A History of Changing the Clocks in Britain

Posted on November 2nd, 2011 by GEM Motoring Assist

A history of changing the clocks in Britain. Picture by Harshad Sharma

With debate raging about whether we should put the clocks back in winter, a look at the history of the debate.

News that the government is considering moving the UK’s clocks forward by an hour for a three-year trial period has prompted a strong feeling of déjà vu among many of us.

From 1968 to 1971 a similar experiment was conducted – when, instead of putting the clocks back in winter by an hour, the clocks of England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland remained unchanged.

This four-year trial resulted in lighter evenings – something which road safety associations like GEM Motoring Assist believe would result in safer roads for the members they provide breakdown cover to.

There is much to learn by rewinding the clock and looking at the history of British Summer Time (BST) and the debates related to this controversial system.

BST begins on the last Sunday of March and ends on the last Sunday of October. At the start of this period, the clocks are advanced by one hour from Greenwich Mean Time (GMT). At the end of the period the clocks are put back by an hour.

A history of British summer time

1880 – GMT was adopted across Britain. Prior to GMT, and until the advent of the railways, people kept time by the sun – an organic system known as local mean time

1916 – Surrey builder William Willett proposes to put the clocks forward by 80 minutes in staggered 20-minute weekly steps beginning each April with the repeat procedure being staged in September. A simplified two-stage version of his idea is adopted and BST is born

1940 to 1945 – During World War II, Britain operated on a British ‘Double Summer Time’ system – with the clocks jumping two hours ahead of GMT during the summer month

1968 to 1971 – In response to business and public opinion polls, Harold Wilson’s government introduced the British Standard Time trial with Britain remaining on GMT +1 hour throughout the year. Analysis of the first two years of the trial found that the resulting darker mornings in the autumn resulted in an increase in road casualties during the early hours. But this was offset by a substantially greater reduction in the number of road casualty incidents occurring in the evening. A total of 2,700 fewer people were killed or seriously injured during the first two winters of British Standard Time.

Despite the success of the trial, the House of Commons voted by 366 to 81 votes to discontinue the trial.

2004 – Labour MP Nigel Beard tabled a Private Members Bill proposing that England and Wales should be able to set their own clocks independently of Scotland and Northern Ireland (two countries where opposition to extending BST is particularly strong). If the Bill had been adopted, it would have seen the UK split into different time zones – something current Prime Minister David Cameron has ruled out.

2010 – Tory MP Rebecca Harris tables the Daylight Saving Bill which requires the government to instigate, and act upon, research into whether living an hour ahead of GMT in winter and two hours ahead in summer would benefit the UK.

2011 – The Bill has now reached Committee Stage. English government ministers are writing to counterparts in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland to seek consensus on a three-year experiment trialling the effect of moving the clocks forward by an hour.

Any move which results in lighter evenings in the winter is welcomed by David Williams, CEO of GEM Motoring Assist.

Mr Williams said: “When the clocks go back each winter, the number of road accidents – some of them fatal – rockets. It happens every year. There’s a big difference in kids coming out of school in daylight and then suddenly coming out of school in pitch darkness. All evidence points to the fact that having an extra hour of daylight at the end of the day will help the environment, help the elderly, help the young and help road safety.

The road safety expert added: “It’s the most cost-effective safety measure the government could introduce and it won’t cost a penny!

But the Bill is unlikely to have a smooth passage. The Scottish National Party (SNP) remains staunchly opposed; with many of its MPs pointing out that if the clocks didn’t go back in winter, some parts of the far north would remain in darkness until 10am.

The SNP’s Westminster Office declined to comment on the matter when I contacted them.