May 9 2012 By James Gates
Green plaque marking the home of William Willett, inventor of daylight savings time, on 16 Avenue Crescent, Acton.
IN recent weeks, Londoners may have looked out the window and been puzzled as to the current season.
The calendar says May, but the recent onslaught of rain, combined with chilly temperatures, do not feel very spring-like.
But the lighter months are here regardless, thanks to one man whose inspired vision gave us brighter mornings and evenings.
William Willett was the man who came up with the innovative idea of daylight saving, and as a result he is remembered as one of the most important figures in British history, who changed the way we live today. He also has strong links to the borough of Ealing.
Willett was born in Farnham, Surrey, on August 10, 1856 and spent a great deal of his life living in Kent, where it is said he first devised his time-bending concept.
A builder for his father’s business by trade, Willett later moved to Acton, where he built many of the historic buildings making up the Mill Hill Park Estate.
Much of central Acton owes its appearance to Willett, and a green plaque was unveiled on his former home in Avenue Crescent six years ago.
But it was while riding his horse near another of his London homes, in Petts Wood, one summer morning when Willett noticed, even though it was bright and sunny, that residents’ blinds were still shut. He had a ‘eureka’ moment, believing that more light during waking hours would increase health and happiness, and daylight saving time was born.
In 1907, Willett invested his personal finances in publishing a pamphlet called The Waste of Daylight. The controversial document suggested that the clocks be put forward by 80 minutes in April in four 20 minute stages on successive Sundays at 2am and then reversed the same way in September. This method would create lighter evenings in the summer and, interestingly, save £2.5million in lighting costs.
His words began with the following: “Everyone appreciates the long light evenings. Everyone laments their shrinkage as the days grow shorter, and nearly everyone has given utterance to a regret that the clear bright light of early mornings, during Spring and Summer months, is so seldom
seen or used.”
William tirelessly fought and campaigned for support, and by 1908 he had found an ally in
MP Robert Pearce, however, his influence was not enough to have the bill passed, despite many attempts.
But he gained a crucial supporter further down the line, as Winston Churchill was also an advocate for British summer time.
The proposal was revised once more in 1909 by a parliamentary select committee but, once again, to no avail.
It wasn’t until the First World War began that William’s idea was taken seriously, primarily because of the need to save coal and keep fuel costs low.
Britain followed in the footsteps of Germany, which had already adopted the format and finally passed William’s bill on May 17, 1916. The clocks were put forward by an hour the following Sunday and the bill was considered to have boosted production in wartime.
Sadly, William Willett never lived to see the day his act was passed. He died of influenza on March 4, 1915 at the age of 58.
Recognising his achievements nationally and locally, Nigel Middlemiss, chairman of Mill Hill Park Residents Association, said: “People here are incredibly proud that the champion of daylight saving, William Willett, built and lived on this estate.
“It’s architecturally very varied and noteworthy, in fact a jewel within Acton, which is why about
20 years ago I urged Ealing Council to designate it a Conservation Area. This they had the good sense and vision to do.”