“Spring forward, fall back”

Tonight the clocks go back as British Summer Time (BST) comes to an end and we revert back to Greenwich Mean Time in readiness for winter’s shorter days and longer nights. As we look forward to gaining an extra hour on Sunday 30 October (though not so happy to lose an hour at the end of every March), we’ve been pondering where all of this started and the story goes something like this …

A portrait of William Willett (c 1900’s) by an unknown artist. Public domain

Circa the 1900’s, William Willett, an eminent Edwardian builder from Chislehurst in Kent, was on his way back from riding his horse in Petts Wood, south east London, when he noticed many of his neighbours still had their curtains drawn, even though it was daylight. This led him to musing about adapting time to better fit daylight hours. Back then, clocks were set all year round to Greenwich Mean Time. This meant  that the sun would rise at 3am and set at around 9pm in the summer, but in winter the sun rises at 7am and darkness falls at around 4pm.

A portrait of Benjamin Franklin 1767, David Martin, Public domain

William Willett was not the first person to muse on this theme. Back in the spring of 1784, when Benjamin Franklin lived in Paris, he penned a satirical essay entitled An Economical Project in the Journal de Paris. In it he wrote of the financial savings of using daylight versus artificial light. He claimed that the idea came to him when he was woken at 6am and he realised that the sun had already risen. “Your readers, who with me have never seen any sign of sunshine before noon, and seldom regard the astronomical part of the almanac, will be as much astonished as I was, when they hear of his rising so early; and especially when I assure them, that he gives light as soon as he rises. I am convinced of this. I am certain of my fact. One cannot be more certain of any fact. I saw it with my own eyes.” His tongue-in-cheek advice to Parisians was that rising with the sun would save the citizens of Paris many a franc (or livres?) – “An immense sum! That the city of Paris might save every year, by the economy of using sunshine instead of candles.”

Franklin aside, we also know that George Hudson, a New Zealand entomologist, presented his idea of wanting more daylight hours in the evenings in 1895.

Cover of the last edition of the pamphlet “The Waste of Daylight”, written by William Willett. Public domain

Evidently, Willett was not the first person to invent this concept but, without a doubt, he was its most fervent campaigner in the UK. Using his own money, he produced and disseminated a pamphlet The Waste of Daylight in 1907 where he made a compelling case for adapting to daylight hours during the summer. Originally, he proposed the clocks should be put forward in four stages – 20 minutes every Sunday at 2am in April and turned back in the same way in September. He argued that longer daylight hours could be used for leisure, improving health outcomes and also saving the country money in energy costs.

1909 platinum print of Sir Robert Pearce and William Willett (1856-1915) at the Members’ Entrance to the Terrace at the  Houses of Parliament. Public domain

In 1908 Willett secured the support of Robert Pearce MP who championed the idea in the House of Commons. Although Pearce was unsuccessful at the time Willett’s idea gained ground during the First World War. The impetus then came from the need to conserve coal and increase productivity during wartime. The Summer Time Act was finally passed in the UK on 17th May 1916 and the clocks went forward one hour the following Sunday on 21st May.

The time change was widely advertised in the newspapers of the time. To return to GMT in October 1916, people were advised to put their clocks forward by 11 hours to avoid breaking the clock mechanism.

The memorial sundial, designed by G.W. Miller. Unveiled on 21 May 1927  in Willett Memorial Wood in Petts Wood. Public domain

Unfortunately William Willett died in 1915 (aged 58) and did not live to see his idea become law. However, if you find yourself in the Willett Memorial Wood in Petts Wood, look out for the memorial sundial, set permanently to Daylight Saving Time (or BST), to honour William Willett, the man responsible for the extra hour we all gain this coming Sunday.