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The times they are a-changing!

October 2019

clock with change on it
Clocks go back Sunday 27th October

At 2am on Sunday October 27th our clocks go back one hour to 1am. It is a great idea to do it early on a Sunday morning as it means we all get an extra hour in bed. Perfect!

But apart from the sudden realization that we have to change the clocks, few of us give any thought at all to the importance of time. We know other countries may be on different time zones and here in the UK we accept the fact that we all work together on the same time zone; but none of this makes us think seriously about time and how it is organised.

However, it can become interesting when you realise that under 200 years ago there was no standard time across the UK. Towns and cities were beginning to organise time, but there was no synchronisation. A Victorian gentleman, with his smart carefully wound up fob watch, could still find it was showing the wrong time simply because he had travelled to a different town. It was mainly the introduction of the railways that changed all this. As railways grew, Victorian travellers became very confused because many stations were keeping their own local time. This meant that trains that left one town could arrive at an earlier time at the next station.

By 1840 it was clear that railways needed to be operating on the same time to avoid chaos, and in November that year the Great Western Railway introduced Railway Time. However, even this suggested “Railway” time needed organising; and in the next few years the Railways decided to get all their stations to adopt an official “London time” based on Greenwich Mean Time. This was the time system based on observations made at the Royal Greenwich Observatory in London and by 1844 many towns and cities agreed this was a good idea and had adopted GMT.

It might have been official for the railways, but it seems it wasn’t a legal time arrangement. While it came into common use, a legal case in 1858 held that a Local Mean Time, with huge variations, was the official time rather than Railway, London or Greenwich Mean Time. 

There were however some vigorous supporters of Greenwich Mean Time and to boost their cause, in 1862, the Great Clock of Westminster, now known as Big Ben, was installed. This received hourly time signals from Greenwich to ensure it was spot on time. It was quickly very popular.

Despite this, Greenwich Mean Time was still not legally accepted even though it was now being used throughout nearly all of England. In 1880, for example, a document from the Clerk to Justices stated that Greenwich time was not a legal time.

Finally, a short time later on August 2nd 1880, thanks to a statute on the definition of time, Greenwich Mean Time was finally adopted as the legal time zone for all of Great Britain. Ireland introduced it in 1916.

Daylight saving was first introduced to Parliament a quarter of a century later in 1908. The idea was to provide more daylight hours after work for the training of the Territorial Army and also to reduce railway accidents and lighting expenses. The proposal was turned down although in July of the same year Canada did turn their clocks forward by one hour, making them the first country to introduce daylight saving.

In 1916 during World War I, Germany introduced daylight saving, and just a few weeks later to help save energy and promote the war effort, the UK finally did the same. It adopted a change of clocks with the Summer Time Act 1916 which proved so popular that is was named British Summer Time and the practice continued once the war was over.

Since then there have been various experiments with daylight saving. Britain has trialled ideas including double summer time when we switched the clocks ahead of Greenwich Meantime by 2 hours. Between February 1968 and November 1971 Britain even experimented with permanent British Standard Time, keeping the country one hour ahead of Greenwich Meantime all year round.

Today we follow the traditional one hour clock change, putting our clocks back to Greenwich Mean Time in autumn and forward an hour into British Summer Time each spring.

But time moves on! Now, an EU plan to scrap daylight saving could mean that we stay in Greenwich Mean Time all year round; or if we leave the EU, we could have a time difference between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland.  For some years, there have been movements in Scotland to change their adherence to the time systems further south because of their short winter days and long summer daylight hours.

And so the discussions go on. If there is one thing we have all learned from this evolution of trying to impose standard times, it is the fact that time never stays still!

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