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Burnt to tinder, 1911
We're never the first to suffer!
It is not easy to describe the manifold misery of the countryside in the fourth week of a fiery drought—day after day without even a little dewfall…
Record-breaking temperatures, wildfires and a drought declared. Industrial unrest. Rising food prices. Political uncertainty and spectres of conflict. We’re talking about 2022, of course, yes? Or if not, then maybe 1976? No: welcome to 1911.
As I write this today, here in England various areas have just been officially declared ‘in drought’ (definitions vary, but of course it clearly means a prolonged period without rainfall, and the consequences of that). Yes, countless other countries cope with these temperatures for months, but here in rainy Britain, we ain’t used to it (yet)! When we hit record temperatures over 40˚C last month, I noticed that 1911 was still there in lists of the top five highest ones ever recorded here, which of course has sent me digging.1
I’m not the first, unsurprisingly. Author Juliet Nicolson has written a whole book about that year, The Perfect Summer: Dancing into Shadow in 1911.2 In it she describes Britain at its imperial peak – but also the cracks that started showing, from dock strikes to early intimations of the First World War on the horizon, and all in the context of an unusually long, hot season that broke records. The highest recorded temperature that summer was 36.7˚C (a record broken in 1990), and the heatwave ground on from early July to mid September. Remember this was still an era with only rudimentary means of refrigeration (in fact, in the US the first gas-powered domestic refrigeration unit was released in 1911), no aircon and less sophisticated medical care, sanitation and crop science than we have today.
One source for describing the drought that Nicolson quotes is a nature column in The Times for 28th July 1911, and I have tracked down the original.3 It’s a lyrical read, and I give you most of it below. (Sadly I can’t identify the author.) Weather reports in same issue mentioned thunderstorms but also more “scorching sunshine” – and of course, as now, that these problems were very much felt across Europe (“intensely hot weather prevailed in France… the heat continues throughout Germany”). I hope you stay cool and refreshed, wherever you are.
FROM A CORRESPONDENT
Comfortable old weather proverbs declare that “drought never bred dearth in England,” and those who live in towns never fearful of a water-famine can always quote with approval such time-honoured rhymes for dry weather as,
Whoso hath but a mouth, Shall ne’er in England suffer drouth.
There is much wisdom for the present emergency in these proverbs, though they date from an age when England was much more of a “sylvan wilderness” than is the case nowadays, when the average precipitation must have been appreciably larger and the difference between the rainy season (April to September) and the drier half of the year more marked. Long periods of rainless weather are certainly less frequent than in any other country in the temperate zones, with the possible exception of New Zealand. Agriculture in this fortunate island has more to fear from an excess of summer rainfall than from a deficiency, and the dead-and-gone makers of weatherwise sayings (which are now perhaps more frequently heard in towns than in the country—it is not easy to explain why) knew this as well as the most scientific of their successors…
The writer has found that the men, old garrulous persons for the most part, who break stones by the roadside in country places invariably make a special study of the weather—so much so and so well known is this proclivity that farmers driving abroad will often stop and partake of their meteorological lore, and, if the final prophecy is convenient, will not be particular to the price of a pint or two… Those who journey in motor-cars might do worse than stop and talk over the next day’s weather with these old-fashioned meteorologists, over whom they have scattered so much dust in the past. I consulted a number of them in the last week of unbroken drought, and they were all in a conspiracy to prophesy its continuance for some days to come…
Effects in London
Even in London, for all that Londoners think themselves independent of Nature’s vicissitudes, it is impossible to ignore the effects of drought. Coalmen, whose booming voices disturb the after-breakfast meditations of the dwellers in middle-class streets, have taken to selling mineral waters—a sight unprecedented in the experience of the oldest Londoners. The lavender man with his charming little folk-song (with the cuckoo's flattened third in its tune) has arrived before his time, and but for the fact that he dare not change the words of his cry would cut down the number of bunches for a penny. Many lonely trees—especially those set in an angle of brickwork where the heat of the sun is concentrated—are beginning to shed their leaves a month before the time. The wild flowers that came with mysterious haste to cover the squalid desolation left by the house-breakers (the necessary kind) are running to seed prematurely. But it is where the town merges into the country—a region much more populous in wild life than most naturalists imagine—that the oppression of the drought began to be really felt by all…
Small ponds and the little streams which still survive within the danger of London and have not, like the Fleet, become part of the drainage system, are all dried up, and the suburban beasts and birds must travel far afield for drinking or bathing. The number and variety of the birds to be seen at the water’s edge along the Thames above Putney Bridge in the early dawn are surprising; on Sunday morning at 3 the writer saw a fox drinking below Harrod’s, and wondered if he was the same surreptitious beast met two years ago in Richmond Park. Wild creatures live in the outer suburbs chiefly because food is so plentiful there and a change of diet is easily obtained. They may be all seen on the river in waterless days by anybody who rises before the sun. And, in the heat of noon, the charitable experiment of placing a pan of water in one’s scorched garden is well worth trying. The sparrows who are content with dust-baths will resort thither for a drink; when they are gone, these little hawk-like creatures, larger and rarer birds, will appear and plunge in bodily, flying back into the trees surrounding in a shower of infinitesimal waterdrops. Water, not food, is the charity birds require during drought; every owner of a garden, however small, should always bear that in mind.
The suffering of the countryside
It is not easy to describe the manifold misery of the countryside in the fourth week of a fiery drought—day after day without even a little dewfall. The fields and hedgerows are burnt to tinder; the July flowers are dead and shrivelled before they had time to perfect the seeds that are their only hopes of resurrection. The clenched fists thrust up from fern-roots are dead; having first opened like the hand of a dying child (sign sorrowful to mothers) too weary to fight for life any longer. [Much more rain must come before the scars of the past wretchedness disappear.) In some cases, though, we may hope for a second growth of summer flowers—a mystery which happened in 1887 in some parts of the country. Even in the deepest and more sheltered lanes it is impossible to find green lives. The crannies and rifts in walled Sussex hedgerows, where one looks for rare ferns and other treasures, hold only handfuls of dry dust…
All domesticated animals are in evil case, though, being economic beasts, they get at least the minimum of water they require, however hard the labourer must work to procure it. But there is no such help for wild creatures. Here and there, if one searches carefully, the dried pathetic shreds of frogs’ bodies may be found in the dust; all that was succulent in these wanderers, caught by the sun when seeking for another marsh or pond, was devoured by birds. Young pheasants and partridges have been lost in the deep crevices opening in scorched clay-lands. As for the rats that long since deserted dwellings to live in the hedgerows, one met them everywhere in the torrid dusk-migrating in shadowy companies in search of water. “The rats be on the move,” said an old Sussex rustic, who did not, however, look upon the migration as a result of the drought so much as a presage of evil to mankind. The watercourses are now thronged with these evil migrants—with the result that geese and ducks often do not return home at the time of the scattering of grain. But the most sorrowful sign of all is the silence of the singing birds. July is never a very musical month; this year, however, all the sylvan music has been mute. Even the “murmuring small trumpets” of gnats and the thin thread of a voice… which is the grasshopper’s impersonal plaint—have been as yet silent in this season of desolation. The silence of the parched countryside was a vast and inarticulate prayer which has been heard at last. But a week’s steady downpour is required.
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