William Willett: Daylight Saving and British Summer Time

Several billions of timepieces, clocks, watches, and timers of all sorts, not to mention computers, are adjusted twice every year in over 70 countries around the world. Few of the billions of people directly affected by this clock change have the slightest inkling that the origin of this now routine change was here in Chislehurst.

It is a fact of nature that in countries to the north and south of the tropics, the sun rises much earlier and sets much later in summer than it does in winter.  In agricultural communities, this has not been a problem – people and animals simply shift their habits as the hours of daylight shift.  But in countries such as the UK at the end of the 19th Century, where increasing numbers were working and living in towns and cities, and whose daily routines were determined by the clock, such a personal response to nature was not feasible when it came to office or shop hours.

While many people had idly suggested over the years that people should change their routines, it was a Chislehurst builder, William Willett (right in 1909), who first proposed a national response.  He enjoyed an early morning ride over the Commons, and had often noted that shutters and blinds were still drawn well after the sun had risen in spring and summer.  He also noted that especially in the spring the evenings were dark relatively early, so that the warmer evenings were wasted.  If only people could be persuaded to rise from their beds earlier…. 

William and his daughter Gertrude

Others before him had made ingenious suggestions, but it was William Willett who came up with the now obvious solution – change the nation’s clocks, so that people had no choice. He felt so strongly about this that in 1907 he wrote a pamphlet, The Waste of Daylight.  Initially he proposed that clocks be advanced by twenty minutes at 2am on four consecutive Sundays in April, and reversed on the four Sundays in September. This was later adjusted to the much simpler proposal we now know so well: a one hour advancement of clock time in spring and a one hour reversal in autumn. 

Despite having many supporters, including the young Winston Churchill, it took nine years and a war with Germany to persuade the Government to adopt Willett’s proposal.  In 1916, as a measure to reduce energy and increase war production, an emergency law was passed to change the clocks twice a year.  This became a permanent arrangement following the passing of the 1925 Summer Time Act.

The adoption of the Act in so many countries since has confirmed that not only has it made it life easier for evening golfers (another reason why the golfer Willett had been so keen on the idea), but it has reduced energy consumption, and saved countless lives (there are fewer accidents in the mornings than in the evenings). Some now go further and suggest we should have double Summer Time; doubtless the debate will continue. William Willett did not live to see his idea enacted.  He had died from influenza on 4 March 1915. He was only 58 when he died, and is buried with his second wife in St Nicholas churchyard in Chislehurst.

Willett was born in Farnham, Surrey, joined his father in his speculative building business, and established himself as a builder of fine middle class houses in comfortable suburbs. He was responsible for many of the earlier houses in Camden Park Road and the Wilderness, and he employed the services of reputable architects, including Ernest Newton and Amos Faulkner.

Chislehurst honours its former resident with a blue plaque on the wall of his house, The Cedars, with a newly refurbished gravestone at St Nicholas churchard, and with the Willett Memorial sundial, set deep in Willett Wood, while neighbouring Petts Wood has a road and a pub named after him.  Many wonder if Chislehurst should do more!

Dr. David Prerau, a former US Government advisor, and author of “Saving the Daylight”, published by Granta Books in 2005, gave a short talk at Camden Place on 24 October 2008 to a small group of Society members.  He was in the UK with his wife Gail as part of a symposium on time at Greenwich Maritime Museum, and at short notice we were able to show them round Chislehurst, and to visit the Willett Memorial, and the recently renovated gravestone at St Nicholas Church. David was amazed that we do not have a statue dedicated to Willett’s memory.

Copies of David’s very interesting book can be purchased via the internet or ordered at your local bookshop.