Summer 1959

Never ending sunshine
by Philip Eden

Before 1976 came along with its exceptional heatwaves and unprecedented drought, the benchmark summer against which subsequent seasons were compared was that of 1959. With nothing remotely approaching a good summer during the 1960s and early-1970s, those of us growing up at the time wondered whether we would ever see another fine summer again.

Although half a century has passed, with summers becoming progressively warmer at least during the last two decades or so, 1959 still holds one or two records.

It was a summer noted for its longevity rather than its intensity. True, there was one short spell, July 4-8, when the temperature climbed above 30°C over a wide area, and readings of 33.3°C were logged on July 5 in London and Norfolk. But for much of the time the heat was not extreme and humidity levels were comfortable. There were some early hints of what was to come, with a spell of exceptional warmth and sunshine in late-February - as high as 19°C in London - and again in mid-April, and the weather became predominately warm and sunny from the second week of May right through until the third week of October. This was in marked contrast to most hot summers since, including 1975, 1976, 1983, 1989 and 1995, all of which gave way to wind and rain in early September. In 1959 the weather seemed to get even better during September and early-October, and we all wondered whether it would ever end.

The temperature reached or exceeded 21°C on 136 days in Southampton, 121 days in Cambridge, 109 in London, 82 in Birmingham and 50 even in Glasgow. Most of these figures have not been beaten since. The 25°C threshold was breached on 37 days in Cambridge, 33 in Southampton, 29 in London, 15 in Birmingham and five in Glasgow.

The downside of this spectacular summer was the drought and the threat of water shortages. Averaged nationally, the five months May to September remains the driest such period in 312 years of records with only 52 per cent of the normal amount of rain. But 1958 had been a wet year, and the rains returned with a vengeance in late-October, so serious shortages were averted.