Why we change our clocks in Spring and Autumn

Killamarsh Heritage Society looks at the history of why we change our clocks in Spring and Autumn

As everyone knows we change our clocks twice a year – In Spring, the clocks go forward one hour and British Summer Time begins. In Autumn the clocks go back as British Summer Time comes to an end and the UK reverts back to Greenwich Mean Time (GMT).

In the United States, daylight saving time was first used in 1918 when a bill introduced the idea of a seasonal time shift.

It lasted seven months before the bill was repealed. During World War II, President Franklin Roosevelt re-established the idea of daylight saving time.

British Summer Time, also known as Daylight Saving Time, was the brainchild of a builder from Kent called William Willett. The story goes that one day on his way back from riding his horse in Petts Wood near his home in the early 1900s, he noticed many of the blinds and curtains in the neighbouring houses were still drawn, even though it was light. This led him to consider the idea of adapting the time to better fit daylight hours. Back then the clocks were set all year round to Greenwich Mean Time (GMT), meaning it was light by 3.00 am and dark around 9.00 pm in the summer.

His original proposal was for the clocks to be put forward by 80 minutes in total, in four steps of 20 minutes each Sunday at 2.00 am during April and turned back in the same way in September. He argued that this would mean longer daylight hours for recreation, improving health and also saving the country money in lighting costs.

The ritual owes its origins in the UK to the first world war. The annual hourly changing of the clock was first established in the UK more than 100 years ago under the Summer Time Act 1916 and was introduced by an Act of Parliament as it was thought that lighter evenings might preserve fuel for the war effort. The idea was first entertained because some people thought that by sleeping through daylight in the summer, the day was being wasted.

Through his vigorous campaigning, in 1908 Willett got the support of the MP Robert Pearce who championed the idea, albeit unsuccessfully, in the House of Commons.

The idea resurfaced during World War One when the need to conserve coal made the suggestion of daylight saving more pertinent. Germany had already introduced a similar scheme when the Summer Time Act was finally passed in the UK on 17th May 1916. The clocks went forward one hour on the following Sunday, 21st May.

The time changes were widely advertised in the press. To return to GMT on 1st October 1916, people were advised to put their clocks forward by 11 hours rather than turning the hands back an hour, as in those days this would break the mechanism.

Sadly William Willett died of the flu in 1915 aged 58 and never lived to see his daylight saving ideas become law. Rather fittingly, in Petts Wood there is a memorial sundial, set permanently to Daylight Saving Time, to honour him.

During the Second World War, in 1941 Britain adopted British Double Summer Time, which saw clocks being put forward two hours ahead of GMT. The clocks were turned back to GMT at the end of summer 1945. However because of severe fuel shortages resulting from the harsh winter of 1946/47, the UK returned to British Double Summer Time during the summer of 1947.

Since its introduction, Daylight Saving Time has had both its advocates and critics. Advocates for the system claim the lighter summer mornings save energy, reduce traffic accidents and get people out and about and

more active.

Critics however claim that if adopted all year round (known as British Standard Time), this would result in darker winter mornings which would be more dangerous for children going to school and for those in the north and Scotland. The sun would not rise until well into the morning leaving farmers working for several hours in the dark each morning in the winter. The Harold Wilson government adopted British Standard Time between 27th October 1968 and 31st October 1971 as a trial but after a free vote, the House of Commons chose to end the experiment.

Several attempts to amend or repeal British Summer Time have been brought to the House of Commons in recent years, however currently the UK retains the system first advocated back in the Edwardian era by William Willett.