Curious Questions: Why do the clocks go forward in Spring?

As we move from Greenwich Mean Time to British Summer Time, Martin Fone ponders the reasons why — and wonders if we'll always continue to change the clocks twice a year.

It’s time of year again when we need to alter our timepieces. In case you hadn’t realised it, British Summer Time (BST) starts at 1 am on Sunday 29th March, when the clocks will leap forward to 2am. The loss of one hour’s sleep is a minor inconvenience, I always feel, for the benefit of lighter evenings, always a welcome psychological fillip and a sign that summer is on its way.

The idea of using different time during the summer is actually an ancient one, and Benjamin Franklin was among those. But dual system of Greenwich Mean Time (GMT) in the winter and BST in the summer was first mooted by William Willett, in a pamphlet published in 1907, entitled The Waste of Daylight. Willett wasn’t a scientist, but a builder — and also, as it happens, great-great grandfather of Coldplay’s singer, Chris Martin, not that he would have known it at the time.

He was also a keen golfer, and it was this that prompted his idea: he resented the fact that the early onset of dusk curtailed his game. He was successful in lobbying Liberal MP Robert Pearce to introduce the Daylight Saving Bill in 1908. The bill, though, was rejected by the House of Commons and Willett, who died of influenza in 1915, was to miss out on seeing his dream come true by one year.

Ultimately, daylight saving was introduced in Britain in 1916 to conserve energy and help the war effort rather than to appease frustrated golfers. Taking their lead from the Germans, the British moved their clocks forward by one hour between May 21st and October 1st. The move was so popular that BST has remained to this day, although the start and end dates — the last Sundays in March and October respectively — were only aligned across the European Union from October 22, 1995.

At the end of summer 1940, once more to conserve energy, clocks were not turned back. When the clocks were moved an hour forward in spring 1941, Britain operated a British Double Summer Time and continued to do so until the winter clock was realigned once more with GMT in the autumn of 1947. More radically, between February 1968 and November 1971, BST was adopted the whole year round on a trial basis. Due to its unpopularity, though, particularly amongst the farming community, the government abandoned the exercise in 1972 and reinstated the dual system.

This may not be the end of the saga. Further changes are afoot as member states of the European Union have to make the binary and seemingly irrevocable decision of whether, from 2021, to remain on permanent summer time or winter time. As to whether we in Britain will follow suit and abandon the half-yearly ritual of altering our clocks, only time will tell, although a recent YouGov survey found that 59% of us would favour a permanent move to summer time.

If we were to make that choice, we’d actually be joining the majority of the world’s population. China and India don’t use it, and in the rest of Asia, Africa and South America DST has been abandoned almost everywhere, barring a few outliers such as Paraguay and Syria. We in Europe tend to think of daylight savings time it as universal, but it couldn’t be further from the truth.

Martin Fone is the author of several books includingThe Fickle Finger: The Inventor’s Lot‘, ‘Fifty Scams and Hoaxes‘ and ‘Fifty Curious Questions: Pabulum for the Enquiring Mind‘.