The Thrift of Daylight

Guest Illustrator: Cesca Saunders

Daylight Saving – or Summer Time – was introduced in Great Britain and Ireland on 21 May 1916. The Irish daily newspapers published articles on the eve of the change explaining the measure: ‘Just put on your clock and watch an hour, and work, play, and sleep when their fingers indicate the appointed hour.’ The Lord Lieutenant of Ireland, Lord Wimborne, had issued a poster earlier in the week with a similar explanation, stating that this altered time would be observed for all ordinary purposes during the summer including licensed houses, factories, workshops and other establishments where hours are regulated by law.

This novelty received a lot of coverage in the Irish papers – surprising, considering it came in the recent wake of the Easter Rising. As the degree of destruction visited upon Dublin became apparent, headlines were dominated by stories of executions, civilian deaths and martial law. This, as well as reports on renewed fighting in Verdun on the western front, made for drab reading. Through it all however, both in tone and in content, articles on Daylight Saving shone.

Public opinion, as seen in the press, seemed to be in favour of the measure, although reports were tinged with scepticism. One letter-writer to the Irish Times warned those with court dates scheduled of the importance of keeping to the new time: ‘…a sleepy plaintiff or complainant who arrives an hour after his case has been dismissed with costs may get a shock, while a defendant may be dumbfoundered to find an escort ready to march him off to undergo a month’s hard labour for an offence to which he may have had a perfect answer.’

A similar dry wit was also to be found in House of Commons debates on the issue. When questioned by a critic of the bill as to what would happen if he didn’t put his clock back, the Home Secretary, Herbert Samuel curtly replied: ‘You will miss your train.’ On hearing lengthy objections from those with farming interests he dismissively spat: ‘There are other people in the world besides farmers.’ In the House of Lords, Lord Balfour proposed a metaphysical riddle: twins born in October, one on either side of the clock reverting to standard time. This would result in the younger twin technically being born before its sibling, resulting in confusion with regard to inheritance of land or titles.

Despite opposition in both Houses of Parliament, the Summer Time Act, 1916 was passed without difficulty and with the support of the British government. This was not the first time, however, a bill on Daylight Saving had been introduced. In fact, on no fewer than five occasions between 1908 and 1914, similar bills had been brought before Parliament and each time had failed to make the transition to the statute book. On the three most recent attempts they had failed even to pass their first reading. By 1916, what had changed?


Origins of Daylight Saving

The concept of Daylight Saving is based on the fact that the sun rises earlier in the summer months. By moving the clocks forward in spring, countries or regions can exploit this fact and gain an extra hour of sunlight both in the mornings and in the evenings.

The origins of Daylight Saving can be traced back to the 18th century. In 1784, the world’s favourite inventor, Benjamin Franklin, in a tongue-in-cheek letter to the French daily newspaper, Journal de Paris, suggested the city of Paris could save money on candles by getting up and going to bed earlier. The concept was later developed and popularised by an English building contractor named William Willett. In 1907 Willett published a pamphlet titled The Waste of Daylight in which he proposed reducing the length of four consecutive Sundays in April by 20 minutes, thereby moving the clocks forwards by 80 minutes for the summer months. He later altered this to the single jump of one hour that we have today.

Willett was motivated primarily by a desire to provide workers with extra light for leisure time in the evenings:

‘Light is one of the greatest gifts of the Creator to man. While daylight surrounds us, cheerfulness reigns, anxieties press less heavily, and courage is bred for the struggle of life. Against our ever-besieging enemy, disease, light and fresh air act as guards in our defence, and when the conflict is close, supply us with the most effective weapons with which to overcome the invader.’

Alongside this great perceived benefit to the public health, changing the clocks would result in savings to the Exchequer amounting to at least £2.5m per year due to the decrease in the amount of artificial light, and by extension fuel, needed during the summer months.


Support for Willett

By 1914 Willett claimed the support of 285 of the 670 members of the House of Commons, including senior Liberals, Tories, Nationalists, Unionists and Labour party members. In fact, as early as May 1911, a young Winston Churchill spoke at a meeting in favour of Daylight Saving alongside the Lord Mayor of London. Churchill extolled the virtues of the proposal, claiming that it would benefit the ‘physical, mental, moral and financial welfare’ of the country. He also rather romantically predicted that future generations would erect statues of Willett in his honour, and ‘decorate them with sunflowers on the longest day of the year’.

One particularly active convert to Willett’s cause was Robert Pearce, MP for Leek. In 1908 he introduced a Daylight Savings bill to the House of Commons. Despite showing initial promise, however, it failed to pass. In 1909 a government-appointed committee, rejected the bill on the grounds that that there were serious objections to the measure as well as contradictions in the evidence. This ruling haunted subsequent attempts to introduce Daylight Saving. Further bills introduced in 1911, 1912 and 1914 were summarily rejected. And even though Willett maintained that support for his idea was growing, it appeared for a long time that the bill would never win sufficient backing to become law.


The Irish Times vs Daylight Saving

Within Ireland, one of the principal opponents of Daylight Saving was The Irish Times. The newspaper interpreted the bill as an attempt by the government to control aspects of people’s lives in which they had no business meddling. Why should people be forced to have dinner at seven, an editorial published in February 1910 asked, when ‘the common experience of mankind has taught us that it is pleasanter to have early tea at eight?’

‘Why should we submit to go to a theatre or concert in the uncomfortable glare of daylight? If we had wished such things we could have arranged our lives so as to dine at five and go to bed at nine. We did not, and we do not see why an interfering Parliament should not even allow us to fix our own hours of sleep’

This opposition was rooted primarily in what was considered to be the inflexibility of human nature. Since the earliest civilisations, humans have used the sun to tell the time. There was a sense that people’s basic daily routine – sleeping, waking, eating – was somehow inextricably linked to solar time. Rather than being able to adapt to this new time, the country would, the Irish Times maintained, continue to live their lives by the sun’s passage through the sky, but an hour earlier according to the clock on the wall. This explains the slightly condescending tone of their instruction – ‘…when the fingers indicate the appointed hour…’ – stressing the need to focus on the clock time.

The Irish Times argued further that the cost of giving more time to enjoy the summer evenings would be a grotesque distortion of the gradual changing of the seasons:

‘Surely the evenings, with their slowly-growing shadows, are the greatest attraction of the summer months. There is no prospect less alluring than that of an artificially constructed midnight sun. The crude and never-ending daylight would banish from the world half the beauty and all the romance of summer.’

Another editorial in April 1911, though less vehement in its dismissal of Daylight Saving, remained sceptical: ‘We have a suspicion somehow that the idea is too good to be true. It is so simple, and sounds so plausible, that, if there were no radical objections to it, the common sense of the business public would surely have adopted it long ago.’

The Irish Times offered an alternative however – the adoption of Greenwich Time in Ireland. Irish time, since 1880, was legally 25 minutes behind British time, this being the time difference between Greenwich Oberservatory and Dunsink Observatory, just north of Dublin. Bringing Ireland in line with the rest of the UK would therefore give an extra 25 minutes of sunlight in the evenings – a similar affect to Willett’s scheme but ‘it would have this advantage – that this course is logical and natural, while Mr Willett’s proposal is not’.

In 1916 Ireland was the only part of the United Kingdom which was not operating on Greenwich time. In 1884 an international conference on global time held in Washington D.C. voted in favour of making the line of longitude through Greenwich the prime meridian for time, meaning that time zones around the world would be linked to it. This left Ireland’s 25 minutes a curious anomaly; not only was it out of line with the Union, but it was also out of line with the rest of the world. And yet it went practically unmentioned for the next 30 years. It was only in 1911 when France belatedly adopted the recommendations of the 1884 conference that synchronising the clocks was raised as a topic for serious discussion. In Ireland, in particular, it became tangled up with the ongoing debate on Daylight Saving.


The First World War and Irish time

William Willett died in 1915. Without his indefatigable advocacy, and bearing in mind that attempts to introduce a Summer Time bill in the preceding years had met with increasing levels of opposition, it is reasonable to expect that the movement might have stagnated. The outbreak of the First World War, however, along with the staggering amount of money required to fund it, provided a new context for discussing any and every measure that might result in savings to the Exchequer. Daylight Saving was back on the table but only for the duration of the war. Herbert Samuel was emphatic in his assertion that the government ‘would not have dreamt of favouring this measure or of inviting the House to consider it unless it had reason to think that it was essentially advantageous for war purposes’. Germany had introduced Daylight Saving earlier in 1916 and the British government lived in fear of the Kaiser getting the upper hand in any aspect of hostilities.

Even the Irish Times, so often a vocal critic of the measure, seemed to have warmed to the idea, albeit only slightly, admitting that ‘it is possible that, for the sake of economy in lighting, apart from any question of health, people might be ready to recognise as desirable a change in their habits which a few years ago chiefly excited their ridicule’.

In Westminster the bill still had its critics, most notably from those with agricultural interests. However, not wanting to appear to oppose too strenuously a measure that would help the war effort, their opposition amounted to little more than bluster and the bill was passed with an overwhelming majority. It received royal assent on 17 May 1916 and came into effect for the first time on 21 May with, according the Kildare Observer, the ‘utmost smoothness’.

The discussion surrounding Summer Time in May 1916 allowed Herbert Samuel to revisit the issue of time uniformity between Ireland and Britain. Samuel believed that it would be a great benefit to have the whole of the United Kingdom operating on the same time. The reversion from Summer Time to Standard Time in October 1916, he suggested, would offer the perfect opportunity to synchronise the time between the two islands.

No attempt was made until August 1916 to introduce legislation. Samuel claimed that the state of confusion caused by the Rising made it impossible to gauge the feeling in Ireland on the issue of uniform time. Also, while Daylight Saving was intended only for the duration of the war, the assimilation of Irish time into British time would be permanent. John Dillon, an Irish member of the House of Commons, opposed the Time (Ireland) Bill when it was introduced, stating that Irish people liked that time difference: ‘It reminds us that we are coming into a strange country.’ Despite opposition from Dillon and his Irish Parliamentary Party colleagues, however, the bill passed and Dublin time was lost to history, overshadowed by the more dramatic events that had preceded it in 1916 – the Easter Rising and the Battle of the Somme.



Time has been a topic of Irish parliamentary debate as recently as 2013. The ill-fated Brighter Evening Bill suggested moving Ireland in line with Central European time. Then Minister for Justice and Equality, Alan Shatter’s response – advising people who want brighter evenings to get out of bed earlier – eerily echoed responses to William Willett’s original proposal a century earlier.

As long as Ireland retains its close ties with the United Kingdom, including a land border with Northern Ireland, it’s unlikely that the time between the two countries will deviate. So for the foreseeable future, we will continue to spring forward, fall back; spring forward, fall back – as we have done since 1916.

Willett never saw his lifelong dream realised, but undoubtedly, without him Daylight Saving would never have come to be. Despite Churchill’s prediction, Willett never had his statue bedecked in sunflowers. He did however get a different type of monument: a sundial stands in Petts Wood in London in his memory. It permanently tells Daylight Saving Time and bears the inscription: ‘Horas non numero nisi æstivas’ (I count only the summer hours).