1911 heatwave UK

August 1911: A group of girls have waded into the Serpentine in London's Hyde Park to keep cool during the heatwave
During a steamy, record-breaking British summer, unease - even madness - filtered through the bright sunshine.

One sweltering August morning, it became too much for one man, who set off on the ten-mile walk from his Essex village to his office in the town of Braintree.

He had never known temperatures like it. After each mile, he removed a piece of clothing and hurled it into the hedgerow as he passed.

Hat, jacket, waistcoat, tie, shirt, trousers, all decorated the wilting hawthorn on his route. He was arrested as soon as he hit Braintree High Street, stark naked, semi-raving and certified by Braintree police as suffering from 'heat insanity'.

Then, like now, it was a summer of unprecedented heat lasting from May to September, as temperatures rocketed above 100F.

This was the steamy backdrop for another big Royal event (a Coronation of a new King) and an official visit to London by a controversial potentate - not Donald Trump, but the German Kaiser, the new monarch's power-hungry first cousin whom no one quite trusted to be Britain's friend.

1911 heatwave UK

The heat was too much for these men who fell asleep in the park on the hot summer's day
In some ways 1911 is a world lost to us, a past that is a foreign country where they did things differently, where cars were outnumbered by horse-drawn carriages, where motorised fire engines tested their water jets for the first time on St Paul's Cathedral, and where the only means of mass communication other than newspapers was to be found in the crowds attending every national and local event.

The European Union was still two world wars away and Brexit a term 100 years from being invented.

Yet then, too, Britain seemed as if it was on the edge of momentous change. Germany, with whom we had such a 'special relationship', felt menacing, a fear that would prove well-founded.

The country was in conflict. But it wasn't Brexit that divided the nation. The railway and dockers' unions went on strike and women, campaigning for the vote, lost all confidence in the Prime Minister.

Some wonder if anything much has changed. Despite the sunny, blue-sky idyll of this summer, we share with the Edwardians a sense of foreboding about what fearful news might be on the horizon when the rain eventually arrives.

Heat affected everyone, no matter what their background. The fashion pages today are full of the scantiest swimsuits and T-shirts aimed at coping with the heat.

It is easy to forget the advantages we have over the super-clothed, electricity-deprived, unrefrigerated, sunburnt Edwardians - and I'm not just thinking of our air-con, plentiful ice cream and sunblock.

1911 heatwave UK

Women try to avoid the sun in 1911 with parasols and wide-brimmed hats
On June 22, 1911, the peers and their peeresses arrived at Westminster Abbey for the Coronation of George V and his wife, Queen Mary, in full ermine rig, tiaras and ball gowns. Knowing the service would last several hours; cucumber sandwiches had been hidden in the silk lining of their coronets. As the heat in the abbey rose, so the butter began to melt and rivulets of grease ran down their lordships' faces on to the service sheets.

In August, those same butter-drenched lords - who made up the few hundred families who collectively owned a quarter of the country - saw their voting rights restricted in the Parliament Bill. They would not be able to obstruct a Bill passed by the House of Commons for longer than two years. Many thought this was the beginning of the end.

For some, the exuberance of life continued unextinguished by heat and enhanced by the long daylight hours. Socialites crammed in their usual programme of gaiety as intensively as the poor made their grievances apparent. It was as if time was running out.

If today we have been engrossed by the antics of Love Island, 1911 saw sell-out audiences for the mesmerisingly sexy Ballets Russes at Covent Garden, brought to England for the first time by the impresario Serge Diaghilev. His lover Nijinsky spellbound audiences with his gravity-defying leaps.

1911 heatwave UK

Boys bathe naked in London's Regent's Canal
The ballet enchanted Rupert Brooke, a young poet at work during the day on his first volume of poetry, spending evenings swimming naked in the river near his home in Grantchester and travelling up to London for the ballet 17 times that summer.

For others, the sunshine guaranteed the summer of their lives. Beaches up and down the country were packed. Bathing huts in Brighton preserved the modesty of those pulled down to the water's edge by horses or muscly young men before they were released into the waves without revealing so much as a naked ankle. Up on dry land, ladies in their finest lawn tea dresses twirled their lacy, voile parasols as they promenaded along the seashore for onlookers to admire.

Those unable to afford the rent for a deckchair simply stood and stared. Brian Calkin, a young St Paul's choirboy who had been lucky enough to be chosen to sing at the Coronation on June 22, was spending his summer holidays with his family in Felixstowe. There were donkey rides, fortune-tellers, candyfloss sellers and 'real-live' mermaids complete with long rubbery tails. One day when the summers of his childhood were over, Brian privately pledged he would join the Army even if he had to fudge his date of birth. He did just that, and died defending his country in July 1918.

Of course the Edwardians lived in a more innocent, technology-free age when the public were 'protected' from knowing what did not concern them. Press control was absolute, with the editors of newspapers co-operating with the Government and Royal Family to keep confidential or alarming stories out of their pages. Tweets were several lifetimes away and transgressions were rare and dealt with at once.

No prying lenses penetrated the basement of the swanky RAC Club in Piccadilly where the Home Secretary, Winston Churchill, and his friend and lodger, Foreign Secretary Edward Grey, pounded up and down the brand-new, mosaic-lined swimming pool discussing in total privacy the impending domestic and foreign crises for which both men were responsible.

On July 1, just ten days after the bellicose Kaiser, Queen Victoria's grandson, strode up Westminster Abbey's red carpet as guest of honour at the Coronation, a German warship had sailed towards North Africa and invaded Agadir in French-occupied Morocco; France was Britain's ally. The story at home was no less alarming. The suffragettes had all but given up hope in their dealings with the indecisive Liberal Prime Minister Herbert Asquith. In response to his procrastination over their campaign for the vote, the violence of suffrage action was in danger of sabotaging itself. In 1911, in deference to the respect they held for the monarchy, the suffragettes promised to stick to a summer truce if Asquith would act on their case in the autumn.

Vaslav Nijinsky

Star turn: World famous ballet dancer Vaslav Nijinsky danced in Covent Garden in 1911
When, in August, the newly crowned George V and his family escaped from London and the public eye for a private holiday on the Isle of Wight, the paparazzi found them snatching a pre-breakfast swim in Osborne Bay.

After photographers jostled to get shots of the sovereign and his heir in voluminous swimming dress, Buckingham Palace issued a statement: 'If less objectionable behaviour is not observed by photographers they are warned that steps will be taken to stop the nuisance.' Some things never change. Fears of an impending war were confined to the most senior members of the Cabinet. But although Britain was at peace, there was an eerily familiar feeling of unease at the heart of society, not least among the women who worked under horrifying conditions in Victorian-era factories.

By the middle of August, the workers at Bermondsey's jam factories had suffered enough of the boiling, sugary liquid that spat at and burned their bodies.

They dressed in their Sunday best - laced-up boots and feather-decked hats - and took to the sweltering streets. They were joined by pickle-makers, tea-packers, glue-mixers and biscuit-bakers.

Although trade unions were still in their infancy, Mary Macarthur, a chain worker, negotiated on behalf of all her co-workers and, miraculously, an increase in wages was eventually agreed.

The women returned to work two weeks later, armed not with the vote but with more money and an unprecedented sense of self-reliance, solidarity and optimism about women's position in the workplace.

Negotiations by the men who went on strike that summer were not so successful. Several thousand dockworkers and railway men had downed tools to protest against irregular employment and atrocious working conditions. Haunches of beef arriving by ship from South America lay unpacked, stinking and rotting on quaysides up and down the country. Dry goods remained undelivered as trains stayed motionless in sidings, the drivers inflexible until their pay disputes could be settled.

Despite precautionary stockpiling of food and medicines, much of Britain approached standstill, teetering on the brink of catastrophic illness and famine.

The 36-year-old Home Secretary, Winston Churchill (who had himself almost been pushed under a train a couple of years earlier by an exasperated suffragette), sent troops to parts of the country where rioting had erupted.

By August, the effects of a rain-free summer had taken hold. Wells dried up and thousands of livestock perished through lack of water. In the parched countryside, birds lost the energy to sing. Each week there were reports of children who had not learned to swim but, longing for coolness, drowned in the shallowest of ponds.

Schoolgirl Amy Reeves, aged ten, took off her boots and stockings and left them on the grass beside a shallow lake at Chertsey in Surrey. She was discovered later that afternoon, her head caught in the weeds beneath the water.

In the slum areas of big cities, cholera and typhoid began to spread. The Times ran a regular column headed Deaths From Heat.

The balmy sea temperature was so seductive that Thomas Burgess, aged 37, smothered in lard, set off from Folkestone to swim the English Channel, only the second man to succeed. Years later spectators still spoke with some wistfulness about Burgess's achievement and that unforgettable summer, when the links between the British Isles and the European continent had, for one shining, poignant moment, seemed closer than ever.

The great heat continued even through the autumn until, finally, on the night of October 28, the first frost arrived in London. Then, for many weeks afterwards, the rain continued to fall without cease, like the tears of someone in grief.
The Perfect Summer: Dancing Into Shadow In 1911, by Juliet Nicolson, is published by John Murray, priced £14.99.