Odd Things That Happened In Previous London Heatwaves

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By M@
Odd Things That Happened In Previous London Heatwaves
Big Ben clockface with the sun eclipsed behind
Image Matt Brown

As London swelters in another heatwave, we look back at previous decades to see how the capital coped.

London isn't really built for very hot weather. Our homes (and many offices) lack aircon and rail networks buckle in the heat. But how did olden-day Londoners deal with the rising mercury?

1. Everyone piled into the Trafalgar Square fountains

From the Belfast News-Letter, 15 August 1923. mage © Johnston Press plc. Image created courtesy of The British Library Board.

The Cockney urge to frolic in cold water was evident long before we had purpose-built play fountains. Lidos quickly filled up on hot days, and public fountains became impromptu paddling pools.

The two massive quatrefoil pools of Trafalgar Square have attracted generations of Londoners seeking relief from the heat, as the century-old photo above shows. Londoners today still frolic in the fountains, but is it legal? As we found in a previous article, it's a grey area.

2. A skyscraper melted cars

An out-of-focus photo of the Walkie Talkie reflecting intense sunlight

They'd only just nicknamed it the Walkie-Talkie, when 20 Fenchurch Street was redubbed the Walkie-Scorchie. Back in 2013, the concave skyscraper on Fenchurch Street developed the nasty habit of concentrating the sun's rays onto a narrow strip of pavement on Eastcheap. The commotion was as intense as the beam. Some people claimed the rays had melted their shoes or plastic bags. Others turned up with frying pans in an attempt to cook an egg. Londonist's very own camera was damaged in our heroic efforts to capture the image above. One poor guy even found his wing mirror wilted (it was a Jaguar, and he was a Director... so not all that poor.)

Indiana Jones finding the well of souls, using a beam from the Walkie Scorchie

The problem was eventually solved with baffles but, for a few days in September 2013, London had a late-summer heatwave like no other.

3. People dressed like tomfools, then slowly got the hang of hot weather

100 years ago, it was almost unthinkable for gentlemen to go into the office in anything other than a smart black suit and tie. The Westminster Gazette noted the inflexibility during a heatwave in 1922:

"Conservatism in clothing seems to be so deeply ingrained that the vast majority will cheerfully endure the torments of a blazing inferno in wintry black, rather than venture a seasonal indiscretion in light colours, which gives comfort at the expense, perhaps, of a grain of dignity." (Westminster Gazette, 25 May 1922)

But things had moved on a bit by 1937, when the papers noted a more informal approach during a 28 degree August spell: "The heat in London today was so great that men discarded their jackets on the way to business. Sports shirts without ties were a popular male fashion. Business women and girls wore their flimsiest frocks and many were hatless." (Dundee Evening Telegraph, 6 August 1937)

A "city of braces on show" was the verdict of another heatwave in 1950. But the women were even more daring. "We had the spectacle of two typists strolling down stately Regent's Street in ultra-modern bathing costumes, their handbags slung carelessly over their arms. Yet it was typical of the London atmosphere here that no one took much notice, except to cast envious eyes at the cool figures." (Aberdeen Press and Journal, 7 June 1950)

Just pity the poor fashion models who, in that same June 1950 week, had to model winter fur coats along the catwalk.

Lightning
In 1939, a summer storm killed seven people in east London. Image: Gabriel Tovar on Unsplash

4. The lure of a Turkish bath

The idea of immersing oneself in steam during a heatwave might seem counterintuitive, but it had quite a fanbase during the early 1950s.

"The results have been rather startling," said one newspaper. "At one West End Turkish baths, patrons have been staying there all night. The routine is steam, cold plunge and then rest. This is repeated at intervals until the patron is refreshed enough for sleep." (Aberdeen Press and Journal, 7 June 1950)

5. Seven people were killed in one lightning strike

Super-hot weather often leads to thunder storms. On 21 August 1939, on the eve of war, a particular bad storm brought tragedy to east London. A huddle of people were sheltering from the rain in Valentine's Park near Ilford, when it was hit by lightning. Seven were killed and 20 injured. This was the worst lightning strike in London's recorded history, though there is no plaque to commemorate the tragedy. We covered the events in greater detail in a previous article.

Last Updated 18 July 2022

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