The builder who campaigned for daylight savings time

Although daylight savings was not a new idea, it had never been adopted in Britain before the First World War. Today we move clocks forward an hour in Spring to create longer days, and move them back an hour in Autumn, giving us the luxury of an extra hour in bed. And all this is thanks to a builder from London, and the great-great grandfather of Coldplay front man Chris Martin.

The history of daylight savings

The idea of changing the time to get more hours of daylight goes back centuries. US founding father Benjamin Franklin proposed a similar idea in 1784 and in 1895 insect expert George Hudson proposed a two-hour daylight-saving shift.

In Ancient Roman, the length of an hour varied depending on the time of year – during winter they lasted 44 minutes, but in summer they lasted 75.

William Willett in 1909

Campaigning for daylight savings

It took the work of builder William Willett, and the pressures of the First World War, for daylight saving time to eventually come to pass in Britain.

In 1905 Willett, the great-great-grandfather of Coldplay singer Chris Martin, began campaigning for clocks to go forward in April and back in September. Along with providing more recreational opportunities, he believed it would lower lighting costs.

William Willett is the great-great grandfather of Coldplay singer Chris Martin

In July 1908, a few hundred residents of Port Arthur, Ontario, put their clocks forward an hour to start the world's first period of daylight saving time and several other Canadian regions did the same. In Britain, Willett’s campaign was enthusiastically backed, but in 1909 a parliamentary bill failed after opposition from farmers.

The influence of war

By 1916, in the midst of war, it became obvious that daylight saving time would help conserve vital electricity. On 30 April Germany and its ally Austria beat everyone to it, turning their clocks forward by an hour.

A few weeks later Britain passed the Summer Time Act as Greenwich Mean Time plus one hour, which meant in 1916 Daylight Savings Time (DST) was extended from 21 May to 1 October. After this, France and many other countries followed suit.

Sadly, William Willett did not live to see his dream realised, as he died of flu in 1915 aged 58. He is commemorated in Petts Wood by a memorial sundial, set permanently to daylight saving time.


After the war, most European nations reverted back to standard time, but in Britain it was kept, becoming known as British Summer Time (BST). Interestingly, during the Second World War, Britain also adopted double summer time, two hours ahead of GMT.

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