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The Great British Summer? A Historical Heatwave

By Helen Sunderland (@hl_sunderland

‘The Weather for some Days past is said by the Curious in such Observations, to have been several Degrees hotter than for these four Years past.’[1]

As I write this piece under another cloudless Cambridge sky with temperatures soaring well into the high twenties, this July 1757 report from the London Evening Post seems oddly familiar. The UK’s unusually long spell of dry, warm weather has dominated the headlines in recent weeks, ranging from the serious – such as the two major moorland fires in Lancashire – to the less so. Brits should apparently brace themselves for an impending lettuce shortage and, of course, revive the obligatory ‘how hot does it have to get for a day off work?’ debate. The summer of 1976, which saw over two weeks of consecutive plus-thirty-degree temperatures, has reached an iconic place in popular memory when it comes to this much-loved subject. But looking back a couple of centuries earlier, does our national obsession with the weather have deeper roots?

The unusually hot summer of 1757 provided inspiration for the poet John Scott, with one of his Elegies, Descriptive and Moral, ‘Written in the Hot Weather, July, 1757’.[2] In such heat we might long for respite: ‘O for some secret shady cool recess, Some Gothic dome o’erhung with darksome trees, Where thick damp walls this raging heat repress, Where the long aisle invites the lazy breeze!’ But Scott is quick to remind us that ‘Far worse [is] their fate in many a foreign land’. Casting our minds to the climates of Mecca and Darien, readers are urged to ‘reflect, nor murmur more’. The British stereotype of making a fuss about the weather when people seem to manage perfectly well in warmer weather abroad is, apparently, nothing new.

Before modern developments in agriculture, the food industry and medicine, a heatwave could of course have a far more direct impact on people’s lives. While newspapers suggest on several occasions that the fine weather would bring a plentiful wheat harvest and, with it, cheaper food prices, the story was less positive when it came to people’s health. The Devon surgeon and influenza expert, John Huxham, studied the effect of the heat on his patients. His essay, ‘On the Extraordinary Heat of the Weather in July 1757, and its Effects’ makes for unpleasant reading.[3] ‘The consequences of this extremely hot season were haemorrhages from several parts of the body; the nose especially in men and children, and the uterus in women.’ Headaches, vertigo, sweating and vomiting then followed. Huxham’s conclusion on the causes of fever were again rooted in an understanding of medicine based on humorism, as Carys Brown explained in her recent post on the history of hay fever. He wrote: ‘long and great heats always very much exalt the acrimony of the bilious humours; of which we had this summer abundant instances.’ Thankfully though, Huxham continued, the fever was rarely fatal.

Others jumped on the prevalence of summer fevers for commercial gain. A thinly veiled advertisement for ‘Dr. James’s Fever Powder’ in another issue of the London Evening Post suggested it be combined with measures to alleviate the heat. ‘In this hot Weather, therefore, let the Chamber Door be kept open Day and night, let the Curtains be always undrawn, and occasionally open the Window for a few Minutes to carry off the impure Air.’[4]

What seems most striking, however, is that the 1757 heatwave doesn’t seem to have left a greater mark in the archive. Despite being the second hottest summer in Europe since 1500, exceeded only by the 2003 heatwave, newspaper reports in Britain at least seem fleeting.[5] That much, then, has changed in recent decades. Advances in long-term weather forecasting have no doubt fuelled our weather addiction. But the reason is perhaps simpler. In 2018, talking about the weather remains an easy thing for the whole country to get behind, especially when the alternatives – the ongoing Brexit negotiations, Donald Trump’s upcoming state visit and even the World Cup – are far more divisive.

[1] ‘Country News’, London Evening Post (12-14 July 1757).

[2] The Poetical Works of John Scott: collated with the best editions by Thomas Park (London: Stanhope Press, 1806), pp. 124-6.

[3] The Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London, vol. XI 1755 to 1763 (London: C. and R. Baldwin, 1809), LXVII, p. 204.

[4] ‘News’, London Evening Post (16-19 July 1757).

[5] Jürg Luterbacher et al., ‘European Seasonal and Annual Temperature Variability, Trends, and Extremes since 1500’, Science, 303/5663 (5 March 2004), pp. 1499-1503.

Image: Douglas, the beach, Isle of Man, c.1890-1900 (Library of Congress, via Wikimedia Commons)

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