21st May 1916 British Summer Time starts for the first time.

William Willett was an early riser. He ran a successful building company and liked to fit in a horse ride before breakfast and starting work. On a summer morning in 1905, after a ride in Petts Wood near Chislehurst in Kent, he noticed how many houses still had their blinds down and curtains closed – even though the sun had been up for hours. Willett also enjoyed playing golf after work and hated having to cut a game short when a summer evening turned to night. A thought occurred to him – could there be a way to make more use of the daylight in summer.

He wasn’t the first person to have this thought. Back in 1784 Benjamin Franklin wrote a satirical letter whilst he was living in France suggesting that people should get up earlier in summer. He proposed that taxes on shutters, rationing candles and ringing bells and firing canons at dawn should be used to encourage this behaviour.

Then, in 1895, a New Zealander, George Hudson, presented a paper to the Wellington Philosophical Society, which suggested moving clocks forward by two hours in the summer months. This created a lot of interest but no action.

William Willet, who knew nothing about George Hudson’s ideas on the other side of the world, kept thinking about ways to make more use of daylight and eventually published a pamphlet in 1907. Copies of ‘The Waste of Daylight’ were sent to Members of Parliament, Local Councils, businesses and anyone who Willett thought might be able to advance his cause. By this time he was a passionate campaigner for his idea.

“That so many as 210 hours of daylight are to all intents and purposes wasted every year, is a defect in our civilisation. Let England recognise and remedy it. Let us not be so faint-hearted as to hesitate to make the effort when the cost is to trifling and the reward so great. If any better method than that I have suggested can be devised let it be produced, but somehow or other let us secure these 210 hours.” 

WM. WILLETT. SLOANE SQUARE, LONDON, July, 1907

By 1908 Willett had got the support of an MP, Robert Pearce, who tried several times to get the idea passed into law. Opposition, particularly from farmers, meant that these attempts didn’t succeed. But Willett kept on trying and by 1914 had published the 19th edition of his pamphlet which included lists of people supporting his idea.

The cover of Willett's 1914 pamphlet
The cover of Willett’s 1914 pamphlet

On 4th March 1915, at the age of 58 William Willett died from influenza and he never saw his big idea in action.

The First World War made the issue more important and, bizarrely, Germany picked up on Willett’s ideas first, and introduced a daylight saving scheme on 30th April 1916 to help save on coal consumption. In Britain, a bill was finally passed on 17th May 1916 and clocks were moved forward by one hour on Sunday 21st May – and Britain has been regularly ‘changing the clocks’ ever since.

After his death William Willett’s efforts were finally acknowledged. There is a sundial in Petts Wood as a memorial – it is set permanently to British Summer Time as well as a pub called the ‘Daylight Inn’.

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