Keeping in time with the rest of the country

Cracked and weathered old black and white clock face, multiple concept use, banking, financial, time

The Definition of Time Act ensured a unified time was kept throughout Great Britain - Credit: Getty Images/iStockphoto

When people compare places like London and Devon, it’s not unusual to hear people suggest that somewhere is “behind the times.” 

Personally, much as I love visiting the capital (when circumstances allow it), I don’t actually believe this is true of Devon at all. It is nevertheless interesting to reflect that until the Definition of Time Act was passed in 1880, many parts of England operated on an entirely different time system to London.

The time difference was not vast, but it was significant. East Devon towns such as Exmouth, Sidmouth and Ottery St Mary were all around 13 minutes behind London. Thus, when Big Ben would noisily strike noon in Westminster, the clocks in East Devon would not do the same for another 13 minutes.
It’s actually not as strange an idea as it might first appear. On the day I am writing this, the sun rose at 5.39am over Exmouth and at 5.38am in Sidmouth and will set in both places at 8.42pm. In London, it rose at 5.23am and will set at 8.32pm.

Both of these places are just over three degrees to the east of London on the line of latitude. If you have access to a computer, incidentally, the exact line of latitude for any place comes up if you ‘right click’ on the place in question on Google maps. Exmouth comes up as 3.41305 if you do this. To work out what the time difference would have been for any such area in pre-1880 area in England, all you have to do is get this figure and multiply it by four. Bristol comes up as 2.58249, so we can see it was roughly ten minutes behind (as 2.58249 x 4 = 10.32996). Exeter, meanwhile, was roughly 14 minutes different from London (3.53587 x 4 =14.14348). Most towns relied on their local sundials for the time.

The coming of the railways in the mid-19th century started to make this a bit of an issue, however. For the first time ever, people were regularly travelling fast enough that they could easily notice the time differences between the areas they were travelling from and to. Regional variations in time had the potential to generate plenty of confusion.

By 1855, it was reported that 98% of towns and cities had moved over to the standardised Greenwich Mean Time anyway. But resistance continued. In Exeter and Bristol railway stations the clocks continued to work to their own local time, while a second minute hand was added which revealed the time in London. In Exeter, this situation was apparently caused by the Dean of Exeter Cathedral’s reluctance to submit to the demands of the railway company. In his eyes, the time on the Exeter Cathedral clock was always the correct one.

However, in 1880, these differences came to an end as the Definition of Time Act ensured that a unified standardised time achieved legal status throughout Great Britain.

Having the same time for everyone was an important step in uniting British society. Although there have always been regional variations in broadcasting, it is hard to see how national radio and TV could have developed successfully in the 20th century had there been different times used throughout various parts of the country. Massive changes in the world of communications have also been a major development during this period. It is difficult to imagine the old system ever having lasted for long in the age of the telephones, TV and the internet.
Transport has also developed dramatically in the last 40 years. With cars and planes in addition to trains now used regularly by most people, the way we live has changed massively in the 140 years since the Definition of Time Act was passed. While it was once fairly common for many people to live most or perhaps even all of their lives in their hometown, today most of us think nothing of driving to another town for the day or even taking a mini-break abroad.

Indeed, the world undoubtedly seems smaller than it did. But at least in Great Britain whatever other differences we may face we can at least be confident that what we do as a nation we are at least now all doing it all at the same time.

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