19th May 1976

Guernsey declared a State of Emergency

The summer of 1976 was long and hot. Perfect for lounging about on the beach – but not so good for growing tomatoes. Tomatoes were still Guernsey’s cash crop back then, and the inevitable water shortage was bad news.

Record-breaking shortage

The rainfall in spring of 1976 had already been the lowest for almost 40 years. By mid-summer, rainfall was the lowest it had been since records began. It wasn’t surprising, then, that as the temperature started to climb, the levels in the reservoir started to drop.

The States of Guernsey Emergency Council declared a state of emergency on 19 May, under the auspices of the Emergency Powers Law of 1965. This gave it the power to declare an emergency if “there have occurred, or are about to occur, events of such a nature as to be calculated, by interfering with the supply and distribution of food, water, fuel or light, or with the means of transport, to deprive the community within the Bailiwick of Guernsey or any substantial portion of that community, of the essentials of life”.

That tortuous piece of legalese allowed the States to step in if the essentials of life were disrupted. It was enacted by the Bailiff, John Loveridge.

Emergency powers

It gave the Emergency Committee considerable powers to do whatever necessary for the preservation of peace and supplies. The only condition was that the requirements they impose must not constitute any form of industrial conscription or make it an offence for people to strike. Technically, then, someone whose job required them to act upon the orders of the States, such as a Guernsey Water employee, could go on strike if they disagreed. They could also encourage their colleagues to strike alongside them.

Other than striking, someone who refused to comply could be imprisoned for two years or heavily fined. This would include anyone who used a hosepipe when forbidden. In the event, though, only eight people were reported for over-use throughout the whole drought.

According to a 30th anniversary Guernsey Press retrospective, published in 2006, dealing with it “cost the States Water Board its entire year’s budget in the space of one month”.

Restrictions on use

Car washing and dishwashers were both banned in an effort to reduce consumption. The only residents allowed to use unlimited water were those who had their own boreholes. Even hotels and greenhouses had limits imposed.

The Times reported on 25 May that supplies to private homes had been cut by 50%. They had also been cut by a fifth to tomato and flower growers. Two months later, on 3 July, it reported,

an hotel has had its water cut off for breaking the island’s drought laws. The hotel, at St Peter Port, used double its monthly rations for June so water board officials have decided that it will get no water for up to 14 hours each night for the next few weeks.

According to The Guardian,

On the island’s Fort George ‘millionaires’ estate’ Mr Philip Owens and his family have been cut off completely for using an estimated average of 70 gallons per day more than their June ration of 22 cubic metres. The family, which now has the dubious distinction of being the first in the British Isles to be cut off for excessive water use, is having to fetch supplies in buckets from a stand-pipe in the road outside their £300,000 home.

It didn’t rain until the very last day in August, but not enough to put things right. It rained again two weeks later, but the island continued to struggle until a deluge later in the month. Once the heatwave had broken, the rain continued into October.


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Other events that occured in May

  • Guernsey’s first paid constables were hired
  • Guernsey has had “constables” since the 13th century. Yet, it wasn’t until 1853 that it started paying them. Four men were appointed to the position in St Peter Port and the posts have been maintained ever since. It could even be said that this, technically, marked the official start of the Guernsey Police force. Police […]
  • Read more…