I’ve written several times about Frank, the elderly gentleman who rather unexpectedly came to live with me last summer. And since I mentioned him in Christmas Chemistry he has passed another milestone and is now 96. With increasing age there’s no reduction in his enthusiasm for gin and tonic or chocolate biscuits but both his eyesight and hearing have continued to deteriorate. It’s no longer possible for him to see his clock even with a magnifying glass so we recently bought him a talking watch. He has a love-hate relationship with this well-meaning device. On good days it helps him to pace his way through the daylight hours and the long nights, but there are many occasions when he mishears what it says, and is surprised. His tendency to nod off at regular intervals adds to the disorientation, and his response to being told the time is always a polite but incredulous, ‘Good Heavens’.
We’ve probably all had the experience of coming out of a deep sleep and wondering where we are and what day it is. It happened to me recently when I was having a weekend away in Manchester and for a moment I felt quite panicky. Unlike Frank, though, I was able to reach for my watch and to look out of the window, and this put my position in time and space into perspective.
I’ve been doing research for my next book recently and one of the many things I’ve been thinking about is time. And I realise how I’ve always taken it for granted. Every March I’ve obediently put my clocks forward and then in October I’ve turned them back again. As though it were decreed by nature. But of course, it’s not and the path to our current consensus on time has been jagged.
When people worked on the land they had little need to organise their lives by the clock. They would rise with the sun and go to bed when it got dark. Time, if it was needed, was measured by a sundial in each town or village. But as soon as people started to work in factories and mills, things changed. Their lives were ruled by the clock. Being late for work could lead to dismissal and they weren’t allowed to go home until the hands on the clock proved that it was the end of the working day. This was not always predictable as many unscrupulous factory managers manipulated time for their own ends, turning the clock back to get more hours out of their exhausted workers.But the main change in time observation came with the railways. In the beginning there were different local times all over the country. In Norwich, local time was a couple of minutes ahead of London, and in Barrow it was thirteen minutes behind the capital. This hadn’t mattered much in the days of horse-drawn coaches as they travelled relatively slowly but trains carried people around at previously unimagined speeds and now these time differences caused confusion. People risked missing trains and appointments and with train drivers working to different times there was a danger of collisions.
From 1840 the situation began to improve as some railway companies started using ‘London Time’ which was determined by the Royal Observatory at Greenwich. But it took about eight years before all the railway companies were setting their station clocks to this. Also, people were resistant to giving up their local time and so in many places the station clock would have two different minute hands, one displaying the standard time, and the other displaying the local time. Initially stationmasters used books of tables to work out the correct time for the station clock, but from 1852 the problem of standardisation was overcome.The electric telegraph was introduced and could quickly transmit the time from Greenwich to wherever it was needed. In 1880 the chaos was resolved once and for all when the Government passed an act that established a single time zone throughout the country.
Daylight saving is another innovation that has affected clocks and William Willett, a builder, is generally credited with promoting this idea in Great Britain. In 1907 he published a pamphlet putting forward his ideas. He argued that bringing the time forward in the Spring and Summer would improve people’s health by giving them more daylight for outdoor recreation, and stressed that the increased opportunities for rifle practice may come to benefit the nation. He also argued that the people of Great Britain could save £2,500,000 a year because they would spend less on electricity, gas, oil and candles. He acknowledged that the changes might cause confusion in our dealings with other countries but with unswerving imperial confidence was sure that when they realised the benefits, they would be quick to copy our example. With daylight saving, he enthused that a man (he didn’t mention women) will have gained two whole years of daylight by the age of fifty.
Willett aimed to gain eighty minutes of daylight and proposed moving the clocks forward by twenty minutes for four Sundays in succession in April each year. These changes would be reversed over four Sundays each September. He urged voters to send postcards to their MPs asking them to back this rather complicated scheme. It took until 1916 for a version of his idea to be adopted but sadly he didn’t live to see it. The system we use now when the clocks change by just one hour, and all in one hit, was introduced as a way of cutting domestic coal consumption leaving more available for the war effort.
As a child I could never remember which way the clocks went but when I was a teenager, an old lady named Phoebe used to say to me, ‘Spring forward, fall back, dear’. It’s a helpful reminder but there was one occasion when it didn’t work. Molly was about three weeks old and the whole household was in a fuddled state of post-baby chaos. Somehow we managed to put the clock forward instead of back and my then-husband set off dutifully for communion. Unfortunately he arrived two hours early and must have seemed very eager as he waited by the church door at 6am.
And now today as daylight saving begins, I know which way to put the clocks. That’s an improvement. However, there’s no improvement in the level of general mayhem in my household. Whatever time it is, the response is likely to be the same—a polite but incredulous, ‘Good Heavens’.