When the clocks spring forward on March 27th who will remember that we owe British Summer Time to the First World War? And to the Germans?

Happily the Hero of the Hour is impeccably British. William Willett was a keen horseman. In summer he would take an early morning ride. In 1907, returning from a canter on the common, he was struck by how many hours were ‘lost’ while people were still asleep.

Willett, a builder and developer from Chislehurst in Kent wrote an arrestingly titled pamphlet: The Waste of Daylight. For a tiny tweak to the nation’s clocks we could save money and have more sunlight.
An MP who liked the sound of that, introduced a Bill in Febraury 1908 to “Promote the Earlier Use of Daylight in Certain Months.” The Bishop of London sang its praises “young people in my diocese (would gain) an hour more fresh air and exercise.” The Salvation Army dreamed of rambling and evening classes. Lord Avebury thought the clerks might “play a game of cricket or healthy outdoor exercise.”

A witness before the Select Committee was concerned about certain unhealthy outdoor exercise, “dusk at ten o’clock instead of eight … there will be a great diminution in the number of illegitimate births” – less opportunities.

Moral, health AND financial benefits – surely an open-and-shut case? Well, not quite. The farmers were a powerful vested interest in the House of Commons. We were to learn that “cows are creatures of more regular habits” than ourselves. Then there was the serious problem of all that dew. The Bill was kicked into the Parliamentary long grass.

Yet Willett was tireless – he didn’t waste a scrap of daylight and probably burned the candle at both ends too. He wrote over 500 papers. Asked to be brief, his idea was the equivalent of 33 pages of evidence to a committee.

Despite a noticeable reluctance by the PM, Asquith, the clock was moving on in Canada, Newfoundland, New Zealand and Victoria (Australia) they saw sense.

And then came the War. Other members of the Entente and the adversary the central Powers adopted Daylight Saving. Asquith was still dithering in February 1916. “No, Sir; I cannot introduce legislation on this contentious subject.” He felt the darkening of the streets and early closing of the pubs had done as much, if not more, without the fuss. The Franfurter Zeitung sneered “It is characteristic of England that she could not rouse herself to decision.”

In Total War you could not afford to miss the chance to save fuel. In Germany ‘die Stunde hat geschlagen’ the hour had come. At 11pm April 30th 1916, German clocks jumped ahead

Ironically, it was not so much clockwork which powered the change. It was the energy source of the war effort – coal. Faced by a possible miner’s strike and soaring prices for coal, the Board of Trade wanted a 10% cut in fuel consumption. . The PM came off the fence … “for the sake of releasing a great quantity of coal urgently required for other purposes by our allies and ourselves.” Government time would be allocated to a Bill.

Just over a week later the House of Commons began the decisive debate. There was a final glance back to the lost opportunity by Sir Henry Norman “unhappily our enemies have been quicker to realise the greater economy afforded.” The farmers were put in their place by Herbert Samuel, Home Secretary, “There are other people in the world besides farmers. Farmers work by sunlight, other people work by the clock. This has been advocated as a war measure, and especially on the grounds of war economy.”
The vote was taken after four-and-a-half hours: ayes 170, nays 2.

Daylight Saving began on Sunday, May 21st 1916. The introduction did not emulate clockwork. The Archbishop of Canterbury urged his flock to set a good example via the church clocks. Nevertheless, St Paul’s Cathedral struck twelve when the hands showed one o’clock.

However, The Times undoubtedly struck the right note “The change has been brought about so easily, and a week of perfect evenings has proved so emphatically the charm of an added hour of day-light to the recreative end of the day, that public opinion would favour it as a permanent institution.”

One man did not share in those “perfect evenings”, which he had done so much to bring about, After a business trip to Spain, William Willett died from influenza on 4 March 1915. He was 58.

This article by Keith Pybus first appeared in the March issue of the Shropshire Magazine