Heatwave UK: Five great British summers over the last 100 years

Sizzling, sweltering or scorching – whichever way you describe it, this summer has already been a memorably hot one.

We are currently enjoying the longest spell of blazing sunshine for seven years after enduring a succession of washouts.

But what other historic heatwaves have stood the test of time to be remembered as truly Great British Summers? Below are our top five of the last century:


German tourists cooling off in Traflagar Square fountains back in 2003

The highest temperature ever recorded in Britain was set during the sizzling summer of 2003, when the 100-Fahrenheit mark was broken for the first and only time.

The mercury soared to 38.5C (101.3F) at Brogdale, near Faversham, Kent, on August 10, smashing the previous 1990 record of 37.1C (98.8F).

Across Europe, around 70,000 people are believed to have died during the worst heatwave on the continent for almost 500 years.

Britain luckily escaped the worst following a cool and wet two-week period at the end of July and beginning of August.

It led to the worst drought for 27 years and wilting crops led to a 12% shortfall in wheat, causing the price of bread to soar.

But most Britons were simply content to enjoy what was the first sustained heatwave in almost a decade with, notably, a mud-free Glastonbury festival for once.


Man brushing his teeth with water from a communal tap during the drought of 1976 (Rex …The hottest British summer on record was 1976, when for 25 straight days the temperature hit at least 26.7C (80F).

For 15 days during the spell, between June 22 and July 16, the mercury soared beyond 32.2C (90F) somewhere in England.

The temperature exceeded 35C (95F) for five blistering days of the heatwave, peaking at 35.9C (96.6F) on July 3 in Cheltenham.

It was perfect weather for women to wear the some of the decade’s notoriously skimpy outfits, although not so great for men with long hair and flairs.

But there were major downsides as Britain suffered its worst drought in history, with water being rationed in some places by standpipes in the streets.

Some areas went without rain from the start of the main heatwave until the last week of August.


Horse racing fans enjoy the sun at the 1959 Derby (PA)

Prior to 1976, the most memorably hot summer had been in 1959.

Blue skies dominated the horizons for weeks with most places in southern England seeing temperatures above 21C (70F) for at least 100 days.

It was remembered as a gloriously long and comfortable summer – with only five days exceeding 30C (86f) - and few downpours to spoil picnics.

In fact, there was so little rain that the five months between May and September remain the driest on record and resulted in a drought.

A British Pathé newsreel captured the mood of the nation by reporting – with a degree of astonishment - the first downpour of the summer.

"That stuff, yes it’s called rain, something we used to have in England a long time ago," begins the commentary before showing footage of a parched landscape.


The summer of 1949 – which was the hottest in 30 years – also saw one of the worst droughts on record.

A heatwave between mid-June and the end of July exacerbated the water shortages caused by an earlier dry winter.

In London, even nighttime temperatures did not drop below 24C (75C) during this period.

People took to sleeping in Hyde Park and other cool green spaces rather than sweating in their beds at home.

A British Pathe newsreel shows a host of parched landscapes and how Britons coped with water shortages.

Areas hit by drought included bone-dry Rivington Reservoir near Preston and the unnavigable Leeds-Liverpool Canal near Burnley, both in normally wet Lancashire.

Many in rural areas were left without any supply and water wagons – cars carrying the precious liquid in pails? – were filmed driving around offering it to houses.

And, in Derbyshire, a 100ft drop in levels at the Ladybower Reservoir brought to the surface the remains of the village of Derwent, which was flooded in 1943.


Britain was gripped by a terrifying war in the summer of 1915 – but also by a heatwave.

Temperatures topped 23.9C (75F) for most of July and there was little rain until August.

The heatwave came on the back of disasters on the battlefield during the First World War, which had begun the previous summer.

In France, the Germans had dug in and a deadly war of attrition had begun.

And in Turkey, Britain had just suffered a humiliating defeat after a calamitous invasion.

But little of this filtered back to the schoolchildren back home, who spent more time concentrating on how to keep cool.

A British Pathé newsreel shows little Londoners jumping into the River Thames to get some relief from the heat.

Dressed in a sunhat and purple dress 3-year-old Kathryn Wybrew plays in a field of lavendar at Cadwell Farm, Hitchin (Geoffrey Robinson / Rex Features)
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Rex Features
Thu, Jul 18, 2013 11:00 BST