As the clocks go forward and British Summer Time begins, Achievements family history research team looks at the origins and history of Britain’s daylight saving schemes.
The idea of summer time or daylight saving time is often attributed to Benjamin Franklin who made the suggestion in a light hearted pamphlet in 1784. However it was an orchestrated campaign by an English builder, William Willett in 1907 that first set the wheels in motion. William Willett was born in Farnham in Surrey and joined his father's building business where between them they created a reputation for "Willett built" quality houses in choice parts of London and the South. He lived most of his life in Chislehurst, Kent where it is said after riding his horse in Petts Wood near his home early one summer morning and noticing how many blinds were still down the idea for daylight saving time first occurred to him.
Using his own financial resources, in 1907 William published a pamphlet "The Waste of Daylight" In it he proposed that the clocks should be advanced by 80 minutes in four incremental steps during April and reversed the same way during September. The evenings would then remain light for longer, increasing daylight recreation time and also saving ₤2.5 million in lighting costs. He suggested that the clocks should be advanced by 20 minutes at a time at 2 am on successive Sundays in April and be retarded by the same amount on Sundays in September.
Through vigorous campaigning, by 1908 Willett had managed to gain the support of an MP, Robert Pearce, who made several unsuccessful attempts to get it passed into law. A young Winston Churchill promoted it for a time, and the idea was examined again by a parliamentary select committee in 1909 but again no action was taken. The outbreak of the First World War made the issue more important primarily because of the need to save coal. Germany had already introduced the scheme when the bill was finally passed in Britain on 17 May 1916 and the clocks were advanced by an hour on the following Sunday, 21 May, enacted as a wartime production-boosting device under the Defence of the Realm Act. It was subsequently adopted in many other countries.
During the Second World War, double summer time (2 hours in advance of GMT) was introduced and was used for the period when normally ordinary summer time would have been in force. During the winter clocks were kept one hour in advance of GMT. After the war, summer time was invoked each year from 1948 to 1967. In 1968 clocks were advanced one hour ahead of GMT on 18 February and remained so until British Standard Time, during which clocks were kept in advance of GMT all year, came into force between 27 October 1968 and 31 October 1971.
The Summer Time Act 1972 defined the period of British Summer Time to start at 02.00 GMT on the morning of the day after the third Saturday in March or, if that was Easter Day, the day after the second Saturday. It was to end at 02.00 GMT on the day after the fourth Saturday in October.
"Spring forward and fall back" or so states the splendid reminder for us all of the change in the hour. As with the origin and history of most of our traditions, it is always interesting to cast a glance backwards in time and see how they came about and like the ripple effect of a stone in a pond, it is often the actions of individuals that have eventually brought forth change.
Sadly,William Willett did not live to see daylight saving become law, as he died of influenza in 1915 at the age of 58. He is commemorated in Petts Wood by a memorial sundial set permanently to daylight saving time. The Daylight Inn in Petts Wood is also named in his honour and the road Willett Way. His house in the London Borough of Bromley is marked with a blue plaque.
27 March 2012