Expert Comment: Saving Time?Wednesday 29 October 2014
As we adjust to lighter mornings and darker evenings, Dr Mike Finn looks at the history and myths behind British Summer Time.
The casual act of turning your clocks back last Sunday is the legacy of the First World War. In May 1916, for the first time, Britain implemented ‘daylight saving’, turning clocks to one hour ahead of GMT. It’s a ritual which is increasingly marginalised in today’s digital society; computers, tablets, mobile phones often reset themselves. But insofar as we remain aware of the switchover – in October with gratitude for that extra hour in bed – we are often unaware of its origins.
In 1916 Britain was in the grip of her first total war. Despite the government’s attempts to foster ‘business as usual’ in the early stages of the conflict, what initially began as the commitment of the British Expeditionary Force to France and Belgium mushroomed through the creation of a mass army, industrialised warfare on an unprecedented scale, and the struggle against the U-boats in the north Atlantic.
There were profound social changes, which Arthur Marwick famously characterised as the ‘deluge’; women replaced men in the factories, and accelerate the cause of women’s suffrage through their participation in the war effort. More arcane perhaps was the introduction of Summer Time. The rationale was deceptively simple; it would save money and fuel, ensuring lighter evenings. Britain wasn’t the first to go for it; her enemies Germany and Austria had already made the move a few weeks earlier.
It was too late to reward the campaigning efforts of William Willett, a gentleman-builder and horse-rider who had discovered the pleasures of early morning sunshine (and its productive possibilities) whilst out on his early morning gallops. In 1907 Willett – reputedly an ancestor of Coldplay singer Chris Martin – published a pamphlet, The Waste of Daylight, advocating the possibilities of daylight savings time, but despite discussions of the proposal in the Commons he died in 1915 without seeing his vision enacted.
Summer Time was, and to a certain extent, remains, controversial. Despite the fact that Britain (unlike some of her continental rivals) stuck with it, subsequent Summer Time Acts were attended by at-times fiery debates in the House of Commons. Notwithstanding the myth that the Summer Time Act was actually meant to benefit agriculture, representatives of farmers were its staunchest Parliamentary opponents. The trauma caused to cows due to the rescheduling of milking was one oft-cited reason for a reprieve from turning the clocks forward and back, but it was ignored.
In the Second World War, Britain experimented with double summer time, attempting to maximise the hours of light available in her second total conflict, whilst in the later 1960s Harold Wilson’s government introduced British Standard Time; the ‘white heat of the technological revolution’ laid emphasis on getting the most out of Britain’s energy, but after controversies over increased numbers of accidents in the mornings, the experiment was abandoned.
BST remains controversial for some; in a recent debate over Summer Time Conservative MP Jacob Rees-Mogg even advocated a separate time zone for Somerset. Yet it endures, a lasting, yet often unremarked, legacy of Britain’s most punishing conflict.
Dr Mike Finn is part of Liverpool Hope's Faculty of Education. He is a historian of modern Britain, with a particular focus on the history of English education after 1945. He is Director of the Centre for Education Policy Analysis, and has worked in Westminster politics as a policy adviser and speechwriter. View Dr Finn's Full profile.