Minister for Drought Denis Howell. Photo:

"What an unbuttoning!" The best historical accounts of long, hot summers

From Samuel Pepys to Denis Howell, extracts from memoirs
July 20, 2017
On 7th June 1665, Samuel Pepys records in his diary:

“It being the hottest day that ever I felt in my life, and it is confessed so by all other people the hottest they ever knew in England in the beginning of June, we to the New Exchange, and there drunk whey, with much entreaty getting it for our money, and [they] would not be entreated to let us have one glasse more. So took water and to Fox Hall, to the Spring Garden, and there walked an houre or two with great pleasure, saving our minds ill at ease concerning the fleete and my Lord Sandwich, that we have no newes of them, and ill reports run up and down of his being killed, but without ground... So by water home, where, weary with walking and with the mighty heat of the weather, and for my wife’s not coming home, I staying walking in the garden till twelve at night, when it begun to lighten [lightning] exceedingly, through the greatness of the heat. Then despairing of her coming home, I to bed. This day, much against my will, I did in Drury Lane see two or three houses marked with a red cross upon the doors, and “Lord have mercy upon us” writ there; which was a sad sight to me, being the first of the kind that, to my remembrance, I ever saw. It put me into an ill conception of myself and my smell, so that I was forced to buy some roll-tobacco to smell to and chaw, which took away the apprehension.”

This was the beginning of the Great Plague, the last major outbreak of bubonic plague in the UK, which over the next year eventually killed around 100,000 people, a quarter of the capital’s citizens.


On 16th June 1858, the American historian John Lothrop Motley notes in his diary after a London dinner party: 

“The thermometer has been at 90 [Fahrenheit, equivalent to 32.2 Celsius] all day, and you may imagine what the effect on wax candles, steaming dishes and a parboiled dozen or two of human creatures must have been. For my own feelings I can only say that St Lawrence on his gridiron was an emblem of cool comfort in comparison.”


On 27th June 1858, Jane Welsh Carlyle writes to Mary Russell:

“It is so long since I wrote, and I have been so bothered and bewildered in the interval, that I can’t recollect if it is your turn or my own to write... I can only say I have had plenty of excuse for all my sins of omission of late weeks. First, my dear, the heat has really been nearer killing me than the cold. London heat! Nobody knows what that is till having tried it; so breathless, and sickening, and oppressive, as no other heat I have ever experienced is!”

The continuing heat had a disastrous effect on the River Thames, then the only outlet for all of the capital’s untreated sewage. What became known as “The Great Stink” made business in parliament intolerable.


Three days later, the Times reported the abandonment of a committee: 

“A sudden rush from the room took place, foremost among them being the Chancellor of the Exchequer [Benjamin Disraeli] who, with a mass of papers in one hand and with his pocket handkerchief clutched in the other and applied closely to his nose, with body half bent, hastened in dismay from the pestilential odour, followed closely by Sir James Graham, who seemed to be attacked by a sudden fit of expectoration; Mr Gladstone also paid particular attention to his nose... The other members of the committee also precipitately quitted the pestilential apartment, the disordered state of their papers, which they carried in their hands, showing how imperatively they had received notice to quit.”

The “Great Stink” concentrated the minds of the legislators. On 2nd August, parliament passed an act allowing the construction of Joseph Bazalgette’s ambitious scheme for enclosed sewers for the capital.


On 24th July 1959, Frances Partridge observes in her diary: 

“London in the heat—what an unbuttoning!... Normally many people wear their clothes rather for the unwritten things they say than because they suit them: whether it is their background (families in the Highlands, social and political values) or to declare their readiness for sex and adventure. But when it’s as hot as now they strip off this print, these flags they’ve been waving with one idea alone—to be cool and comfortable.”


1976 had the hottest summer average temperature in the UK since records began. Few places registered more than half their average summer rainfall. Denis Howell (right), the Labour Minister for Sport, was appointed “Minister for Drought” in 1976 and recalls in his memoirs: 

“It is widely believed that the rains came immediately upon my appointment as ‘Minister for Drought’—and that it has never stopped raining since! The fact is we went a further ten days without rain and in the West Country were down to 25 days’ supply. The situation was growing desperate in parts of Yorkshire and it was arranged that I would travel there for a ceremonial turning-on of a standpipe put up on one of the housing estates... As I turned on the stopcock the rains came, only a few spots at first, but soon we were deluged. The reservoirs were empty and the ground was dried up. It was going to take weeks for the water to soak through the earth and fill the rivers and reservoirs. My appeals for continued water-saving, delivered as I stood in the pouring rain, were amusing but necessary. We had got through a crisis far more serious than most people appreciated. However, the emergency measures we had embarked upon did not need to be brought into operation so we were never able to test the efficiency of a two-line six-inch pipe system laid down 70 miles of the fast lane of the M5 motorway between Bristol and Exeter.”

When the weather broke there was widespread flooding and Howell was appointed Minister for Floods. During the harsh winter of 1978-9, he was appointed Minister for Snow. The relevant chapter of his autobiography is entitled “Man for All Seasons.”