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BST Explained: Why the Clocks Go Forward

Putting the clocks forward in spring and back in autumn has become second nature for many of us, and it’s hard to believe that the convention dates back a little over a hundred years!

Longer, warmer evenings are something to look forward to as we emerge out of winter, with this year having been a particularly tough time for many people struggling with lockdown during the coronavirus pandemic.

But it is not often that we stop and think about why the clocks go forward in spring and back again in October.

Spring forward, fall back

It was in 1916 that the Summer Time Act was introduced, after a campaign by a builder from Kent by the name of William Willett (the great-great-grandfather of Coldplay singer Chris Martin!).

Hello Spring

In those days, all of the clocks in the United Kingdom were set to Greenwich Mean Time (GMT) all year round, which meant that in the summer it would get light around 3am and was dark again by 9pm.

Two years earlier, Willett had been out riding his horse one summer’s eve and was heading back to his home near Petts Wood when he noticed that his neighbours had their curtains closed – even though it was still light outside.

Willett saw this as a “waste of daylight”, and that was the title he used on a pamphlet that circulated, proposing the idea of adapting the time around the amount of daylight available in summer.

For health and economy

He suggested putting the clocks forward by 80 minutes, in four steps of 20 minutes each Sunday during April, and he received backing from Winston Churchill and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, who both agreed that longer daylight hours would improve the nation’s health and save money in lighting costs.

Willett Memorial

Sadly for Willett, the idea did not gain backing in the House of Commons, only to resurface during World War One, by which time Willet had died of the flu, aged 58.

A memorial to Willett still stands in Petts Wood in the form of a sundial set to daylight saving time.

The Summer Time Act passed in the UK on May 17th 1916, with the clocks going forward on Sunday, May 21st, and the German government had already done the same in an attempt to save energy during wartime.

An idea for the ages

The amount of daylight varies throughout the year because the Earth is tilted on its axis, and the closer you get to the Equator, the less drastic the changes in daylight become in different seasons.

William Willett was by no means the first person to contemplate the idea of altering the clocks around the amount of available daylight. Benjamin Franklin, one of the Founding Fathers of the United States, introduced the idea as early as 1784 – albeit with his tongue in his cheek.

Fast forward to 1895 and George Hudson, an entomologist from New Zealand, also proposed daylight saving time, suggesting a two-hour time shift so that he would have more time to hunt bugs in the summer!

These days, everyone has their own opinion on daylight saving time, with some people loving the extra-long evenings in the middle of the year, while others complain that we make winter more miserable by putting the clocks back again.

Wherever you stand on the issue, you can be sure that this is a subject with a long history of debate and discussion which is still ongoing, with changes proposed and delayed many times in recent years – and so it will most likely continue for many years to come.

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