Drought of 1976 brought standpipes and shared baths

Ian Herbert
Saturday 22 October 2011 23:39

It was the summer when Demis Roussos and The Wurzels took turns at the top of the charts, England's cricketers were crushed by Vivian Richards' West Indies and when a desperate nation looked each night to BBC weatherman Jack Scott in fervent hope of a downpour.

So severe was the drought of 1976 that crowds cheered at Lord's when a few drops of rain stopped play for a quarter of an hour in mid June. Two months later, with no end to the crisis in sight the Prime Minister, James Callaghan, appointed a drought minister - Denis Howell - whose homespun wisdom raised a few laughs if nothing else. As minister in charge of drought co-ordination, Mr Howell summoned reporters to his home to reveal his own revolutionary water-saving device: a lavatory cistern containing a brick to save water. He also revealed that he was about to save more water by jumping into the bath with his wife.

Then, as now, the roots of the water crisis lay in months of dry weather ahead of the famous, cloudless summer. Between May 1975 and August 1976, England and Wales suffered the driest 16-month period on record, including runs of 45 days without rain in Milton Abbas, Dorset and Teignmouth, Devon. Eventually, householders in Wales and the west of England were left without tap water for much of the day as the nation baked in temperatures that remained stubbornly at 32C (90F) or above. The water supply in Yorkshire and East Anglia was replaced by communal standpipes in the street. Plymouth followed, with one pipe for every 20 houses.

It became patriotic to have a dirty car. Washing-up water was poured down the toilet instead of flushing. And everyone knew the golden rules about bathtime: use five inches of water at most and then pour it onto the garden. Running short on ideas, the Wessex Water Authority even asked experts in Australia about "rain-making". It was thought that "seeding" the clouds with dry ice pellets, or "lining" them with silver dioxide might help. It didn't.

An ad-hoc vigilante movement enforced the rules in Middle England. In September 1976, housewives in Surrey forced a nearby golf club to turn off its water sprinklers by keeping a constant vigil and harassing the groundsmen. Blue hosepipe patrol vans policed the streets to ensure no-one breached the ban, with those who were caught facing fines of up to £400. No one was exempt. When forest fires raged across the New Forest and other areas in the south of England, fire officers were unable to tackle them, for lack of water.

The downpour the nation was praying for finally arrived on the August bank holiday and by October it was raining regularly - but it was not the end of the torture. With the reservoirs parched, Mr Howell became deeply unpopular for insisting that the country would face rationing until December unless consumption was cut by half.

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