Who’d Have Thought That, About Drought Podcast One
More podcasts are available from the Experiences of Drought page.
Transcript of Podcast One: 1976: Fire, Heat, and Uniforms
Hello, I’m Dr Rebecca Pearce and you’re listening to the ‘Who’d have thought that’ About Drought podcast series. In this series I am going to be sharing with you some of the very interesting and detailed information that contributors have shared with me in my quest to record memories of past droughts from around the UK. What do I mean by ‘Who’d have thought that?’ well, that’s just it; highlights from my encounters with willing memory donors when they have said things that I never would have thought about in connection with the impacts of and responses to droughts in the natural and social spheres. Things like this:
Brian “I can remember the leggings that we used to wear back in the 70s and that were made of plastic and the helmets, believe it or not, were made out of hardboard….That’s right, yes, and you wouldn’t believe that they would make leggings out of plastic but they were yellow plastic they were and, I’ll be honest with you, they used to melt very easily, especially on the bottom where your wellington boots were.”
Yes, who’d have thought that in the 1970s we would have been sending people to fight heath and mountain fires in plastic and hardboard? That was Brian, a retained firefighter in the Herefordshire fire service. We were discussing the difficulties he and his colleagues encountered whilst fighting fires during the long, hot, summer of 1976.
Of course, Brian is quite happy with the uniform he has today:
Brian “…today, right, the equipment, the leggings, the tunic, it’s all fire resistant now. It’s absolutely top kit.”
Brian was not the only one who struggled with the uniform. Here’s Glyn, another fire fighter talking about the Mountain Fires in Wales that same year and in particular, the Blorenge Mountain Fire that started next to his home town of Blaenavon.
Glyn “There were a lot of firemen because I think the whole of the South of Wales was on fire. A lot of them were started deliberate…The ’76 one, it’s a funny thing that day because I put the call in.
Rebecca Oh, really?
Glyn “Yes, because me and the wife… I was working. I had to go to work at six
In the evening, onthe night shift. So I said to the wife, ‘we’ll have a little picnic up the
Keeper’s, nice day.”
Rebecca That’s the Keeper’s Pond up there?
Glyn “Up there, yes. We were having a nice little picnic and then I could see the fire starting. So that spoiled our day.”
Rebecca Did it just sort of spontaneously start?
Glyn “Spontaneous, yes. There were no children involved. From then on, it was nine weeks of graft.”
Rebecca What did you see initially, literally just a few flames?
Glyn “Just a bit of smoke, but I knew what was going to happen because it was so dry, it was.”
Rebecca Nine weeks, so what was that work? What was the nine weeks of graft like?
Glyn “Very tiring. You were just tired from start to finish.”
Rebecca What kind of area did the fire eventually cover?
Glyn “Quite a few acres because as you come up over the Keeper’s to your left-hand side, all that was burning”.
Rebecca That obviously was burning because there’s a lot of peat underneath as well as the bracken, the heather on top. How did you go about fighting the fire?
Glyn “With beaters.”
Rebecca Right, so it was all done with beaters?
Glyn “Most of it was done with beaters until finally… there are two ponds we could go from to make a relay, that’s the Ball’s Pond they call it, and the Keeper’s Pond. They had two relay lengths from there.”
Rebecca When you say a relay, this is sort of hoses joined together?
Glyn “You put about three or four lengths of hose out and then a small pump in between and that’s how it goes on. Most of it was done by beaters. Then we had to bring the Green Goddesses in”.
Both Brian and Glyn explain in their oral history recordings that were made for the historic drought project, that fire officers would often work twelve hour shifts without breaks back then. Not only did they have to wear heavy tunics and plastic trousers, but they didn’t generally carry drinking water.
Dehydration was a serious problem and removing a part of the uniform could get them into trouble. At one point, Glyn got so hot he took off his tunic and fortunately for him his commanding officer said he completely understood that it was impossible to cope in the heat in full uniform.
Of course, today things are very different. Fire engines are not only equipped with the means of fighting fires which includes knapsack sprayers that make heath fires easier to control but they also carry drinking water and some even have tea and coffee making machines onboard.
In the UK we have both summer and winter droughts. The intensity of the final three months of the drought in 1976 came about because it was preceded by two dry winters and the summer of 1975 was also dry but not quite as hot.
For lots of people, 1976 was a great time for outdoor fun and quite often just sun-bathing. For those who had important roles protecting the health and safety of the nation often they were not able to dress down. Like Mary who was in charge of an isolation ward in a hospital.
Mary “Well, we were told that there was a problem with Lassa fever being brought back from Africa to here, and Marburg disease as well, which is similar to Ebola. It comes from monkeys and so on, and fruit bats. We had, sort of, tried, to, sort of, get together a kit to deal with it, but until you do it you don’t really know. One day I was phoned to say that the ambulance people were bringing in a chap from North Devon, and they thought he might, he had been in contact with Lassa fever, but I didn’t know in what way…So we quickly organised ourselves and got dressed up, you know, and this poor man arrived, looking very bewildered with a mask on his face, and the ambulance man dripping with sweat in this double suited and all the rest of it. They brought him in, put him into bed. By the time I’d made him a cup of tea, settled him in, taken his temperature, showed him where things were, I was just finished. You know, because we had this non permeable personal protections suits..”
Rebecca no, so how long do you think would have been your maximum in a suit?
Mary “Half an hour, at least, per patient, you know, in the room. Then you’d have to come out and drink and strip off. We all had our hair cut short, you know, that was the other thing, you know, girls with very long hair ended up with, sort of, almost crew cuts, because you just couldn’t cope with hair round your neck… You went on duty and you were just soaked in about half an hour. Yes, you never felt really fresh, ever….. Yes we were getting desperate really. Everybody got very tired because people would go off sick, just through heat exhaustion really, you can’t go on in that temperature for long.”
We think of the 1976 drought as the standpipe drought though not all parts of the country experienced water rationing to that level. However many towns and villages in Wales and Devon were affected by rota cuts or standpipes. The merits of both were debated and rota cuts were considered to be more manageable, but they had the unintended consequence in Wales of making it even harder to fight fires as Glyn went on to explain:
Glyn “Well, we had one incident where the water board they shut the water off and that was over Crumlin. We had a bad fire there and it ended up going to some cottages and I thought, ‘We can’t beat this out,’ so we had to have water. So we phoned the board and they got the water just in time. Just in time. Or there’d been a couple of cottages gone up. So that’s how it went.”
With so few opportunities to access water and exhausted fire crews, the mountain fires raged for weeks and caused a lot of lasting damage. I asked Glyn how it ended.
Rebecca So eventually the fire went out but did it really need to rain quite a bit before it completely went out?
Glyn “Yes. It started raining a little bit but not a lot. You need a lot of rain on a mountain fire because the peat goes down sometimes six or perhaps seven feet in some places. We used to know that because we’d be walking along and…”
Rebecca Oh really, you’d just sort of disappear in?
Glyn “Yes (Laughter) it was hot I can tell you!”
Rebecca Oh, I bet, yes. I didn’t know that.
Glyn “And we never swore”.
Rebecca Very good.
Glyn “Good boys we were.”
Rebecca Good. I’m glad to hear that.
Blaenavon is now an industrial world heritage site and some of the success of the site can be attributed to the fire in 1976 according to local historian Dr Nathan Matthews.
Nathan “It was quite a damaging fire. A lot of the heather moorland was destroyed. Lots of animals, sadly, lost their lives. But interestingly, a lot of the area’s industrial heritage was actually made more visible by the fire. It removed a lot of the heather and the brackens, and you could see a lot of the industrial remains of the area.”
I’ll be talking more about the connections between droughts and archaeology in the next podcast and I hope you can find the time to join me for another selection of who’d have thought that moments but in the meantime, if you want to find out more about the impacts of the 1976 drought, or you would like to hear the my conversations with Brian, Glyn and Mary in full, these can be found via the Historic Drought Inventory. In the inventory you will also find plenty of information from local, and regional newspapers that detail the full extent of some of the major fires in Wales and the Westcountry, and in particular, the Blorenge Mountain fire is described in detail in items from the Free Press of Monmouthshire, incorporating the Pontypool Free Press and Herald of the Hills.