‘Save water, bath with a friend!’ How the drought in 1976 was so bad water had to be turned off

·4 min read
Residents collect their water ration from a standpipe in Devon - John Walters / Daily Mail / Rex Features
Residents collect their water ration from a standpipe in Devon - John Walters / Daily Mail / Rex Features

As Britain faced its worst heatwave in centuries in 1976, ministers discussed whether desalination plants could be the answer to what they feared could be years of drought.

While the same question is being asked almost five decades on as the country swelters again, that record drought offers more than a few parallels - warnings about rising costs and desperate pleas with the public to save water.

Even before the arrival of that red-hot summer, Britain had endured the driest winter in a century. This prompted the National Water Council to earnestly plead in March of that year for people to share baths.

“Sharing a shower or a bath with a friend, or between a husband and wife is a serious suggestion,” officials from the council said in a report from a copy of The Daily Telegraph, “it does not matter whether one follows the other in the same water or whether they shower or bath together. The saving is the same.”

The reason for that early warning, the officials claimed, was so that when serious restrictions came in “the public will not be able to say they had not been told in time to help”.

Unfortunately, the warnings went unheeded.

Farmers suffer, rivers dry up and wildfires break out

A scorching summer followed, leaving Britain’s rivers parched and its reservoirs shrunken. Farmers reported crops ripening too early, reducing yields and threatening rising food prices at a time when inflation was well into double digits.

Farmers reported crops ripening too early
Farmers reported crops ripening too early

In the July 13th edition, the warning came that farmers were losing £2 million an hour (£10 million in current money) due to the effects of the drought and the heat.

Water levels were so low that a 100-mile stretch of the Grand Union canal was shut down while hundreds of local garden shows were cancelled and wildfires broke out across Britain.

The Government responded by appointing a special drought minister, Denis Howell, and racing the Drought Act through Parliament to give water authorities the power to impose limits on domestic use.

Local water authorities across the country put in place standpipes – communal taps on residential streets where families could collect their ration of water once the mains had been switched off – although, in the end, only a few areas, including parts of Devon, had their mains supply cut.

Local water authorities across the country put in place standpipes
Local water authorities across the country put in place standpipes

For many, the drought played second fiddle to a rather enjoyable heatwave. Ice cream sales topped 300 million litres for the first time, traffic to seaside resorts broke all records while a strike at the Courage brewery didn’t stop Britain’s brewers from crafting 3.6 million barrels of beer in June.

While climate change was not yet a mainstream concern in 1976, there was plenty of debate among experts over whether the country should have seen the drought coming, given the dry winter that preceded it.

There were genuine fears that even then Britain was heading towards a drier future. Meteorologists suggested that the first half of the 20th-century was unnaturally wet and had lulled planners into not building enough resilience into the system.

By August, the situation had got so bad that ministers were drawing up emergency plans that included shipping water from Norway. Already, the milk and beer industries had been providing tanker lorries to move water to the worst affected areas.

There were genuine fears that Britain was heading towards a drier future
There were genuine fears that Britain was heading towards a drier future

Prof Robert Silver, an engineer at Glasgow University, suggested to The Telegraph that desalination plants be installed in power stations that would operate using excess heat from the plants as an “insurance policy”.

Ministers were reported to have considered the idea, alongside a much debated “water grid” that would link up the country’s water supplies in a manner frequently compared to the electricity grid.

In the end, those fears proved misplaced, for the time at least. The drought of ‘76 may have built gradually but it ended rather dramatically. The September of that year was the wettest in 200 years.

Such was the clamour from Devon residents to switch the mains back on that they defied orders to wait for engineers and entered the manholes themselves to turn the spatchcocks to open.