The UK Centre for Ecology & Hydrology’s blog post last month highlighted the precarious hydrological situation following a very dry spring and early summer. Low groundwater levels, reservoir stocks and especially river flows were already prompting concerns around the water resources situation.
One of the questions that’s commonly asked is how the current event compares to the 1976 drought which still stands as the benchmark episode in the UK. UKCEH’s Simon Parry explores the current hydrological situation, how this compares to previous drought episodes and what might be on the horizon.
Transcript of Podcast Four: Impact of the Media Drought in South-East England
Hello again and welcome to episode four in the Who’d had thought that, about drought podcast series. I’m Dr Rebecca Pearce and I am using this edition to pose a question: how, when, and through which media should we discuss droughts?
The 2004 – 2006 drought was once described by Philip Eden as one that was largely political, “characterised by extensive ‘spin’” (Eden, 2008, p160).
From my perspective, this drought coincided with a peak in interest in climate change and climate modelling. And at the same time, a peak in criticism of so-called fat-cat executives. Broadsheet newspapers regularly covered global warming as a topic, and still the scientific community were pushing against a heavy-weight of climate denial. Authors like Fred Pearce were busy writing end-of-life as we know it books like The Last Generation, warning us of the revenge nature would take against us for filling the atmosphere with greenhouse gases and the weather certainly did appear to be changing. However, as the drought slowly developed, and hosepipe bans appeared, it was water company bosses who were criticised for taking large salaries and bonuses whilst their companies invested too little in repairing ageing infrastructure and preventing leaks. Not much had changed in that respect since 1995. Housing developers also came into the frame for building in places where there appeared not to be quite enough water to go around. This political hot-potato that no one wanted to face up to created a void that was filled by the media through endless column inches on gardening tips, Mediterranean planting schemes and water-saving devices.
It seemed as though the media were used to maintain the dialogue about dwindling water resources while water companies in the South-East entered into a battle of brinkmanship each waiting to see who would break first and have to apply for a drought order.
Gardeners were naturally concerned. Panic buying of water butts ensued and arguments began to rumble on in some sectors about the potential impacts of further water use restrictions.
With large parts of the UK unaffected, it is not surprise to me that I have had few people say they can remember this drought. After all, it appears to most that it was just all media hype and in the end, no severe disruption to services was felt. But what was it like to be in an industry where access to large quantities of water was critical to survival. I’m talking about the Horticultural industry.
I spoke to Bob about his long career in horticulture, which resulted in his being in charge of the Chelsea Flower Show throughout the noughties. We compared his experience of the 1976 drought when he was running a busy parks department on the Devon Riviera with the difficulty of trying to prepare for Chelsea, knowing that a drought order, if sought by Thames Water, might prevent it from going ahead. Here’s Bob on 1976…
Bob“I couldn’t help but remember the 1976 drought because probably for the first time in anyone’s memory, of anyone I was working with at the time, we suddenly saw that we couldn’t maintain what we were formerly maintaining with tap water. That suddenly became a no. There was a hosepipe ban being introduced; standpipes were being talked about, if not implemented, in the South Devon area, and there was no way that we could use tap water to water plants; it would’ve been outrageous. So we had to think of other means to do that, and one of the means was to take water which was in a local stream in Paignton, a stream which went on out to sea, extracting water from that, putting it in tankers and then transporting it round to the 12 bowling greens we had in the borough, plus a number of other ornamental horticultural features that needed maintaining. Of course, in manpower, it became quite an exercise, and let alone other resources that we needed, like hiring tankers. Tankers which, interestingly enough, might’ve been employed doing other things. For example, the tankers which would normally have to go round an empty out gullies for dealing with storm water and having debris in them… They were all bone dry, so they really didn’t have anything to do, so it was great that we could commandeer those to come and do other things. We then managed to maintain the areas and keep areas alive and functional at least for the summer.”
And here’s Bob on that agonisingly difficult time trying to decide what best to do for Chelsea…
Bob“Well, I think the position is that whilst you’re able to use mains water out of the tap, everything’s pretty hunky dory, isn’t it? Because you have potable water; you’re able to drink it; nobody really cares whether you put it on plants because it’s quite plentiful. But I think as soon as you have these drought type conditions and people start questioning what you’re doing, it begs so many questions about the ethic approach that you should be taking, and the ethical questions are all about… Is it right, then, to hold a flower show at all, or shouldn’t we hold it? And if we are going to hold it, how do you manage it and how do you keep it alive? If you don’t hold it – and just being absolutely blunt about it – it would make a more than considerable hole in the finances of an organisation like the RHS, who have increasingly relied more upon its income from Chelsea to maintain all the other activities it’s involved in. You take that out; what’s it not going to do? Is it not going to maintain some of its gardens? Is it going to get rid of all its gardeners? Is it going to stop running some of its horticultural work that it carries out so valuably? So I guess some of the problems we had to face was the fact that it was almost inconceivable that we would not have Chelsea flower show. It was perhaps more conceivable that there might be other shows that we wouldn’t run in a drought situation. But Chelsea had been through everything in a hundred years. It wasn’t quite a hundred years old in 2004, but it was in 2013. It didn’t run during the war years, either the first or the second, because the Royal Hospital grounds were used for growing vegetables during those periods, but on the other hand, a lot of that was demonstrable ways in which the nation decided to get on with life, wasn’t it? So that was good. You could almost argue that when we were faced with really hot weather, it was another demonstrable reason to show how we could overcome it. And so we needed to explore every way in which we could still hold the show without necessarily using mains water for anything other than giving to people to drink. And I always remember some of the arguments we had about that, because people used to get very hostile and write to us, or raise the question, “This is terrible the RHS are still holding this show with all these people coming to it,” but of course, the argument about that is, that we’re not eliminating people. They’re transpositioned people who instead of spending the day in Devon, they’re going to spend it in London. But arguably, they’re not going to drink any more in London than in Devon. The long and short of it is we decided at some considerable cost to have our own borehole, which we would then, regardless of whether there was a drought order, use that as a statement of fact of how we were going to run the show. We would use water from the borehole for flushing the loos with at Chelsea, and for watering plants – in other words, for non-potable use.”
Well, I never expected the RHS to eventually sink a borehole to secure water supplies that would be outside a drought order. But I think it is fair to say that newspaper speculation combined with not knowing how things were going to play out, necessitated this quite drastic and expensive outcome.
We’ll be talking about the ways in which drought is communicated, how and why communications happen the way they do, and the best ways to communicate in a crisis, at the About Drought Showcase on March 14th. I look forward to meeting some of you there.
Transcript of Podcast Three: Water Saving Campaigns in focus: 1976, 1983 and Yorkshire in 1995
Hello, welcome to podcast three in the Who’d have thought that, About Drought series. I’m Dr Rebecca Pearce and if you have been following us so far, I’ve been talking about droughts with lots of different people and I for one have found in every conversation, something quite new and interesting to talk about. I think after all the conversations I’ve recorded for the Historic Drought Oral History Collection, I know quite a lot about how we talk about droughts but what about you, the listener? Are you responsible for drought communications? Have you ever had to try and organise a water saving campaign? Have you ever wondered what it’s like to be on the front line, communicating with water users, when reserves run critically low?
Here’s Martin recalling his experiences working for the South West Water Authority in 1976:
Martin“Well, you can try your very best and the first stage in a water supply emergency is to put out lots of media campaigns, and South West Water started doing that, but it had no real political support from any of its predecessor local authorities. It had a very, very unfortunate reactive relationship with the media. So it never put out any good news, it never put out any positive news, it just hid in its bunker and when someone said something nasty about it it didn’t react. So, it didn’t really have a relationship with local political representatives to any great degree, and it didn’t have it with the media. So when it started putting out stuff saying, “Things are getting tight, we’ve got to save water”, there’s a mixture of some people listening and saying, “Oh yes, I can understand there’s a problem” to other people saying, “This a joke” to other people saying, “If they want us to save water they’ve got another thing coming.” Interestingly a lot of the visitors who came down said, “I’ve paid for my holiday, I’m going to have as much water as I like in my two-week holiday, and so long as there’s still some water there when I go, that’s it, it doesn’t matter, I’ve had my holiday.” So you had this big set of conflicting responses coming back, and most people are angry that the authority had let them down. They hadn’t, they didn’t have a system to cope with a drought of this severity. They felt the authority should have, but the authority hadn’t had the money, hadn’t had the time to invest in anything.”
Mmm does that sound familiar? I think that could be a fair description of the relationship between water suppliers and water users in any drought. In episode two we explored some of the ways people coped with water rationing in 1976. Let’s hear some more from Martin.
Martin“People did their best to eke out new supplies or turn to supplies and reduce these compensation flows that were in the rivers. So everything was done to try and keep as much water available as possible. I did meet a couple in Salcombe, who were making prodigious efforts to save water, and they were both in their seventies. They’d taken their little allowance of water for the day, which they’d decided on, which was something like two kettles of water, and they’d manage to use that in a combination of cooking, and then dishwashing and then personal washing, and then lastly putting it on the garden to try and keep the vegetables alive. I thought, “This is extraordinary, these are people who’ve taken the message on, and interpreted in their own way from their recollections of what it was like to be really short of things during the war, and they’ve applied their moral code to using almost no water at all.” Then you’d see some massive great house a bit further down the road with people splashing around in a swimming pool, and you’d think, the business of getting a big different social group to behave in one way isn’t possible. You can impose, you can dictate, you can shut things off, you can do everything you want, but unless people agree with you, it won’t happen.
This split between people who do their bit, those who don’t and quite frankly those who complain is definitely evident in the local news reporting of the time. I think it is fair to say the water authority was criticised and reports of this criticism were aired but the papers did not directly accuse the water authority of mis-management. They let others do that via the letters pages.”
Now here’s Martin recalling a drought in the 1980s. Had anything changed I wonder…?
Martin“But there was one interesting appeal we put out in the 1983 drought, that was carried by the radio companies and so on, and we got a phone call from a chap from Bodmin. He said, “I heard your appeal on the radio to save water, I just want to let you know, that I’m off on holiday for two weeks, and I’m locking up the house, but I’ve left all my taps on, and I hope you run out of water” and he put the phone down.”
Martin“I said, “This is magic, we’re actually getting a public response.” The fact that it’s 180 degrees different to the one we wanted, we have to put on one side. Someone has actually bothered to get in touch with us.”
Rebecca“Yes, they are communicating.”
Martin“Yes, they are communicating. So, you know, from planet headquarters to the real world, there were some beginnings of interaction.”
Who’d have thought someone would be so cross with their water authority that they would deliberately try to waste as much water as possible and who’d have thought that Martin would be so pleased to receive his call?! But how difficult is it for people to receive and accept directions from planet headquarters and are there better ways of communicating with people when we are in a tight spot?
On another planet in another time – Yorkshire Water in 1995 to be precise, Geoff was busy trying to get different departments within the company to share information relating to the looming water shortage in the Halifax area.
Geoff“Yes, you mentioned cultural change and that cultural change Um, looking back, the change from being erm, an Authority to a Company probably took fifteen years.”
Geoff“The culture, even in the mid-(19)90s. When was privatisation? 89 I think, or somewhere around there anyway. In the mid-(19)90s the culture was an engineering culture, sometimes caricatured in terms of drinking water supply, caricatured as ‘if it’s wet, it’ll do!’, which was less and less the case.”
Yeah, I spent a long time trying to, well not trying to, we did change the culture eventually but it’s a slow process and it was embedded in the way that this emerging water supply situation because it wasn’t called a drought for a very long time, the way the emerging water supply situation was being handled. It was being handled behind closed doors in a technical way, without any thought about customers and the potential implications about customers.”
So did we stop talking about droughts in the 1990s? The local newspapers didn’t but there appears to have been a change to the way information was communicated. I’m looking at an article from the Halifax Courier reporting on the fact that Yorkshire water intends to apply for a drought order introducing rota cuts in 15 days’ time. The headline says it all: Deplorable! It cries; Health Chiefs demand probe into Yorkshire Water. The prospect of 24-hour rota cuts is a great cause of concern to public health teams. The article is placed next to the Water company’s Water Watch campaign information, which is simply a factual update of the water shortage.
It says: Reservoir Levels – Yesterday 14.4%, Tuesday, 14.6%, Monday 15%, to give readers the sense of the rapidly dropping water levels. Under this there is rainfall yesterday 0mm, rain for the month, 56.6mm, and then Demand – yesterday, 53.3 thousand cubic metres, Tuesday 52.1 thousand cubic metres. Do you get the picture?
The now infamous tanker drought caused a lot of upset in West Yorkshire but the facts are that reservoirs in West Yorkshire were small and there was not system in place to easily transfer water from the East where supplies were plentiful, to the west. Nevertheless, local people were very unforgiving and local papers were happy to print readers letters that were in the main, critical of the company, alongside the factual and informative water watch campaign.
In the next podcast we’ll continue looking at how communicate in a crisis as we take a look at the two-year drought that mainly affected the south east of England between 2004 and 2006.
In the meantime, you can find more references to the 1995 drought from the Yorkshire Post, Halifax Courier and Hebden Bridge Times, in the Historic Drought Inventory.
Transcript of Podcast Two: Water Saving in the Westcountry in 1976
Welcome to the Who’d Have Thought That, About Drought, podcast series. I’m Dr Rebecca Pearce and I’m glad you can join me to hear some of the interesting and unusual things that happen during droughts – the sorts of things that make you stop and say, “well who’d have thought that?”
For the past four years I have been traveling around the UK talking to people who have specific memories of droughts. For anyone who doubts the accuracy of a person’s memory in this regard, particularly from a drought that happened perhaps twenty, forty, or even nearly sixty years ago, fear not! For these people, the retrieval of their memories is easy because they recall something else that happened at the same time, that had a great impact on their lives. For some these impacts are positive; the birth of a child or a marriage for example. Sometimes it can be something more personally testing that brings the memory back.
In the first of this series we heard from Brian and Glyn who both fought wildfires in the Welsh Mountains in 1976. It was the added impact of wearing heavy uniforms, the extreme heatwave, and resulting dehydration, that helped to strengthen their memories of these fires over the countless others they have attended.
There is often an assumption made that oral history testimony is not terribly reliable. However, I have been able to find evidence that supports these memories, in local newspaper reports. By doing this The Historic Drought project may have cleared up a number of methodological issues for future researchers. I have every confidence in saying that it really is fine to use memory retrieval practices to gather information. Memory does not diminish exponentially over time. Important memories stick and can be recalled at any time, so the key is to find people who say they can remember something because it coincides with something else that had a lasting impact on their lives.
Jane’s testimony of the 1976 drought is an excellent example of this. Though she was only nine years old in 1976 the cliff fire that threatened to engulf her family’s holiday chalet at Whitsand Bay in Cornwall was very memorable indeed.
Jane contacted me after reading an advertisement I placed in a local newsletter, appealing for oral history donors to come forward with their memories of 1976. Jane’s testimony is really worth listening to but here I am going to play a short clip of her talking about the thing that helps her to remember the drought:
Jane“Yeah, that’s why it stuck in my memory. That’s why, when I saw the article, it just took me back to the smell of the smoke and the excitement but being frightened at the same time because it was pretty full-on fire”.
Rebecca“Because I would have thought you were quite brave to stay overnight.”
Jane“Yes. It’s really weird because I did a fire fighting course when I was in the reserves, Naval reserves, ooh, 20 odds year later and they put you in a situation where you’ve got all the gear on and your safe and I suddenly… I was there again, waking up looking out the window, seeing the fireman hosing the garden down. It was the smell and everything and the noise.“
Rebecca“So it does stick.“
Jane“It sticks, yes.“
Rebecca“For that reason.“
Jane“And even now, if I smell… you know, if you go somewhere like… well now you get gorse fires on the moor or the New Forest or somewhere like that. That smell just takes me back to being 9 years old again.“
The fire Jane remembers is well reported in the 16th August edition of the Western Morning News. You can find the full reference for this in the Historic Drought Inventory.
The paper tells how an all-night watch was kept by firemen at Whitsand Bay as Fire raged along cliffs dotted with chalets and tinder-dry gorse. It mentions that several vehicles on the cliff top were destroyed and describes how Firemen, chalet owners and holidaymakers worked hard, forming a human chain passing buckets of sea water as tenders were soon emptied, while Local people supplied cups of tea. All this detail triangulates Jane’s testimony perfectly.
There was something else that Jane talked about that I didn’t expect. She had a very detailed knowledge of the wildlife on the cliffs and what managed to escape the fire and what didn’t. And then she said:
Jane“I can remember finding a completely baked slow worm that I carried around for years until it disintegrated. That was one of my sort of –“
Rebecca“A treasure from 1976.“
Jane“souvenirs. Yes, a treasure, yes.“
I never expected that!
Anyway, in this podcast, we are going to remain in 1976 and with the Western Morning News. Undoubtedly the 1976 drought is still the drought that had the greatest social impact around the UK. After two years of below-average rainfall, the long, hot summer, that most people of a certain age remember so well, threatened the nation’s health and the economic health of the nation. Devon and Cornwall were badly affected areas. Reliant in the main on surface water supplies and only having a small number of reservoirs, the influx of summer tourists who left the cities in droves to escape the intense heatwave, were not so keen to cut their water use, despite the ongoing water saving campaign.
What I find interesting about local news reports from that time is the ‘matter of fact’ style of reporting. Coverage of the developing crisis represented the plight of the different sectors of society that were struggling to cope, and their opinions. There were detailed descriptions of the problems dairy farmers encountered as the main impact initially was on grass, grazing, and the hay crop. The rising price of staple foods such as potatoes were monitored. Details of villages and towns that were due to be rationed by standpipe were also covered, with every street and village named, with its cut-off date. There were appeals for volunteers to come forward to help the elderly and less able collect their water and of course, some criticism of the Water Authority. However, in the main things were broadly positive in that most reports championed triumph over adversity. Novel water saving ideas, canny gardeners winning prizes at flower shows despite having to minimise watering and water-saving ways to wash were all given column inches, creating a backdrop to the drought that was definitely one of the community doing its best to save every drop, from buying 18pence bars of sea soap and heading off to the coast for a bath, to the Navy ordering ships in Port to operate as if at sea, where fresh water would presumably be routinely in short supply.
What really brought the drought into sharp focus was the rather hastily appointed drought minister, Dennis Howell, who had plenty to say on the subject, which was widely reported by the local press. He demanded water savings of between 30 and 50% and was happy to share his opinions on which towns and cities were meeting his demands and which were lagging behind and letting the country down. At one point he said certain parts of the Westcountry had done “too little, too late”, and he meant it. He also made it clear that workers would not be put on short hours and the tourism industry would not be made to suffer. Householders were to shoulder the bulk of the restrictions, eking out the water they collected from standpipes across all the usual household functions; washing, cooking drinking, and toilet flushing.
This is reported in the WMN on August 25th. It says: The people of the Westcountry are told by newly appointed Drought Minister Denis Howell, that the water-saving target has been set to safeguard industry and save jobs. Households will be last in the queue for water after agriculture and industry.
Now listen to how Jan and Paul coped when the supply to their village was cut off.
Rebecca“What was it like in 1976?“
Jan“I can’t remember the actual month that we got cut off completely and had standpipes, but I’d got Becky as a little 18-month-old, and I was either very pregnant or I’d just had Emily. The standpipe was about 150 yards from our house, and the only way to get water back from it was to persuade Becky, at 18 months old, to walk, not go in the pushchair. Because I had to have the five-gallon container in the pushchair and stagger along the road to fill the blessed thing up and then heave it into the pushchair and then push that back with Becky beside me, so it was all around the time, I think, that I, I think I was pregnant.“
Paul“I think we had one set of, was it Terry Toweling Nappies to wash? “
Jan“Becky’s nappies, yes.“
Paul“Then the problem, the problem then was that, because I was working in Exeter in those days, was when I came back this five gallon container then had to cover all the water things. But one of the water problems was that we had this ancient, sort of, mark two converted Rayburn cooker, which had been a solid fuel one, but had been converted to oil, but it was a turn on turn off oil thing, it was just a pool of oil burning. So you had to keep it, that kept burning all the time, and it had a header tank in the roof, which had to keep topped up because of the, sort of, evaporation things, because it becomes dangerous otherwise for the hot water cylinder. So then this water had to be taken up, at least every couple of days, up into the roof, to top up this tank. So some of that water had to be transported into another container and then up a ladder through a little hatch, and what have you. Then it had to cover everything, and with little children of course, the main problem is the nappies because they weren’t disposable in those days. So Jan had a wonderful system of using the water in stages.“
Jan“Yes, reusing water about five times.“
Paul“So apart from drinking it, which we didn’t use it for anything else, the stuff that we were drinking, what,”
You see what I mean about memory? Jan was expecting and that makes the whole thing much more memorable.
When I started working on the Historic Drought Project I didn’t really think about people’s heating systems and how they would be affected by water rationing but this type of problem was reported widely.
By September 9th, there appeared to be no end in sight and the water authority took out a half-page advertisement in the paper prescribing what all households should try to achieve:
Water, Cut it by Half Now. Don’t have a bath – have a short shower or a wash. Flush the toilet only when it’s absolutely essential. Keep wash days to an absolute minimum – wash by hand if possible and use waste water for flushing toilets. Don’t use a dishwasher or waste disposal unit. Don’t put sanitary towels, disposable nappies etc. down toilets. low flows in sewers will cause blockages. Don’t leave taps running for washing/rinsing vegetables/cleaning teeth/washing off sand and dirt. Turn your stopcock by 90% to reduce the flow. Don’t leave taps dripping or overflows running. Use waste water wherever possible. See how you can save 20 gallons a day. Here’s where the water goes: An average bath – 20 gallons. Toilet – 2 gallons every flush. Automatic washing machine – 25-50 gallons/load. Twin-tub washing machine – 15 – 20 gallons/load. Dishwasher – 10-12 gallons/load. Waste disposal unit 1.5 gallons/minute. Running tap – 40 gallons/hour.
Let’s hear from Jan and Paul again, did they follow this advice?
Paul“I can’t remember the sequence. It went from drinking to cooking.”
Jan“Yes, washing vegetables.“
Paul“Washing vegetables, but then if you cooked the vegetables you poured the water when you drained them, you didn’t throw it out, it went doing something, flushing the loo or something.“
Jan“Yes, flushing the loo water was pretty awful by the time it got to that point.“
Paul“Everything else went eventually to the last stage, which was sloshing nappies to do the worst bit of it. Then they had to have clean water to wash them. So some had to be kept aside for that, wasn’t that right?“
Jan“I think so, yes, I think I used to do them in the bath actually, the nappies. “
Paul“Yes, but you had, they had to be soaked first didn’t they, and get the worst off.“
Jan“Yes.And that was the last stage before this water that had done washing up … washing up –“
Paul“Washing us, washing up.“
Jan“The cooking up, the cooking water, that went to the slushing off nappies bit, and then that went out into the garden. But then some water had to kept to wash nappies and to wash ourselves. Baths were out of the question, obviously. “
It seems as though the people may have been quite annoyed that the water authority could not provide to the level they were used to but they understood that they should all pull together and do their bit. And I don’t know about you, listeners, but it sounds like Jan and Paul had quite a tough time. I’m not sure how many of us would be that keen on having to manage with collecting five gallons of water at a time – that’s around 22 litres and about 15% of the average daily usage per person today.
In the next podcast we’ll be hearing from some of the people on the front line, trying to manage customer expectations in droughts. Until then I leave you with this there are 89 items from the Western Morning News and the Western Evening Herald from 1976 covering water crisis, in the drought inventory. One of the interesting things about them is that whilst drought is often mentioned in the headlines, most of the reporting is focused on managing with limited water resources. In the next podcast I’ll be introducing some of the people who have found themselves on the front line, managing water shortages, and looking in more detail into how we actually talk about droughts.
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.”
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?”
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”.
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.