Sydney is suffering today from a few days of hot weather. We are always shocked when it gets hot like this, with the north-westerly wind straight from the desert, and we hide inside with our air-conditioners. At least, that’s what I do.
Our reliance on domestic air-conditioning has developed during my life time. Where I grew up, in Dubbo in central western New South Wales, we got days like this quite frequently in summer. It’s a dry heat, with little humidity. We had an evaporative air-cooler, which was an air-conditioner-shaped box on a stand with wheels that you filled up with water and turned it on. It would blow air, cooled by the water, in the direction you pointed it.
In the evenings, when the sun was low but still quite bright, we would go outside and sit in the shade, much cooler than inside the house. Any slight breeze was made the most of out there. But of course the cooking still had to be done inside, on the stove or in the oven, heating the kitchen, at least, even more.
I went to a high school that was growing faster than the buildings to contain it. We had two demountable classrooms, which were spare classrooms that could be trucked in in pieces and put together onsite quickly. They had a metal roof and were like ovens in summer. We hated them. A class in one of those rooms was torture. I believe those classrooms are still there, in the same place on the edge of the oval, with air-conditioning in them, with more recently erected classrooms alongside.
Christmas Day was spent cooking a large hot meal with roast chicken and vegetables and plum pudding. Chickens were expensive in those days, without battery hen houses, and turkeys even more so. We always had a box of cherries that my grandfather would buy on his annual trip to Sydney. As a special treat we might have bottles of soft drink with dinner. After dinner we would go somewhere and sit, or lie, as still as possible.
Imagine, then, what it was like for our ancestors! What a shock this heat must have been, for those new immigrants!
The clothes of the eighteenth century did not leave any skin bare except for the hands and perhaps the forearms, so they would have been hot, even though they were made of natural materials. They didn’t just wear them once and toss them in the laundry basket, either, as we do. Water wasn’t on tap, for washing clothes, or people, or anything else, but brought by bucket from a dam or river. Kids didn’t play under the hose when it was hot, as we did.
Work had to be done whatever the weather, then as now. Offices weren’t air-conditioned, and I imagine the clerks with their beautiful handwriting in their shirtsleeves on days like today, trying not to get sweat on the big registers we look at now in the archives. The paper was thicker, and I guess it could withstand a bit of moisture!
Farming was mostly small holdings, with little money for livestock, let alone air-conditioned trucks and farm machinery. Farmers are tougher than most of us even now, in their shirtsleeves and hats, out in the fields mending fences, ploughing, harvesting, hay-baling… there is always a long list of jobs a farmer has to do.
Admittedly, they did build houses more practically in those days. Houses had high ceilings and many were of double brick. Farm houses had verandahs all around. But the corrugated iron roof was cheaper than tiles, and it’s incredibly hot to live under. Early houses were mud brick and thatch or corrugated iron.
We talk about global warming and so we may assume that the weather was different in our ancestors’ day than it is now, but look at any newspaper of the period and you can see that generally it was much the same. Perhaps it rained more but that goes in cycles. They had drought, fires, floods, too much rain, not enough rain, and days that were just too hot to bear.
Just like us.
What to do
- Ask your parents what the weather was like for them when they were young. Did it get hot like this? What did they do to keep cool?
- Ask your grandparents and their generation the same questions.
- Look through local newspapers from this time of year. You may see stories about record temperatures, bushfires, dam water levels – similar stories to those we see today.
- look at climate statistics for your local area at the Bureau of Meteorology. Look at the average monthly temperature and rainfall and imagine what that meant for day-to-day living.
- Put on a long, high-necked dress and go shopping! (just kidding)