Duncan Higgitt remembers how a lack of rain leading up to and during the summer of 1976 led to a serious drought with both severe and lighthearted consequences for Wales…
Wales, UK — The signs were there a year before the temperatures started rising. The summer and autumn of 1975 had been very dry and this continued on into the winter, with just 235mm of rain, or 43% of the long-term average, falling across the UK.
In the spring of 1976, there were several months when the UK saw no rain at all. By the end of April, the alarm bells were going off in what was then called the Welsh National Water Development Authority.
At the end of April, its spokesman was warning, “I would think that if we have not had substantial rainfall, say of three weeks’s continual rain, we could expect extreme measures in homes and industry.
“It could mean homes will have supplies cut off at night and factories may have to go on short time, perhaps working two weeks in every three.”
Those words proved to be remarkably prescient.
On May 19, his superiors briefly thought the heavens had answered their prayers with a day of heavy rain. While children spent most of the time enjoying the sunshine, their parents joined the water authority in keeping an eye on the skies, amid reports of cuts and plans to pipe bacteriological sound but slightly discoloured water – known as “dirty water” – through to homes for use at bath time.
Meanwhile, Wales’s still substantial industrial sector was beginning to feel the pinch. Gordon Reid, general manager of paper manufacturers Wiggins Teape, whose Cardiff and Treforest factories used eight million gallons of water a day, said, “If rationing was introduced, we could be forced to shut down some of our machines”. But the British Steel Corporation, whose Port Talbot plant used some 600 million gallons a week, said that, while it would be affected, much of its water was recycled.
The day of rain made hardly any difference. Of all the reservoirs in South Wales, only those along the A470 in the Brecon Beacons were up to the previous year’s levels, and that was only because their supplies were being held back.
On July 14, the water authority announced 400,000 people would have their water supply cut off at night. It also ordered an end to washing cars and the watering of flower beds, tennis courts, bowling greens and golf courses.
A week later, and Dennis Bowden, its senior civil engineer, said the country could be facing a three-day working week.
“The situation is critical,” he added. “We are doing everything we can to avoid further cuts, but people are not saving enough and the reservoirs are very low.”
There was no shortage of advice. The South Wales Echo, sister paper of the Western Mail, ran a front page lead with the headline, “Water – here’s how YOUR family can save 632 gallons in a week”, with a picture of a young family next to a sea of buckets containing preserved H2O. Suggestions included taking showers and watering the garden with dirty dishwater.
The South Glamorgan area health authority said, “People should pretend they are camping or visiting relatives in some part of the country not directly connected to the main water system. The smell of effluent which can’t be flushed away overnight might be awful, but unless there’s a bug already in the house it won’t make any difference to the health situation.”
The hunt was on for other water sources. A spring discovered in the Severn rail tunnel was used to supply houses in Chepstow and Caldicot, while British Dredging offered bowling and cricket clubs thousands of gallons of water from a disused quarry it owned at St Andrew’s, near Cardiff.
Dai Griffiths, from Evanstown, near Gilfach Goch, told people to ignore water authority warnings about the cleanliness of streams near underground sources, swearing by a morning constitutional he’d been taking from one near his home for three years.
By the start of August, as anger mounted among those cut off at night at the news that they would continue to pay for supplies they no longer received, the water authority said that as many as a million people could now be affected – for up to 12 weeks.
It was hardly better for businesses, with Richard Lillicrap, the water authority’s operations manager, claiming, “To achieve the savings that would be necessary, some industries might have to close down because they cannot run with only 50% of the water available to them.
Then, as Taff Water Division manager Denys Gamblin admitted that the cuts were only “nibbling” at the problem, and the Welsh secretary of the Confederation of British Industry warned that businesses would start going to the wall, a story familiar to Thames Water customers emerged: a burst water main in Newport lost the water authority half of what it had saved in Cardiff, having only collected a third of what was required in the first place.
At first, much of the shortage had centred, almost lightheartedly, on the consequences to the great British tradition of gardening.
As riots erupted during the Notting Hill carnival, the heat playing a major part in raising the temperatures of black Londoners tired of police harassment, gardeners in South Wales were directing their anger towards South Glamorgan Health Authority after sprayers were spotted in use on Glossop Terrace Maternity Hospital in Cardiff, in defiance of a hosepipe ban. The authority blamed maintenance contractors.
The drought brought about the advent of the “midnight gardener”, with people like the Willoughbys of Radyr spotted watering their beds in the dead of night. What they were doing was perfectly legal, taking advantage of a burst main in their road.
But Reg Ford, a Cardiff-based vegetable grower and wholesaler, warned a vegetable famine would precipitate rocketing grocery prices that winter. And Albert Firth, secretary of the Cardiff Branch of the Retail Fruit Trades Federation, added, “The weather is playing havoc with things and many items are getting scarce. Quality is deteriorating, too.
“It is impossible to keep greenhouse temperatures down and things like tomatoes are now getting so ripe that something like 60lb out of every 100lb picked have to be thrown away.” In all, some £500m worth of crops across the UK were to fail.
On the farms, it was worse. As early as the start of July, David Lloyd, National Farmers’ Union information officer for Wales, said, “We have reached a dust bowl situation in Wales and farmers are now crying out for rain.” There were ominous signs for cattle too, which can each consume as much as 14 gallons a day.
The National Coal Board chipped in with some support in August, providing an additional three-quarters of a million gallons a day from an underground source at Llanover, near Blackwood.
But it came too late for the BP Chemicals plant in Barry, where 1,800 people worked, and which was forced to shut down operations after a 50% cut in supplies.
By the end of August, the drought had become a political row, with the Confederation of British Industry in Wales rounding on Denis Howell, the specially-appointed Minister for Drought, and then Barry Jones, Under Secretary of State at the Welsh Office, after they branded business warnings of redundancies as premature and “alarmist”.
CBI regional chairman Zach Brierley said, “Far from calling wolf, we have documentary evidence from some major companies in South-East Wales.
“This shows that if supplies of water are reduced by 50%, there would be reductions in output followed by considerable laying off of personnel.”
However, Mr Howell said up to 70% of South Wales industry would get by, after receiving assurances from Lord Brecon, chairman of the Welsh National Water Development Agency.
Of course, the drought wasn’t all bad news. As well as children delighting in the good weather, like those who used the “Lido” in Briton Ferry, the nickname given to a feeder canal, the shortage also produced some lighter moments.
River bailiffs were kept busy by poachers who took advantage of low levels on the Wye to catch salmon left lethargic by a lack of oxygen, while a Mr M Rosales from Texas suggested hanging snakes on fences to bring rain.
However, it was unlikely Victor Blackwell from Llanerchymedd was left smiling. The 10,000 sq ft factory owned by his company, Rain Beater, turned out up to 1,200 umbrellas a week. He lamented, “Everyone laughs at the umbrella manufacturer during this sort of weather.”
Sport was massively affected. Caerphilly anglers complained in July that a licence to extract water from the River Rhymney for a new greyhound track was affecting chances of a good catch, while the Vale of Glamorgan district council disrupted local leagues by closing three bowling greens in Barry and one in Penarth.
However, days later, the council had a change of mind, and took 2,000 gallons from the Knap boating lake to use on the green at Central Park.
Club secretaries were warning the Welsh Rugby Union Cup could be thrown into chaos because rock-hard grounds could lead to injuries. Gwilym Treharne at Aberavon RFC warned, “If we don’t have rain, we will have to postpone matches.” Newport’s district football league, which had more than 150 teams, abandoned September 4 as the opening day of the new season.
The drought brought with it another highly unwelcome problem: heath fires. Hundreds gave up holidays to assist stretched firefighters, spending weeks beating away at the burning brush. With call-outs running at 100 a day, five times more than usual, part-time firemen sometimes refused to go out because they were being threatened with the sack for spending so long away from the office.
One of the longest burning blazes was on the Blorenge mountain above Abergavenny. It burned for more than six weeks, engulfing residents in nearby Blaenavon in smoke. A crucial 24-hour battle took place in Radnor Forest, near Llandrindod Wells, on August 25, when flames threatened to engulf the entire area.
And then, six days later, it was all over. The heavens opened on August 31, extinguishing all the fires apart from on the Blorenge, which had peat burning by then, and bringing much-needed supplies to reservoirs such as Pontsticill, above Merthyr Tydfil, which was at its lowest level since being built in 1926.
However, that wasn’t the end of weather-related problems for people in Wales and the rest of the UK.
Rain on hard ground brought flash flooding, with places like Newport and Ystradgynlais badly affected. September and October were both very wet months, but water rationing for 600,000 people only came to an end in early October, and remained in force around Caerphilly, Merthyr Tydfil, Brecon, Pontypool and Abergavenny – for some 200,000 customers – for another month.
Drought ’76: factfile The temperature reached 80 F (26.7 C) every day between June 22 and July 16.
For 15 consecutive days, from June 23 to July 7, temperatures reached 90 F (32.2 C), and five of these days saw temperatures exceed 95 F (35 C).
The hottest day of all was July 3, with temperatures reaching 35.9 C, possibly the hottest July day on record in the UK.
At Mayflower Park, in Southampton, a reading of 35.6 C on June 28 ranks as the UK’s highest June temperature.
The drought was at its most severe in August 1976. Milton Abbas, in Dorset, and Teignmouth, in Devon, went 45 days without any rain in July and August.
One fire destroyed 50,000 trees in Hurn Forest in Dorset.
About 250 acres of woodland at St Ives was destroyed when a 15-metre high wall of flame moved at 40mph across the area, leading to the evacuation of 350 people, including bed-ridden patients, from a nearby hospital.
In Surrey, the fire brigade answered 11,000 fire-related calls in five months.
The dried ground led to thousands of insurance claims, eventually amounting to £60m.
British Rail saved thousands of gallons after it stopped washing trains. Wags asked if anyone noticed the difference.