Long, hot summer: The Great British heatwave of 1911

Until this week, the record for the hottest July day was set during George V's rule. In an extract from 'The Perfect Summer: Dancing into Shadow in 1911', Julie Nicholson looks back

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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.

Schoolgirl Amy Reeves, aged 10, took off her boots and stockings and left them on the grass beside a shallow pond at Longcross near Chertsey in Surrey. She was discovered drowned later that afternoon, her head caught in the weeds beneath the water.

Two days later fires began to break out spontaneously along the railway tracks at Ascot, Bagshot and Bracknell, and the gorse on Greenham Common in Newbury caught light.

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.

Motorised fire-engines tested their water jets for the first time on St Paul's Cathedral. The water reached the 365ft-high dome, well above the cross.

By the end of July the combined effects of lack of rain and scorching sun had resulted in a dangerous scarcity of grass for herds and flocks. Pastures had turned brown. Farmers were being forced to raise the price of milk.

On 28 July the nature correspondent of The Times reported that even in the deepest, most sheltered lanes it was impossible to find green leaves and with a note of despair that "the crannies and rifts in walled Sussex hedgerows where one looks for rare ferns and other treasures hold only handfuls of dry dust".

Nor was that all: "The most sorrowful sign of all is the silence of the singing birds. July is never a very musical month. This year however all the sylvan music has been mute. The silence of a parched countryside."

At the beginning of August the constitutional health of England was beginning to falter badly in the continuing heat.

Only at the London Zoo in Regent's Park were there any signs of enjoyment of the oppressive temperatures. Although the keepers' thick uniforms had been replaced with special lightweight jackets, their charges were thriving in the heatwave.

The lion cubs, cheetahs, leopards and jackals in the King's Collection had become unusually active and the lordly ungulates, the rhinoceros and giraffe, strode round their enclosures happier than they had been since leaving the large sunny plains of their homelands.

The royal party had arrived at Cowes, on the Isle of Wight, for the Regatta, "an enchanting picture of gleaming sails and gently swaying masts", and the King, George V, and the Prince of Wales, the future Edward VIII, had taken to cooling themselves with a pre-breakfast swim in Osborne Bay.

But the press had quickly discovered this secluded place. As cameramen jostled to get their shots of the sovereign and his heir in bathing dress, a statement was issued by Buckingham Palace: "If less objectionable behaviour is not observed by the photographers they are warned that steps will be taken to stop the nuisance."

Many miles from the seashore, an infinitely more newsworthy if less obviously photogenic sequence of events was taking place.

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.

That August the striking men were at least relieved to be out in the open wider streets of central London. With its narrow alleys, cramped and airless at the best of times, the East End had become intolerable in the August weather.

In filthy six-storey tenement buildings with narrow stone staircases, four or five people might share not just one room but one bed, crammed into a 12ft by 10ft space, a baby squashed in one corner, a banana crate for its cot. The air was thick with the rankness of unwashed bedding and stale food.

Even during the stifling summer nights there was little chance of rest, according to one exhausted mother, for "throughout the hours of darkness - which were not hours of silence - the sleepless folk talked incessantly."

Across the country the sun continued to burn down, and the hum of activity in meadow and field ceased. The water pump and the well in the village of High Easter in Dunmow, Essex, both ran dry.

Taking advantage of cloudless skies, many keen but inexperienced car drivers had saved up their petrol and took their chance on the roads.

Mr and Mrs George Cain from Yarmouth, Norfolk, skidded on the hot slippery tarmacadam surface of the Yarmouth streets and struck an electric cable. The car was hurled across the pavement and Mrs Cain's sister, Miss Smith, was impaled on the adjoining railings.

At Ditchling in Sussex a newspaper delivery boy drove into an oncoming horse, his van crumpling on impact as the horse was crushed to death on the bonnet.

By late August lassitude had begun to further weaken the nation's energy, as the hot weather hung over England like a brocade curtain. The relentless sunshine seemed to have bleached the colour from life, replacing it with an oppressive haze.

City dwellers were worst affected, and that year holidays as a means of escape were in fashion as never before. Summer holidays had been increasing in popularity over the years since the 1871 Bank Holiday Act had entitled everyone to a day off on Whit Monday in May and another in early August, just as everyone was due days off at Christmas and Easter. But these new work-free days were intended for unrestricted freedom in the sun, rather than for religious contemplation.

In 1911, 55 per cent of the British population were taking the minimum of a one-day trip to the sea in the summer. Some work places, including paradoxically the railway companies themselves, had begun to introduce paid holidays longer than the customary half-day, and the double advantages of good weather and financial security for sometimes as much as a week combined with the ever-improving transport services to make England's coastline a crowded place that August.

There, in the simple, cost-free pleasures of sunshine, sand and water, a fleetingly realisable equality was to be found by the poor, the suffragettes, the trade unionists, and even the parliamentarians.

Sun-darkened skin was still considered most undesirable, the give-away sign of an outside labourer, and special creams to counteract accidental tanning were advertised in the women's magazines. The Lady helpfully advised the use of "Sulpholine" lotion, "a simple remedy for clearing the skin of eruptions, roughness and skin discoloration."

A greater hazard even than sunburn was the risk of exposing naked flesh in public. On many bathing beaches the sexes were still segregated, although at Bexhill in Sussex the experiment of mixed bathing had attracted much excited comment.

A cautious entry from a bathing-machine was the recognised means of making bodily contact with the sea, though at a shilling a time it was not cheap. In the town hall at Broadstairs, Kent, a conservative-minded town (in 1911 it was still being promoted in the South Eastern and Chatham Railway Handbook as Charles Dickens's favourite resort), a large unmissable notice in the hall cautioned that "No female over eight years shall bathe from any machine except within the bounds marked for females." It hung next to a second poster warning that "Bathing dresses must extend from the neck to the knees."

These rules were accepted unquestioningly and were clearly not seen as restrictions, for the editor of the Handbook felt able to boast that Broadstairs was "one of the freshest and freest little places in the world".

The fully enclosed bathing machine was a sort of garden shed with wheels at one end, its walls and roof made either of wood or canvas. Men and women would enter the machine from the back, while it was parked high up from the water line on the gender-segregated beach.

In the pitch-black hut, windowless in order to discourage any peering in, bathers would remove their clothes and put them up high on a shelf inside the machine to keep them dry, before struggling in the dark with the elaborate costume required for swimming.

A sharp tap from inside was the agreed signal for a horse, a muscly man or even occasionally a mechanical pulley contraption to drag the whole machine and its human contents to a line just beyond the surf.

There the bather could slip discreetly into water up to the neck, with no chance of any part of the body being exposed to the view of those who remained on the beach. At the point of entry there was usually an attendant, irrationally sometimes of the opposite sex. Some ladies looked forward to the moment of being lifted into the sea by strong local arms more than any other part of their holiday.

By early September, summer was not quite ready to release its long hold on the year.

There was a feeling that month of a youthful boldness, a feeling which stretched beyond the school walls. On 6 September Thomas W Burgess, aged 37, covered in lard and stark naked except for a pair of thick motorist's goggles and a black rubber bathing cap, stepped into the sea at Folkestone to make his 16th attempt to reach France by swimming across the Channel.

Despite numerous attempts over the last 36 years, no one had succeeded in this since Matthew Webb reached Calais in August 1875. Webb was not there to wave Burgess into the water; he had been killed in 1883 trying to swim the Niagara Falls in Canada.

Averaging a mile and three-quarters an hour and accompanied by a boat whose crew fed him a grape from time to time and 11 drops of champagne every 30 minutes, Burgess followed the irregular course dictated by the tide, a route he described as "a figure of a badly written capital M with a loop on first down stroke".

After 37 miles and with only two and a half left to swim he sensed himself entering foreign waters, and was promptly stung badly by a cluster of poisonous pink French jellyfish. To show he was in no way offended, he asked the boat crew to start singing "La Marseillaise", and to their accompaniment he landed on the beautiful deserted beach at Le Chatelet near Sangatte.

On the day of the swim 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.

The Perfect Summer: Dancing into Shadow in 1911 by Juliet Nicolson is published by John Murray, priced £20

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