The history of daylight saving time
As we get ready to put our clocks forward, David Mills explores the history behind our national daylight-saving rituals
Twice a year, everybody in Britain becomes a rr time traveller. Most of us are asleep when it happens. Some people forget it's happened and take a couple of days to adjust. It gives us all something to talk about for a day or so, and then we forget all about it again, until six months later, when we do it all over again - but in the opposite direction. No Tardises or time machines are required - we do this by engaging in the ritual of putting the clocks forward or back by one hour. This year, we will switch to British Summer Time (BST) at lam on the last Sunday in March - which in 2018 is 25 March. The switch back to Greenwich Mean Time (GMT) will take place at 2am on the last Sunday in October, which falls on 28 October 2018. In practice, it means that, for seven months of the year, there are more hours of daylight in the evenings and fewer in the mornings.
The history of daylight saving
Like other parts of our national life – such as the restricted licensing hours that persisted throughout the 20th century, and women gaining the right to vote – putting the clocks forward in spring and back in winter has its roots in the First World War.
Germany adopted daylight saving time in 1915, drawing on the ideas of a British man, William Willett, who advocated adjusting the time in spring and winter to maximise daylight hours. Britain followed suit a year later in order to save energy, and British Summer Time, as it was quickly dubbed, was born.
During the Second World War, the country stayed on BST, leaping forward another hour for ‘British Double Summer Time’, to maximise the hours of daylight for the war effort.
Staying on BST all year round was trialled again between 1968 and 1971, and it seemed to be popular: the Government reported that businesspeople liked being on the same time zone as much of the rest of Europe.
Road-safety statistics appeared to suggest that it saved lives by reducing accidents, and it was even suggested that lighter winter afternoons led more people to play sport. But farmers, construction workers and postal workers objected to the dark mornings, as did those who worried about the impact on children travelling to school – especially in Scotland and the north of England.
The experiment ended when MPs voted overwhelmingly to go back to the previous system, which continues today. Yet the debate over the impact of daylight saving – and whether we should go further – ignites
every year. On one side, the Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents (RoSPA) advocates the UK adopting the same time zone as France and Germany – by staying on BST during the winter, then moving one hour further forward in the spring, on to ‘double summer time’.
RoSPA argues this would create lighter evenings all year round and result in fewer road accidents. It also suggests it could reduce loneliness among older people, some of whom don’t leave their homes until after the morning rush hour and are ‘curfewed’ by the onset of darkness.
On the other side, opponents of reform point to the impact on Scotland and the north of England, where mornings would be darker.
They helped to scupper the last serious attempt to move to ‘double summer time’, when Conservative MP Rebecca Harris introduced a bill in the House of Commons in 2010, citing evidence that it would permit an extra 235 hours of daylight after work every year.
It would also, she claimed, deliver further benefits, including 100 fewer deaths from road crashes; savings of £200m for the NHS from fewer accidents; cuts in CO2 emissions from saving the energy needed for lighting and heating, and a boost in income from tourism of £3.5bn.
Some decision-makers feel that going ahead might drive a wedge between England and Scotland.
For most of us, putting the clocks forward is little more than the welcome assurance that spring is here.
For parents of young children, though, it means having to adjust times for feeding and sleeping, and it can take a few days for the youngsters to adapt.
And although computers, phones and many household goods automatically change the time for us, there are still millions of timepieces that need manual adjustment.
So when you’re dutifully putting the clocks forward next week and bemoaning the loss of an hour in bed, try to focus on the extra hour you’ll get back in October.
The debate over daylight saving ignites every year
a plan: William Willett
Big Ben takes five hours to adjust manually