As the UK reverts to Greenwich Mean Time for the winter, we look at how this is linked to other seasonal festivals…
West Sussex funeral director, Freeman Brothers, was first established in Horsham in 1855. The company now also has offices in Billingshurst, Crawley and Hurstpierpoint, and has presided over much societal change! With this weekend marking the annual transition from British Summer Time to Greenwich Mean Time – something which didn’t happen when the organisation first began trading! – Jen Bolt of the Crawley branch tells us more about the history of this tradition, and how it links to other seasonal celebrations…
As the nights draw in, the warmth of summer ebbs away and the darkening skies bring a chill to the air. Delicate floral scents give way to earthy blends as the harvest is gathered in, and the natural world settles down into its long nap. For many, the long evenings of autumn herald joyful festivities and rituals best enjoyed under night-time skies with fires and candles ablaze; roasting faces and marshmallows alike. Despite the burgeoning cold, snuggly layers and woolly accessories provide comfort to watchers and a sense of magic and romance fills the air…
For William Willett, a builder born in Farnham in 1856, the encroaching darkness at this time of year was anything but romantic. An assiduous campaigner for the establishment of British Summer Time, Willett outlined his proposition for incrementally advancing the clocks by 80 minutes in April (and reversing them the same way in September) in a self-published pamphlet – The Waste of Daylight – in 1907.
Willett argued that adjusting the time in this way would help to conserve energy by making the most of natural daylight and limiting the need for artificial lighting during the evening hours. Though his petition found support, in the shape of Robert Pearce MP and a young Winston Churchill (both of whom attempted to get the plan passed through Parliament) it wasn’t until 1916 – in the midst of the First World War, when the need to conserve resources became more pressing – that the bill was finally passed.
Willett sadly never got to see the realisation of his vision, dying of influenza in 1915 at the age of 58. He is memorialised however, by a stone sundial in Kent’s Petts Wood where he spent much of his life. As a mark of respect to his campaign, the installers set the sundial (which, by its very nature is a typically inflexible timepiece) to read Daylight Saving Time all year round: a testament not only to Willett’s progressive ideas but to the challenge of altering an established, immovable norm.
Though credited with the establishment of modern Daylight Saving Time in this country, Willett was by no means the first to suggest such a policy; he had many earlier supporters, the most famous of whom being Benjamin Franklin, who made a similar proposition in America in 1784. Franklin’s satirical take on the idea had little to do with changing clocks though, proposing instead that the populous simply got up earlier to counteract the effect. As such, Willett alone is credited with advocating a systematic societal change that had not been seen since the ancient world.
Today, Daylight Saving Time is an accepted fixture in our annual calendar, with most anticipating the resetting of clocks without question, but, though the need to conserve energy has arguably never been greater, some question the relevance of the adaptation in our contemporary society.
Some feel it’s no longer beneficial as advancements in technology, for example in farming and agricultural industries, negate traditional necessities and make it possible for us to operate a system of 24 hour commerce. Recent research even goes a step further, suggesting that the change may in fact do more harm than good and leading to a campaign aimed at establishing British Summertime all year round.
Campaigners argue that there is often a notable increase in road traffic accidents following a clock change, possibly due to drivers’ vision being impaired unexpectedly, while others note that, typically, more fatal heart attacks are recorded in the week after British Summertime begins, suggesting this could be linked to lack of sleep as body clocks are also reset. As well as personal health and safety, some feel that the end of Daylight Saving Time also has a negative impact on commercial interests with many retailers supporting the establishment of British Summertime all year round because of a noticeable reduction in trade during the autumn, due to darker evenings and fewer after-work shoppers making them more reliant on Christmas trading to make up for the shortfall.
Whichever side of the argument you take, the debate itself could be seen as somewhat symptomatic of our wider human desire to measure and order the natural world around us, using clocks, maps and calendars to make sense of our daily lives, despite the potential problems this can cause.
In 1794 (just a decade after Franklin implored that Americans changed their habits to fit the seasons, rather than the other way around) on the other side of the Atlantic, poet William Blake highlighted the potentially damaging impact of imposing human structures on the natural world in his poem, London:
I wandered through each charter’d street,
Near where the charter’d Thames doth flow,
And mark in ev’ry face I meet
Marks of weakness, marks of woe.
Blake recognised the damaging effects that the rapid building and rigorous mapping out of the city was having on its inhabitants, both physically and mentally, and warned against the urgent desire of humans to impose order on their natural surroundings. Centuries on however, we persist in our desire to create order and regiment, and it’s easy to understand why.
The ability to quantify our world leads to understanding and acceptance of the human condition: anyone who’s ever tried to consider the size and shape of the Universe, for example, will understand the mind-bending impossibility of trying to conceive of something without an edge or an end, so it’s perhaps unsurprising that this reversion in the clocks coincides, for many, with festivals intended to celebrate our own mortality.
Celebrated predominantly in the western world, for example, Halloween (or All Hallows Eve) is a popular modern festival celebrating all things spooky and ghostly. Though today it’s mainly about carving pumpkins, fancy dress parties and frightening neighbours into giving up sweet treats, its precursor – Samhain – was a day-long Gaelic festival (beginning at sundown on 31 October and ending at evening on 1 November) that marked the cessation of the harvest and the start of the darker half of the year. It was believed that, at this time, the boundary between the worlds of the living and the dead could more easily be crossed, requiring believers to both welcome the souls of loved ones while protecting against spirits that may seek to cause harm over the coming winter: the practice of ‘mumming’ (similar to modern ‘trick or treating’) therefore meant participants needed to disguise themselves in the hope of confusing malevolent souls. Similarly, the Mexican festival, Dia de los Muertos (Day of the Dead), occurs a day later – on 2 November – and similarly celebrates the lives of those departed, with family members offering prayers and good wishes to support a loved one’s passing.
In the same way that festivals such as these act as a ‘memento mori’ (reminders of our own mortality) – serving as reminders of the relative brevity of our lives and emphasising how precious our time is – Daylight Saving Time ultimately helps us to make the most of our waking hours and not squander the time we have.
Willett would be proud.
Tel: 01403 254590
If you have an urgent query, please call 01403 254590. This number is answered by one our staff 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. This is the quickest way to reach us.
Tel: 01403 785133
25 & 27 Brighton Road
Tel: 01293 540000
126 High Street
Tel: 01273 831497