Getty Images)
An ambulance man on duty at the Holborn Oasis swimming pool, London, suffering in the July heat. (Photo by Keystone/Getty Images)January 01, 1964
A teenage girl cooling off in the Serpentine during the Rolling Stones concert in Hyde Park, London, 5th July 1969. (Photo by Reg Burkett/Express/Getty Images)
25th June 1976: A spectator at the Wimbledon Lawn Tennis Championships using an umbrella to shelter from the sun, as Marise Kruger of South Africa plays a match. (Photo by Roger Jackson/Central Press/Getty Images)
Tea lady Alice Bond providing refreshments for office workers, 13th July 1976. (Photo by M. Fresco/Evening Standard/Hulton Archive/Getty Image ) 1976
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