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History from Hansard—II: Daylight Saving

Ann Dewar looks back at the Parliamentary debate over the introduction of Daylight Saving Hours, tabled in 1916 by Sir Henry Norman.

Portrait of Sir Henry Norman, 1st BaronetSo far as can be discovered, the proposal to save daylight, ardently advocated by Mr. William Willett, was originally mentioned in Parliament on February 4, 1908. Earlier, it was not a practical suggestion, since other social reforms, such as the shortening of the hours of. labour, were first required to give the notion of leisure some meaning for workingmen.

Eight years went by, and then on May 8, 1916, Sir Henry Norman rose in the House and said: “I beg to move ‘That, in view especially of the economy in fuel and its transport that would be effected by shortening the hours of artificial lighting, this House would welcome a measure for the advancement of clock time by one hour during the summer months of this year.’” Sir Henry explained that his proposal suffered from two great disadvantages.

“In the first place, it is too simple. To believe that great benefit can be conferred upon many millions of people, and an economy of millions of pounds secured, merely by putting the hand of the clock forward an hour, seems to those who have not given some careful thought to the matter to exhibit a ludicrous disproportion between effect and cause. They are as unwilling to be cured by a simple expedient of their wasteful use of daylight hours as was Naaman of his leprosy. As the Syrian scorned the Jordan, so they scorn the hour hand of the clock. In the second place, this simple proposal lends itself almost irresistibly to what the French call la blague. Nothing is easier than to poke fun. at it. All the professional witsof the French Press have revelled in it for a month.”

After a long discourse on the general subject of time, Sir Henry went on: “It is obvious to everybody that between five and six o’clock on a summer morning, when the sunlight is exquisite, the temperature is delicious, and the whole earth is at its sweetest, the vast majority of the inhabitants of the United Kingdom are asleep behind drawn curtains.” He then described how the clocks would be advanced and retarded by one hour once a year.

At this point, Sir Frederick Banbury, a famous die-hard, interrupted to ask what would happen if he refused to alter his clocks. He was told he would simply find himself out of gear with the whole human machine, of which he was a distinguished part. Replying to the suggestion that the daylight savers could save daylight for themselves and leave the rest of the nation alone, Sir Henry retorted, “A bird cannot go into a corner and flock all by himself.” In conclusion he paid a tribute to the tireless efforts of the late Mr. Willett.

After the motion was seconded by Mr. Peto, the pioneer of the whole project, Sir Frederick Banbury rose in opposition. He declared that the statement that the earth wobbled on its axis might or might not be true. It was in any case irrelevant. He put forward objections on behalf of farmers, and complained that the late Mr. Alfred Lyttelton, formerly Colonial Secretary, had promised to resist the proposal until suddenly someone had said, “Oh! a place like Harrods will be closed an hour earlier and there will be an extra hour of daylight in which the shop assistants can go and play cricket.”

Whereupn Mr. Lyttelton, whose play was once described by W.G. Grace as the champagne of cricket, had turned and said, “I am sorry, my dear fellow, but if they are going to be able to play cricket I must vote against you.” And he did. Sir Frederick again demanded to know what would happen if he refused to put his watch back and was sharply told by the Home Secretary (Mr. Herbert Samuel) “You will miss your train.” Sir Frederick vehemently begged the House to pay less attention “to all these grandmotherly ideas and grandmotherly legislation” and concentrate on the problems of international affairs.

Another member felt uneasy as to what the Admiralty would think, and Mr. Dundas White begged the House to remember that “human life is at its lowest in the early hours of the morning” and he was afraid that if people had to go to work an hour earlier “it will have a considerable effect on their vitality.” Replying for the Government, Mr. Samuel demolished all objections in a brilliant speech, and the motion was carried by 170 to 2. Fortified by this resolution, and brought to support the idea by the needs of war economy, the Government introduced a Bill which received the Royal Assent on May 17,1916. Like many temporary war measures, this reform was carried on into peace time and a confirming Act was passed in 1925.

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