When and Why the Clocks go Back and Forward

Jonathan Warren

Author: Jonathan Warren



When do the clocks go back and forward? – An insight into the history of British Summer Time 

Every six months, the clocks in the UK change to mark the start and end of the British Summer Time. In this article we explore where the tradition of time springing forward and falling back comes from and what it means to countries around the world. 

Why do the clocks change?  

Despite the clocks changing twice a year since as long as most people alive can remember, it tends to catch people off guard when it happens. From the bonus hour of dancing at the end of a night out, to the overslept mornings when you forgot to change your clocks - every year people get caught out by the clocks changing.  

The idea of changing the clocks originated in the UK from builder, William Willett (who happens to be the great-great-Grandfather of Chris Martin, lead singer of Coldplay). He was believed that people were losing valuable working time because of lighter evenings; he even created a paper called “The Waste of Daylight” designed to encourage people to get up and on with their day earlier. After the paper was published, he managed to get the notion of changing the clocks through to parliament where it was originally discussed in 1908. While parliament did not implement the changes in 1908, it did eventually get through parliament and was officially introduced in 1916, a year after William’s passing.  

The facts – Why do we have British Summer Time? 

The concept of amending the time to allow for more light is known as Daylight Saving Time (DST). In the UK this runs from May to October and is referred to as British Summer Time (BST). During these months the time zone in the UK switches from Greenwich Mean Time (GMT) to BST. 

BST was first introduced during the First World War to help farmers spend as much time out in the fields as possible. Farm workers had depleted due to the volume of men called to military service, which meant that the farmers had considerably more work to cover per person. It was theorised that introducing BST meant there would be able to carry out more work as there was more daylight available. 

The dangers of DST 

A lot has changed since 1916 and we are not limited to the daylight hours to carry out most modern work. There has been some school of thought that believes DST negatively impacts people’s health and wellbeing – for example, by causing disruption to people’s sleeping patterns. 

In addition, there is also a theory that DST can be dangerous. During DST, the peak driving times fall under a cover of darkness and it’s suggested that when the clocks change, there are more road accidents. 

The Brits weren’t the first to change the clocks 

Despite Willett’s posthumous legacy as the man who changed time as we know it, the idea didn’t originate with him. Benjamin Franklin, an American politician and inventor was the first to think of this concept whilst in Paris in 1974, although his suggestion was because if days were longer, candles would be saved. 

Although Franklin was first to voice the idea it was the Germans, as well as their allies Austria and Hungary, who were the first to actually implement DST – although this was just months before the UK followed suit in 1916. 

Soon after Europe pathed the way for DST many countries around the globe adopted it too. Some even dropped the concept for a period due to unpopularity, only to reinstate it in the 1970s. 

DST and the economy 

Daylight Saving Times original purpose was to help get the most out of the working day and therefore boost the overall economy. Although this may certainly have been the case when it was first introduced, there are mixed opinions as to whether there is still a true impact and, if so, to what extent that impact is.  

The origin of DST was to enable the farmers to benefit from additional light into the evenings however, according to the NFU there is only a small majority of modern day farmers who feel they really benefit from longer days. 

Most other industries do not rely on daylight to carry out work so DST has little impact on productivity, although they do still adapt according to be able to work within the changes to times. 

Does every country implement DST? 

There are many countries who do not have DST, and instead keep the clocks the same all year round. Some countries such as Russia have even trialled DST before choosing to cancel it.  

There are over 170 countries around the world that choose not to adhere to DST. Examples of countries that do not observe it are: 

  • Africa - Gambia, Zimbabwe and Algeria 
  • South America – Argentina, Uruguay and Brazil 
  • Caribbean - Barbados, Antigua and Barbuda 
  • Antarctica 
  • South Korea 
  • Iceland 

When do the clocks go back? 

What date the clocks go back depends on where you are in the world. The EU synchronise and all countries who implement DST will go back one hour on Sunday, 25th October 2020, whereas the US waits until the first Sunday in November. 

New Zealand are the global trail blazers – their clocks changed at the end of September, and the Australian states who have adopted DST changed theirs on the first Sunday of October. 

When do the clocks go forward? 

In the UK, like the rest of Europe, we will enter BST at 1am on Sunday, 28th March 2021. Whereas New Zealand begins their period of DST on Sunday 27th September. Towards the other side of the globe areas such as Bermuda, Cuba, Haiti, The Bahamas and Turks and Caicos all begin their DST on Sunday, 8th March.