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Letters • March 28 2004

Mr Sunshine – Prince of Darkness

Dr Herbert Messina Ferrante

Have you set your watch one hour forward? You better do so because we are back to summertime
I sometimes wonder how many people know the truth about the man who invented the British summer time which later on was adopted by other countries including Malta.
It is said that William Willet was taking his early morning ride in Petts Wood near Chrislewish, Kent, one summer morning in 1906, when it suddenly struck him how many houses he passed with their shutters closed. Their owners were sleeping on, waiting for the clocks to tell them when to get up.
As he revelled in the early morning sun, Willet resolved to start campaigning for the clocks to be brought forward each year in early summer.
‘If one of the hours of sunlight wasted could be carried to the end of the day, many advantages would be gained. Why should man be the slave of the clock?’ he asked. ‘Why shouldn’t we have an extra hour’s daylight by the simple expedient of putting forward the hands of the clock?’
Willett’s theory that people rise more happily when it is light and suffer relatively little when the nights draw in – because they are awake anyway – is now accepted all over the world.
Light is one of the greatest gifts of the Creator of man. Willett observed, anticipating the discovery of Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD), a condition that sets in during the dark winter months. While daylight surrounds us, cheerfulness reigns, anxieties press less heavily, and courage is bred for the struggle of life’ he said.
When the first ‘Daylight Saving Bill’ was introduced in the Commons in 1908, it was thrown out as unworkable. The same happened in 1909 and 1911. He was likened to the Biblical character Joshua, who caused the sun to stand still. So who was this man dubbed Mr Sunshine, but regarded by many as the Prince of Darkness?
William Willett was born in 1856 in Farnham, Surrey. He joined his father, a builder of the same name – became famous and wealthy for his passion for large, well-built houses, fine squares and well planned streets.
‘A quiet-dogged sort of man’ who was well liked, according to neighbours, he was notably energetic and by 6.30 every morning in spring and summer was out riding from his home.
His daylight saving idea was received with ridicule. His first notion was complicated. Willet proposed an advance of 80 minutes rather than an hour, brought forwarding four move of 20 minutes each.
‘People rocker with laughter at his silliness’ wrote the commentator. He spent much of his fortune in campaigns to persuade an obstinate nation to get up earlier. Between 1907-1914 he published his idea in various languages in 19 editions of a pamphlet called ‘The Waste of Daylight’ on a practical level. He pointed out that the country would save more than £2 million a year in fuel – imagine the savings today! (90 years later).
His campaign eventually began to win support in high places. Edward VII recognised it as a good idea when Willett pointed out in the brink of World War I that longer days would make more time for rifle practice.
The King declared Sandringham ‘a daylight saving zone’ defied Asquith’s government and ordered the clocks in his house to be brought forward an hour in May and his staff to ignore GMT. Later the King imposed the same rule in Balmoral and Windsor.
Yet though championed by all the great names of the era: Churchill, Lloyd, George Hardie and Balfour – Willetts Daylight Saving Bill promoted by the MP Sir Robert Pearse was not passed.
On the outbreak of the 1914 war, Willett conceded defeat and announced that campaigning for daylight saving would be suspended until hostilities were over.
He died on March 4 th, 1915 just a year too soon to witness the triumph of his idea. It became law on May 21st, 1916 – ironically on what would have been it’s pioneer’s birthday. Churchill predicted that the day would come when a grateful nation would erect a statue to Willett and lay sunflowers at this feet in the longest day of the year.
“As a whole, the introduction of summer time has more than justified the expectations of its promoters,” conceded The Times.
By the mid-fifties, many other countries including Brazil, Canada, China, Germany, Japan and the US had adopted the idea.
In 1951, a memorial war erected in Petts Wood, with a Sundial which local people festoon with flowers.
The memorial bears the uplifting Latin inscription ‘I only count the sunny hours.’



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