The Daylight Savings Time Movement

Daylight saving was a logical policy to manipulate the fruits of nature. Yet, as Oliver B. Pollak explains, it was opposed by farmers, trivialised by politicians, and not adopted until the First World War made it imperative to national survival.

A US poster from 1918
A US poster from 1918

The legislative enactment of Daylight Savings Time was a political act that had substantial impact on social history. The origin of the Act stemmed from the nineteenth-century demand for industrial time-keeping efficiency and the concern for 'physical deterioration' evoked by the Anglo-Boer War. It was implemented in 1916 as a wartime emergency fuel conservation measure. Despite its significance in the daily lives of hundreds of millions of people it was treated trivially by Parliament and other legislative bodies as well as by historians. Daylight Savings was a logical policy to manipulate the fruits of nature. However, it created strains between various economic interests and between rural and urban territorial interests. Its introduction was often badly handled and misunderstood.

English time-keeping legislation dates from at least the mid-eighteenth century when the Gregorian replaced the Julian calendar. England was brought into line with the Continent, and leapt from September 2nd to September 14th at the stroke of a pen. During the mid-nineteenth century it was the steam railway hurtling at fifty miles an hour, and the instantaneous communication of the electric telegraph that created a concern for smaller time units, hours. International commerce demanded uniformity. The completion of transcontinental railways required mutually acceptable timetables and prompted the meeting of groups such as the International Prime Meridian Congress. By 1890, twenty-four roughly equal time zones circled the globe.

Communications and transport efficiency were joined by a concern for 'national efficiency', the physical well being of the English urban worker. Boer War recruitment revealed an inordinate rejection rate of urban volunteers because of physical infirmities. This posed the spectre of bow-legged and consumptive regiments unable to defend the nation, A Parliamentary Select Committee on Physical Deterioration met during 1904. Following closely were the Early Closing Movement, the Shop Hours Act and the Daylight Saving or Summer Time movement, designed in part to permit urban workers to spend more time in sunlight either for recreation or to tend gardens after the normal working day was done.

Benjamin Franklin wrote in April, 1784, the 'Economical Project for Diminishing the Cost of Light' for the Journal de Paris . But it was the Londoner, William Willett, and his 1907 pamphlet The Waste of Daylight that would translate the idea into law. Willett claimed to have published nineteen editions from 1907 to 1914 in English, French and German. They ranged from seven to fifty-nine pages and were subtitled 'Opinions of Eminent Men. Text of Bill Introduced in House of Commons. Statement of Progress up to March 19th'. He was an indefatigable, if rather narrowly, focused propagandist.

William Willett was born in 1856, the eldest son of William Willett senior, a builder. The two joined forces as housing developers and had a reputation for designing and building tasteful, well lighted, commodious 'Willett-built' houses for upper income families in London, especially Kensington and South Hampstead. The Dictionary of National Biography records Willett junior's conversion to Daylight Savings Time.

The idea is said to have occurred to him early one summer morning in 1907 as he returned from his customary canter over a Kentish common, when he noticed how many blinds were still down in the large houses that he passed.

The Spectator reviewed the 1907 pamphlet favourably. Willett claimed to provide an extra 210 hours of sunlight per year by moving the clock forward eighty minutes at four twenty minute intervals in the spring and turning it back in four motions in the autumn. Twenty minute shifts were preferable to a single movement, as 'In cases of forgetfulness a mistake of twenty minutes is usually not irretrievable'. The annual fuel savings of $2,500,000 equalled servicing of the national debt. Every twenty-five years more than one year's consumption of fuel for lighting would be saved.

Robert Pearce introduced the Bill to Promote the Earlier Use of Daylight in Certain Months in February, 1908. His humorous remarks set the tone for parliamentary discussions for the next eight years.

It was not necessary for him to praise the early morning when the morning stars sang together with joy and all the poets from then till now had praised it. The late Thomas Moore, who lived in the Leek Division, had said no doubt with reference to this Bill, 'Give me back the wild sweetness of morning, It smiles and its fears are worth evening's best light'... the best of all ways to lengthen our days is to steal a few hours from the night.

At the second reading in March, following strong objections, parliamentary manoeuvring, laughter and cheers, the Bill was committed to a predominantly Liberal nine-member Select Committee. The Committee met thirteen times, heard forty-five witnesses and produced a 188 page report.

The leading witness was William Willett who presented a manifesto for the Bill published in the London Times containing over fifty signatures, including nine MPs. He talked almost interminably about saving the 'Youth of the Day' and the aesthetics of early morning pleasures. England's movement to save 'God's Gift of Life' would spread to 'the continental nations, Germany at any rate, will have wit enough very quickly to follow suit, as will also America'. Willett read from sheafs of correspondence. The Bishop of London hailed the opportunity of giving the 'young people in my diocese... an hour's more fresh air and exercise before dark, after their business hours'. 'Rational recreation' was preferable to public houses.

The Earl of Meath was one of the most influential supporters of the Bill. Since 1873 he had campaigned for parks, open spaces, play-grounds and recreational facilities. As chairman of the Metropolitan Public Gardens Association he declared:

Anyone who can bring more sunshine into the life of the average Briton will be a benefactor to his country, and although your scheme might be carried without legislative enactment were we not such slaves to custom, I fear that no common action is to be hoped for without the intervention of the legislature. I thank you, therefore, for having had the courage to advocate so simple a proposal, and trust that before long your ideas may be the means of adding to the amount of sunshine enjoyed by Britons... Sunshine destroys germs, raises the vitality, and consequently the spirits. Future generations will, I believe, rise up and call you blessed.

The call for recreation was not for leisure's sake alone, but held a serious underlying national purpose. Lord Haldane's territorial scheme called for drilling fresh troops and rifle practice. Both were best done in daylight rather than fading light. Musketry practice, noted Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, 'might perhaps get over some of our military difficulties'. Recreation and light would arrest physical deterioration and 'prevent the deterioration of the race, which is now becoming such a serious problem'. Lord Avebury, author of the Bank Holiday Act, saw Daylight Savings as an opportunity for clerks to 'be able to get away at a time which would enable them to play a game of cricket or get some other healthy outdoor exercise, which I believe would be a very great boon to them'. Avebury, a member of the London Chamber of Commerce, also carried to the committee the Chamber of Commerce's resolution in favour of' the Bill. Salvation Army representatives saw potential for 'rambling' clubs and evening classes. One witness went so far as to say that drinking will decrease and 'there will be a great diminution in the number of illegitimate births'. When questioned further he explained, 'If you have it dusk at ten o'clock instead of eight o'clock the opportunities are less'. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle prophesied that 'the next generation of Britishers would be better for having had this extra hour in their childhood'.

Only R. D. Holt among the committee members adamantly opposed the Bill. He felt it would disorganise social life and business, and be an injurious nuisance. Representing Hexham Division of Northumberland, he thought there was already enough daylight in the north and saw substantial disruption to the cotton, grain and stock market as well as to American trade. To Willett's rejoinder in cross-examination that the Americans would follow if not foolish, Holt demurred,

I do not know enough of the American constitution; the whole thing might be unconstitutional. You cannot calculate upon the Americans doing it

Holt concluded that changing a watch eight times a year, was undesirable and would ruin a good watch.

Holt sought to prolong the testimony of witnesses opposed to Daylight Savings. One prominent foe who also wrote to the London Times was Sir David Gill, former HM Astronomer at the Cape of Good Hope. He recounted that in 1892 and 1903 the changing of the clocks sixteen and thirty minutes to accommodate train schedules created 'on both occasions a fearful hullabaloo'. He opposed 'lying clocks' and felt that Willett had 'bamboozled' other meteorologists into supporting the Bill. Some favoured Daylight Saving but opposed legislation as unnecessary to accomplish ends that could be taken by voluntary means. One large warehouse in the City posted a sign in early June:

No Politics in Business. Why wait for Parliament to alter business hours? These premises will be open at 8 a.m. and will close at 5.30 p.m. from June 1st to October 1st.

Various public and private concerns turned to similar forms of summer or tropical hours.

The final report, issued on June 30th, 1908, recommended the adoption of the Bill and suggested six areas of benefit. It would move the usual hours of work and leisure nearer to sunrise. There would be greater use of daylight for recreation. Temperance leaders wanted the pubs closed. Moderates suggested closing at 11 or 10 p.m. rather than 12.30. A compromise looked to 'lessen the use' rather than 'secure the closing' of licensed houses. The Bill would facilitate the training of the Territorial Forces, benefit the physique, general health and welfare of all classes of the community, and reduce the industrial, commercial and domestic expenditure on artificial light.

Winston Churchill, President of the Board of Trade,

read the report of this committee with much interest and with a lively recognition of the advantage which the Bill in question appears at first sight to offer all classes and especially to the working classes [Hear Hear]. I have arranged for the whole subject to be carefully examined by the Board of Trade in consultation with representatives of trade, labour, and transport interests. Pending this examination it is not possible for me to express an opinion [Hear, Hear].

The Prime Minister, Asquith, however, decline to provide 'Government facilities for the passing of the Daylight Savings Bill'.

The Bill was introduced for a second time in February, 1909 by T. W. Dobson. The Bill adopted the 1908 Committee recommendation of two one-hour changes. In seconding Sir Henry Norman stated 'I feel quite sure that the next generation will erect a statute to Mr. Willett for his labours in this matter'. The debate was lengthy but poorly attended. Churchill's speech was hailed as a masterful effort s. on a negligible subject.

... the first thing the House of Commons has to do about this Bill is not to laugh at it, when we consider that this measure has the support of a great number of boroughs n and of corporations and a very large number of important societies... we cannot but feel it is a subject which deserves, and will, I believe, command, the respectful and laborious consideration of the House of Commons.

What is the position of the Government it with regard to this measure. It is essentially one of those subjects on which it is not for the Executive to dictate to the country... therefore, the attitude of the Government is at present one of benevolent neutrality towards the Bill. So far as I am concerned, and speaking as the President of the Board of Trade, I am a strong supporter of this Bill. I certainly propose to give my vote for the second reading.

[Conceding that there would be a readjustment period, he continued.] An extra yawn some morning in April, an extra snooze some morning in September, otherwise the great mass of the human race would be quite unconscious that a change had occurred except that the evenings appeared to be unexpectedly and pleasantly longer.

Agricultural interests and their parliamentary representatives earnestly opposed the bill. They saw it interfering with early morning milking, delivery of goods, and necessitating the picking of crops still wet with dew, which was both injurious to labour and created spoilage. Sir F. Banbury took the lead in attempting to laugh the Bill out of the House.

I do not wish to say it in any offensive manner – that this is the most absurd Bill that has been brought into the House of Commons during the last twenty or thirty years.

Others called it a 'farce' and the product of 'rich and influential factions with a hobby'. Banbury referring obliquely to Lloyd George's Peoples Budget and the House of Lords crisis queried, 'Was it not bad tactics for Liberals to support such a Bill as this? It would increase the value the people placed on the House of Lords to save us from this foolish legislations of the Commons. [Laughter].'

Although the Liberal Government did not give the Bill its official backing, all seven of its ministers present at the division voted for the Bill. As in the previous year parliamentary manoeuvres shuttled the bill into a Select Committee. Nature , a leading science magazine, opposed the Bill, noting the parliamentary proceeding 'was, for the most part, a pitiful exhibition of the incompetence of politicians to understand any questions involving a knowledge of elementary science'. They later stated that passage of the bill would 'make us the laughing stock of the civilised world'.

None of the sixteen members of the Committee had served on the previous year's committee. It met twelve times and heard twenty-four witnesses. The 1909 Committee, unlike the 1908 Committee, was not dominated by favourable witnesses. Opponents included agricultural interests, especially milk and fruit producers, theatre and music hall managers, certain railway and tramway companies, post office employees handling foreign mail, some provincial newspapers and certain stock and cotton brokers in London, Liverpool and New York.

The most important opposition came from the farmers. Although comprising only 8 per cent of the population, their economic power and representation in Parliament were significant. Dew, transport scheduling and innured habits were the basis for resistance. It was suggested before the committee that 'cows are creatures of more regular habits than possibly the men who attend upon them'. It was unfair to force milkers to get up at three or four rather than four or five. Farmers' and workers' wives who started the fires and prepared take-away lunches would be forced to rise earlier. The 6,000 member Agricultural Labour Union opposed the Bill. When a witness was in- formed that the largest dairy farmer in Perthshire was in favour of the Bill he replied: 'I cannot understand the workings of the mind of a Scotchman'.

When Dobson, the introducer of the Bill, spoke before the Rural Districts Council Association meeting at Westminster, which represented 430 of 655 councils, the resolution for Daylight Savings was defeated forty-two to fifty- four. There was a similar result in the Central Chamber of Agriculture when it was defeated nine to eleven.

Willett was given an opportunity to testify. Despite the Chairman's request that he be brief and Sir Ivor Herbert's efforts to cut him off, Willett's testimony occupies thirty-three pages. Willett had written over 500 papers. He recited editorials and letters to the editor as well as President Taft's interest in following England's lead. About 1,000 firms had voluntarily begun work half to one hour earlier.

The 1909 Committee generally conceded the apparent benefits cited by the 1908 Committee. However, because of substantial diversity over the manner of legislating and the serious inconvenience to important interests, they concluded 'Your Committee recommended that the Bill be not further proceeded with'.

Daylight Savings was presented as a private bill in 1911, 1912, 1913 and 1914 The Government refused the Bill its assistance. Willett continued to obtain signatures for his petitions. The Guildhall voted at its annual March meetings resolutions calling for the passing of the Daylight Savings Bill as it 'would improve the physical, mental, moral and financial welfare of the nation'. Sir Robert Ball, an astronomer, noted that American industrial growth was based on the advantages of nature. England could equal this advantage by adjusting nature. When Churchill applied his humour and rhetoric in 1911, however, he was frequently interrupted by suffragettes until they were ejected from the hall. The 8th Congress of Chambers of Commerce of the British Empire approved the Bill, reflecting the progress Daylight Savings had made in the Empire: Newfoundland, New Zealand, Canada, and Victoria (Australia) had held parliamentary investigations and proceeded to implementation.

The last edition of The Waste of Daylight appeared in March, 1914. It listed popularly elected bodies, representing twenty-seven million people, that had passed resolutions in support of the Bill. Government bodies included 4 County Councils, 685 City Corporations, and 199 towns. Trade and labour were represented by 82 Chambers of Commerce, 59 trade unions and 47 branches of the Shop Assistants' Union. Willett claimed the support of 232 Members of Parliament.

The demands of total war revived the prospect of Daylight Savings. If citizens were asked to strain neglected potato skins and unused cabbage stalks why not practice coal-fuel lighting economy in public houses, banks, places of amusement and public offices by closing them one hour earlier? The gain would be in the pocket and in health. Asquith, however, appeared wedded to 'Business as usual'. Between February and May, 1916, Daylight Savings was introduced in Germany and Austria by decree, in Holland by legislation, and was under consideration in France. On February 17th, 1916, in reply to a request by Peto for Government time, Prime Minister Asquith replied 'No, Sir; I cannot introduce legislation on this contentious subject'. To Sir Henry Norman's request for a small committee of financial experts, Asquith replied

The joint effect of the darkening of the streets and the early closing of places where intoxicants are sold has probably contributed more towards shortening the interval between sunset and bedtime than would the adoption of Central European time as the standard time during the summer. I do not think there is sufficient reason to appoint a committee of inquiry on this subject.

Even Dundas White, a 1909 Committee member and opponent of the earlier Bill, called on the Minister of Munitions, Lloyd George, to urge employers and the s public generally to make earlier hours of commencing and leaving off work.

By early April, the trend of the war s was clear. The Board of Trade, fearful of miners' strikes and soaring coal prices, appealed to patriotism to conserve fuel by 10 per cent. The demands of wartime conservation combined with both Allies and Axis adopting Daylight Savings swayed Asquith. At the very time the Frankfurter Zeitung was noting scornfully that, despite its long Daylight Savings campaign, 'it is characteristic of England that she could not rouse herself to a decision', the War Cabinet met. Asquith at last gave the Bill Government time. Herbert Samuel, the Home Secretary, wrote to Sir Henry Norman:

The Prime Minister hopes to be able to provide an early opportunity for the discussion of the motion in favour of Daylight Savings which you have placed on the order paper of the House of Commons... It will be for the House to say whether or not in their judgment the inconvenience, if any there were, which might result from the adoption of the proposal should be accepted for the sake of the saving, in time of war, of an appreciable proportion of our expenditure on fuel and on releasing a great quantity of coal urgently required for other purposes by our allies and ourselves.

On May 8th, 1916, Sir Henry Norman commenced a four-and-a-half hour long debate stating: 'Certainly the tragic necessities of this year made any kind of fun on the subject distasteful to us all'. The Bill would aid conservation, recreation, health and, because of blackouts, reduce street accidents. He estimated this act of 'imperative patriotism' would save 2,500,000 pounds. Joining the usual popular forces Willett had formerly marshalled in support of the Bill were now the influential Central Committee for the Disposal of Coal and the (General Conference of Railway Managers. Norman's only regret was that 'unhappily our enemies have been quicker than ourselves to realise the greater economy afforded'. Herbert Samuel planed down agricultural interests and called for speedy legislative enactment and implementation. '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 at 7.27 p.m.; 170 ayes, 2 noes.

In the House of Lords, the Marquess of Landsdowne lauded British conservatism in opposing the Bill. Greenwich Mean Time ranked with the British Constitution and Thirty-nine Articles. Lord Balfour thought it the most ridiculous and absurd bill ever presented and posed the hypothetical lunacy of twins in which the first born could be younger than the second. The Act received Royal Assent on May 17th, 1916 as an annually renewable measure for the duration of the war. Daylight Savings Time began on Sunday, May 21st, 1916.

There was initial confusion. The Office of Works had charge of 4,000 clocks but its staff was reduced to six during the war. The High Courts of Justice had 300 clocks. The 5,000 volunteers of the British Rainfall Association were unclear when to take their readings. Despite the Archbishop of Canterbury's appeal to set church clocks, St. Paul's Cathedral struck twelve while the hands showed one o'clock. The Home Office issued 130,000 circulars. The sole resistance came from a farmers meeting at Northampton where a resolution 'to adhere as far as possible to real time as shown by the sun in the arrangements of work on the farms, and to take as little notice as we can of the sham time that will be shown by public clocks' was passed unanimously. Chalked on the pavement at New Bridge Street was 'All Fools' Day, May 21st. Get up one hour earlier and kid yourself you haven't. Berlin Time, GR'. The London Times noted that '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'.

Little-heard voices of opposition to Daylight Savings were the private and s public gas and electricity power companies. They appear to have worked effectively behind the scenes and sent no witnesses to the 1908 and 1909 Committees. It is clear, however, that reduced purchase of their services would affect profits and shareholder dividends. At the beginning of the war utilities increased about 10 per cent. Herbert Samuel during debates made light of possible rises in charges to make up losses. During the summer of 1916, fuel savings in residential areas were 15 per cent and in industrial and shopping districts 8 per cent. No precise figures were taken but it was estimated that over the year the economy was between 1.7 per cent and 8.3 per cent with a consequent saving of between 87,520 pounds and 427,290 pounds. Eleven thousand, five hundred tons of illuminating oil were saved, thus avoiding two journeys of four months duration by an oil tanker. Public and private companies raised their charges 10 to 15 per cent in the summer to compensate for reduced sales. When Harcourt, the President of the Board of Trade, was asked about this, he replied that companies were acting within the maximum limits allowed by statute.

A committee reviewed the experience of 1916. They sent out questionnaires and received 1,300 replies, constituting a 76 per cent return. The Committee concluded 'unhesitatingly... that the vast preponderance of opinion through Great Britain is enthusiastically in favour of Summer Time and of its renewal – not only as a war measure, but as a permanent institution'. In addition to conservation an unanticipated result was the report from several police districts of a reduction in juvenile delinquency. While it was too early to evaluate the effect on health the report raised an issue that was to be grist for opponents to the Act: children staying up too late, especially London school-children. They recommended 'that the attention of parents should be drawn by every Education Authority to the danger [loss of sleep] and that it should be a standing instruction to teachers to report all cases showing symptoms of loss of sleep to the care committees, who can then take the matter up with the parents, either by visit or letter'.

1922 and 1924 saw the final legislation for transforming Daylight Savings from an emergency war measure into a permanent measure. It incorporated compromises with the agricultural lobby shortening the period of application as well as the results of conferences with France, Belgium and Holland regulating proximity. It was still a contentious issue and one MP saw it as a potential struggle between urban and rural populations. The Bill was passed by 207 to 26 in the Commons and by 169 to 129 in the Lords. It was in an atmosphere of irony that the last debate occurred in April, 1924, with snow falling outside the House. Gavan Duffy, an opponent of the Bill, noted the folly. 'Today in the midst of a snow storm we are again endeavouring to fool with the sun when it would be wiser to put on our skates.'

Daylight Savings Time had been trivialised by politicians. The Great War elevated it as a means of national survival. Although adopted by the Axis and Allies it actually only came into force in the United States in the closing months of the war, but it has subsequently become a permanent institution. In Britain Willett's achievement was appropriately commemorated. Chelsea Town Hall commissioned a portrait; Colchester Town Council erected a statue: and in 1926 Petts Wood, a beautiful forested eighty-seven acre tract at Chislehurst, was purchased by the Willett Memorial Fund of which Winston Churchill was President. A sundial was erected to Willett's memory. Beyond these commemorative acts Daylight Savings Time is still a contentious issue, sometimes compounded by 'double savings time', which every March and October provides some humour at the expense of irritated writers of letters to the editor.

Further Reading
  • Ian R. Bartky and Elizabeth Harrison, 'Standard and Daylight-saving Time' in Scientific American CCXL (May 1979) pp.46-53
  • James Jespersen and Jane Fitz-Randolph, From Sundials to Atomic Clocks , National Bureau of Standards Monograph No. 155 (Washington DC, 1977)
  • About the Author

Oliver Pollak is Associate Professor of History at the University of Nebraska.

The History Today Newsletter

Sign up for our free weekly email

X