20 May 2016

On the centenary of Daylight Saving in Britain, Curator of Horology, Rory McEvoy looks back at its history.

Today marks the 100th anniversary of Daylight Saving in Britain, for on Sunday, March 21, 1916 the nation’s clocks were advanced by one hour for the first time.
In Britain the idea began with William Willett, a builder from Chislehurst, who was an early riser and keen equestrian. His scheme to make better use of the daylight hours by setting clocks ahead of mean solar time in the summer was initially influenced by seeing the shutters drawn on workers’ cottages, during his early morning rides. In the simplest of terms, he thought that by advancing the clocks, people would go to work earlier and therefore have more time for outdoor leisure pursuits in the evening, spend less time awake during the darker hours and therefore become healthier and wealthier. He campaigned vigorously and wrote many letters to recipients far and wide to spread his ideas and garner support for his system for saving energy and benefitting health by advancing clocks from mean time during the summer months.
Sundial commemorating William Willett
Eventually, in 1908 Willett’s scheme was presented before parliament as the Daylight Saving Bill. Essentially, the bill offered a saving on fuel by advancing the clocks one hour so that people would use less artificial light in the evenings. Health benefits for workers, from increased leisure time in the evening, figured strongly in the argument. It enthusiastically suggested ‘for a period of 154 days, an increase of sixty minutes more sunshine in the evening of each day’. The then President of the Board of Trade, Winston Churchill, though a supporter of Willett’s scheme, sharply noted in the margins of his copy of the bill that this was an ‘optimistic view of our climate!’
The bill was defeated by a majority of only one. But, interest in the scheme remained and in February, 1914 the then Conservative MP for Devizes, Basil Peto,  asked the Liberal Prime Minister, Herbert Henry Asquith, whether or not he would introduce Willett’s Daylight Saving Bill and pass it into law. Asquith declined to do so.
Dolphin sundial at the Royal Observatory Greenwich
Following the outbreak of the First World War, the merits of a daylight saving scheme became increasingly favourable. In December, 1915 concerns about traffic in the darkened streets and the safety of young shop attendants returning from work were raised. Willett’s bill was again suggested, but no progress was made. Its relevance increased substantially when Germany and Austria adopted the scheme as part of their war effort in April, 1916 and it is arguable that their decision to do so was directly influenced by Willett’s initial campaign.  
It was generally agreed that a saving on energy, gained by reducing civil consumption, was a good thing, but serious concerns were raised that Daylight Saving would have a negative impact on the efficiency of agriculture. An important case in point was whether or not dairy farmers would be able to deliver milk in time for one’s morning cup of coffee.  In the end, the house agreed 170 to 2 that Daylight Saving should be introduced as an emergency measure on May 21st. 
Sundial at the Royal Observatory
It appears that the scheme did indeed have the desired effect and gas consumption was substantially reduced. An article in the Manchester Observer, published only ten days after the introduction of Daylight Saving in Britain, quantified the saving of gas in Manchester as 800,000 cubic feet, with lost revenue amounting to £100 per day. One would be forgiven for thinking that this gave cause for celebration, but the article continued, suggesting that the reduced revenue would require an increase in the price of gas or a reduction in the gas companies’ tax contributions.
So it appears that the health benefits, inevitably had some cost and after 100 years of Daylight Saving in the UK, the debate continues. Over the last century we have seen the temporary introduction of double summer time, which is advancing the clocks by two hours in the summer: as an emergency measure in World War II and later as a trial in the late 1960s. So the question remains, will you follow Winston Churchill’s lead and ‘raise a silent toast to William Willett’?