Bleak midwinter and drought

Weather and British agriculture in the twentieth century

Archive photograph of a snowdriftDr John Martin held a MERL Fellowship from 2010 until 2011. This online exhibition offers an overview of the work he undertook during this period. As John himself explains, the Fellowship provided him with an excellent opportunity to utilise the Museum's outstanding collections to further his research into the impact of weather on the agricultural sector in the twentieth century:

'In an age of global warming and increasing international food insecurity, our understanding of the impact of previous instances of abnormal weather represents a serious omission on the part of British agricultural historians. This lies in stark contrast to research being undertaken overseas. Coming as I do from a farming family, I have direct experience of the profound effects that inclement weather can have on the agricultural sector. Alongside my explorations of MERL's rich collections, this personal experience has proven a significant asset in enhancing my own understanding of this critically neglected area.'

Indeed, the research John has undertaken during his Fellowship plays a small but nevertheless key role in helping us to understand major environmental issues and contemporary food concerns. Scholarly activity relating to food security, both historical and otherwise, has been designated by the Research Councils of the UK as one of the five 'Grand Challenges of Modern Research.' This particular project underlines the fact that a nuanced understanding of the past can help guide how we might tackle key challenges that lie ahead for the British countryside.

John's work concentrated on three main incidences of extreme weather, each of which is seen to have had a profound impact on farms and farming. Scroll on to read about his exploration of the major drought of 1975-1976, or click on the following link to find out more about the bad winters of 1947 and 1963.


Unseasonal extremes: the drought 1975-1976


In an age of potential global warming and, in particular, the possibilities of warmer and drier summers it is an opportune time to reflect back on the way previous periods of prolonged hot weather have affected the agricultural sector and how this has in turn impacted on the wider economy and society. The most memorable of these periods in the twentieth century was probably the devastating drought of the mid-70s (May 1975 to August 1976), which many recall as the so-called 'hot summer of '76'. Such folk memories of sunshine serve to disguise the more serious impacts that this phase of extreme weather had on British agriculture. Precipitation in most areas was less than 50 per cent of normal while June, July and August 1976 was the hottest three month summer period ever recorded. Analysing and understanding the impact of hotter summers can help us understand more recent examples. Indeed, in 2006 a five month period covering May to September inclusive featured an average temperature that eclipsed every comparable period since the seventeenth century. The message for both agriculturalists and for the wider population is that the climatic extremes of 1975-1976 were not a one-off and we should ignore them at our peril.

A detailed analysis of the drought of 1975-1976

The 16-month period from May 1975 to August 1976 is the longest dry spell ever recorded in Britain. Across vast tracts of southern and eastern England, where MERL is located, precipitation ran to little more than 50 per cent of its normal levels. June, July and August 1976 constituted the hottest summer ever recorded. This combination of dry weather and high temperatures was so unusual that it was predicted that it would not be repeated for another thousand years.

These stark conditions had a profound effect on agricultural output, with arable yields plummeting and potato production declining by more than 35 per cent. Livestock production was also adversely affected due to the higher price of animal foodstuffs and stress induced by the hot weather. On the 5th August a Drought Bill was rushed through Parliament granting the Water Authorities the power to limit, or even cut off, water supplies. This was followed on the 24th August by the appointment Dennis Howell as the 'Drought Supremo' or Minister of Drought. Ironically, on the August Bank holiday, heavy and prolonged rain fell on the parched ground, which had become iron-hard in places. Widespread flooding led to Howell then being appointed Minister of Flooding as well. Although the rain brought the drought to an abrupt end, water-saving measures continued.

The drought of 1975-1976 had a profound effect on the farming community and influenced the government's approach to the agricultural sector. Nevertheless its effects have merited scant attention in the annals of agrarian history, principally because it occurred at a time of dramatic change in this area of the economy, coinciding with the after effects of the international crisis of 1973-1974, and with Britain's entry into the European Community, and the subsequent teething problems originating from the Common Agricultural Policy. The drought undoubtedly merits examination alongside and in relation to such complex and influential developments as these.

These other, broader factors identified above have traditionally been regarded as the main causes of the unprecedented rises in commodity prices that occurred around this time. Archival resources at MERL have allowed for comparison of the magnitude of this drought with other dry periods. They have enabled the construction of a map to illustrate regional variations in the incidence of the drought. This has been complemented by a detailed investigation into the way individual farms and farmers were affected by chronic shortage of water and by abnormally high temperatures.

The wider impact of drought in the mid-1970s

The initial intention of this research project was to look exclusively at what happened to agriculture during this crucially neglected period. On reflection it seemed more sensible to embark upon the ambitious task of evaluating the impact of this drought as a possible causal factor in the international crisis of the mid-1970s. As a result, ongoing work has begun to explore the impact of three interrelated crises; the commodity price explosion, the collapse of the Bretton Woods agreement, and the OPEC oil crisis. Collectively, these seismic shocks destabilised the international economy, heralding an end to stability and to the boom in world trade which had prevailed since the early 1950s.

Contemporary studies tended to portray an apocalyptic vision of Britain's prospects. To many, Britain's entry into the European Community epitomised the country's declining importance in the world. In 1976 the embattled Labour government was forced to go cap in hand to the IMF in order to secure a $3.9 billion dollar loan. This was the largest to date that had ever been granted by the institution. These challenges were articulated in contemporary accounts of the period such as Isaac Kramnick's Is Britain Dying? Perspectives on the Current Crisis (1979), which raised concerns about the way Britain was underperforming and failing to compete in comparison with its industrialised competitors. Samuel Beers' Britain Against Itself (1982) was written in a similar vein. In their seminal work Britain's Problem:Too Few Producers (1978), Robert Bacon and Walter Eltis attributed the causes of the country's underperformance to the over expansion of the public sector. On a comparable and rather pessimistic note, Tam Dalyell's Devolution: The End of Britain (1977) attributed the demise of the country to the emergence of nationalism in the provinces. This kind of internal strife was widespread and, concurring with Dalyell's now infamous warnings, heralded the rise of nationalist sentiments in Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales placed the very future of the United Kingdom in jeopardy.

Whatever the different causes advocated for the problems that emerged at this time, the salient features of this genre of accounts was that the abnormally dry period of the mid-1970s had played little part in the crisis. This is a view which, largely by default, has become an integral part of prevailing historical wisdom about the 1970s. Utilizing a wide variety of national and local sources including newspapers, contemporary personal accounts and interviews, this research has begun to investigate the impact of this period of bad weather on the agricultural sector and the farming community. Through this Fellowship work, it has been possible for the first time to show that there was another important dimension to the broad-based crisis of the mid-1970s, induced by the widespread impact of the devastating drought across the UK and Europe. The response of the farming community has been analysed by considering the differing responses of individuals - the opportunism of some and the more considerate actions of other - a suite of micro-histories that has begun to reveal the hidden impact of the 'hot summer', from the fields and grassroots of the agricultural sector, right through to the international political and economic turbulence that it fuelled.

Return to introduction


Cold crises: Bleak midwinter 1947 and winter 1963


Like hot summers, extreme winter weather can fuel popular reminiscences. Two prominent examples of this phenomenon include the 'bleak midwinter' of 1947 and the long winter of 1963. In 1947, following the first snow falls on the 22nd January there was an initial cold spell during the weekend of 24-26th January. This developed into the big chill, which ran right through February and on into the middle of March. A number of records were established during this period which still stand today, even after taking into account the winter of 1963, 1979, and the period between December 1981 and January 1982 The floods that followed these cold snaps only served to worsen the situation. The 1963 winter, although not so severe in many respects, probably constituted the longest sustained period of cold weather since the early seventeenth century. Examination of phases of extreme cold of this nature can help shed light on immediate and local agricultural economies of the time, as well as on wider systems, both national and global.

A detailed analysis of the winter of 1947

The first three months of 1947 constitutes one of the most severe spells of weather experienced in this country, possibly since the early seventeenth century. One of the most depressing records was of never-ending dullness, with the vast majority of British inhabitants denied the merest glimpse of the sun for virtually all of February. The observatory at Kew recorded no sunshine from the 2nd to the 22nd February, the longest period ever yet documented. The mean monthly temperature for February 1947 was the lowest for that month ever recorded at -1.9⁰ C; February 1963 it was merely -0.7⁰C. Many areas located close to the centre of England and farthest removed from the moderating effects of maritime influences experienced more severe variations in temperature than regions adjacent to the coast.

The searing cold was compounded by a severe wind chill factor and snowfall that was both prolonged and deep by normal standards. Many areas were snowbound. The snow which accumulated throughout January, February and the early part of March finally began to thaw in middle of the month but this only worsened the situation. With the ground still frozen hard by the intense cold this quickly led to massive run off of melt water at a speed and volume which prevented drainage systems from coping. Prolonged heavy rain compounded the problem. The Thames Valley and the Fens were particularly hard hit. These unique conditions in 1947 resulted in an 'annus horrendus' and major watershed for the post war Labour administration, in the career of the

Hugh Dalton, Chancellor of the Exchequer at this time, noted in his memoirs that this winter crisis, along with a fuel crisis that accompanied it, constituted 'the first really heavy blow to confidence in the Government and in our post war plans [and which] soon began to show itself in many different and unwelcome ways.' By this time the Labour government was also facing the termination of lend lease and heavily dependent on massive dollar loans to sustain its balance of payments crisis, collectively bringing the pound under constant attack, causing industrial production to fall and construction to be virtually suspended. The abnormally bad winter was an important but crucially neglected causal factor in the crisis of 1947 and, played a key role in Labour's eventual electoral defeat a few years later.

Under the unusual circumstances that the Labour government faced, the importations of high-priced feeding stuffs which had to be paid for using scarce dollars had to bel restricted as far as possible, In order to alleviate the financial crisis, the government had already rationed bread in 1946, a policy which even Churchill had declined to implement and was virtually without precedent, having last been used in 1802. In spite of the country's wartime efforts to increase food production it was still a considerable way short of self-sufficiency, particularly in respect of fats, meat, grain and dairy products. Sterling and the wider empire could alleviate some of these difficulties without draining Britain's precarious dollar reserves, but the remaining items (largely fats) had to be acquired from non-sterling sources, principally the United States. In response the Labour government embarked upon an ambitious, but ill-fated plan to grow groundnuts in West Africa. All of these developments had a causal relationship with extreme winter weather and its impact on the state of British agriculture.

Longer terms effects of the 1947 winter

Content forthcoming

The winter watershed of 1963 - ongoing work

Surpassing the bleak midwinter of 1947 in terms of longevity, the winter of 1963 offers a useful comparative case study. 1963 has been widely regarded as a major watershed for the British political system, economy, and society. This was apparent in terms of replacement of the Conservative Prime Minister by Alec Douglas Hume ( not clear??),as well as social changes including the Aldermaston marches and the challenge to the establishment posed by the 'Great Train Robbery'. These incidents were, of course, immediately followed by the 1964 General Election in which the Labour Party, headed by Harold Wilson, took control. As with the crisis of the mid 1970s, and the winter of 1947, the role of the abnormal weather in 1963 has received scant attention from historians. Following on from his Fellowship work, John is in the process of comparing the impact of the 1963 winter changes with those which occurred during 1947.

Return to introduction


Further resources and outputs

Selected primary sources examined at MERL

  • Farmer and Stockbreeder [open shelf access]
  • Farmers Weekly [open shelf access]
  • The Field [open shelf access]
  • Rex Paterson Archive [reserve archive holdings - FR Pat]
  • Shooting Times [open shelf access]

Selected primary sources examined elsewhere

  • Daily Mirror
  • House of Commons Debates
  • Mass Observation Archive
  • Meteorological Magazine
  • Ministry of Labour Gazette
  • Telegraph
  • Times

Secondary sources

  • Bacon, R. and Eltis W. Britain's Problem: Too Few Producers (1978)
  • Beers, S. Britain Against Itself (1982)
  • Booth, G. 'Winter of 1947 in the British Isles' Weather 62(3)61-68
  • Cairncross, A. Years of Recovery: Economic Policy 1945-51 (2005)
  • Childs, D. Britain Since 1945 (1979 - plus subsequent editions)
  • Dalton, H. Memoirs 1945-1960: High Tide and After (1962)
  • Dalyell, T. Devolution: The End of Britain (1977)
  • Diaz, H. F. and Murname, R. J. (eds.) Climate Extremes and Society (2008)
  • Eatwell, R. 1945-51 Labour Government (1979)
  • Eden, P. Great British Weather Disasters (2008)
  • Fyrth, J. (ed) Labour's Promised Land: Culture and Society in Labour Britain1945-51 (1995)
  • Fyrth, J. Labour's High Noon: Government and the Economy (1993)
  • Glantz, M. H. Currents of Change: El Nino's Impact on Climate and Society (1996)
  • Kaiser, R. G. Cold Winter Cold War (1974)
  • Kramnick, I. Is Britain Dying? Perspectives on the Current Crisis (1979)
  • Kynaston, D. Austerity Britain 1945-1951 (2007)
  • Martin, J. 'The Bleak Midwinter 1947' in Rural History Today (BAHS) 18:1&8
  • Martin, J. 'Long Hot Summers Revisited' in Rural History Today (BAHS) 19:1&8
  • Martin, J. The Development of Modern Agriculture: British Farming since 1931 (2000)
  • Marwick, A. British Society Since 1945 (1990)
  • Pearce, R. D. and Pearce R. Attlee's Labour Governments 1945-51 (2011)
  • Pelling, H. The Labour Government1945-51 (1984)
  • Robertson, A.J. The Bleak Midwinter 1947 (1987)
  • Williams, F. Prime Minister Remembers: The Memoirs of the Rt Hon Earl Attlee (1961)

Research outputs and activities

Significant outputs from this period of concentrated research have included various papers on the subject of his study, as presented at conferences and symposia:

  • 'Case Study of the 1975-6 Drought on England and Wales.' Irish Environmental Network, Dublin University, 15 November 2011
  • 'The Agrarian Crisis of the mid-1970s: the British Experience.' 25th Anniversary Summer Conference, at the Centre for Contemporary British History, Kings University, London, 8 July 2011
  • 'Turkeys and Game Birds: alternative routes to consumer legitimacy in Britain since 1960.' Food Anxieties: Negotiating Trust in the Modern Food Chain, Workshop, organised by Professor Andrew Godley, Henley Business School, University of Reading, June 29, 2011
  • 'Droughts in Wales: A Case Study of the 1975-6 Agrarian Crisis.' Climate Change Consortium of Wales, Aberystwyth University, 27-28 April 2011

As a result of the research time afforded by his Fellowship, John has also been able to continue research and publication in a range of other areas. During the period under consideration, particular outputs benefitting from this affiliation with the Museum have included:

  • Martin, J. 'The transformation of lowland game shooting in England and Wales in the twentieth century: the neglected metamorphosis', International Journal of Sports History (forthcoming 2012)
  • Martin, J. 'Paths to Productivism: Agricultural Regulation in the Second World War and its Post Legacy in Great Britain and German Annexed Austria', in Paul Brassley et al War, Agriculture and Food: Rural Europe from the 1930s to 1950s (forthcoming 2012)
  • Martin, J. 'Legacy of Partition, 1947-2009: Creating New Archives from the Memories of Leicestershire People' (in conjunction with Richard Bonney, and Colin Hyde) Midland History (2011)
  • Martin, J. 'The Transformation of Lowland Game Shooting in England and Wales since the Second World War: The Supply Side Revolution', Rural History (2011)
  • Martin, J. 'British Game Shooting in Transition 1900-1945', Agricultural History, Volume 85 Number 2 Spring 2011)

In July 2011, in relation to his research into food security and as a result of support he has received through the MERL fellowship, John was interviewed by John Craven (Countryfile). The resultant programme was broadcast on 7 August 2011 and watched by 6.58 million viewers - its popularity only being eclipsed by 'New Tricks' and 'EastEnders.' Also in 2011 John was appointed Programme Consultant for the eight part series 'Wartime Farm' being produced by Lion TV for BBC 4 and the Open University. Although the Museum has already played a part in research activity for this series, John has been actively promoting MERL's resources and value in this ongoing project.

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