Water Saving in the Westcountry in 1976

Who’d Have Thought That, About Drought Podcast Two

More podcasts are available from the Experiences of Drought page.

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?”

Burrator Dam, 2009, when water levels were normal
Burrator Dam, 2009 by Pierre Terre, licenced under CC BY-SA 2.0
Burrator Dam, Devon, during the during the drought of summer 1976 (low water level)
Burrator Dam. 1976 by Crispin Purdye, licenced under CC BY-SA 2.0

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.

More podcasts are available from the Experiences of Drought page.

© Dr Rebecca Pearce, University of Exeter, 2018