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Article by Sophie Astin | 8th October 2019

The times they are a changing

On Sunday 27th October, we will turn our clocks back, enjoying an indulgent extra hour in bed – but at the same time signalling the start of shorter days, and winter ahead. But what’s behind the twice-yearly change that’s been happening for more than a century – and can you spot some of Tunbridge Wells’ most historic timepieces?

It was American inventor, scientist and statesman, Benjamin Franklin, who first conceived the idea of summer time – or “daylight saving time” as it became known. He proposed the concept in a satirical essay, published in 1784, in which he argued that “all the difficulty will be in the first two or three days; after which the reformation will be as natural and easy as the present irregularity [...] Oblige a man to rise at four in the morning, and it is more than probable he will go willingly to bed at eight in the evening; and, having had eight hours sleep, he will rise more willingly at four in the morning following.”

Sounds simple...But it wasn’t until 1907 that William Willett, a businessman and builder from Chislehurst in Kent – also the great-great-grandfather of Coldplay frontman, Chris Martin – put forward a serious proposal for daylight saving time. His theory was that morning daylight would no longer be wasted and evenings would remain lighter for longer, thus increasing daylight recreation time – and saving £2.5 million in lighting costs. Willett self-published a pamphlet, The Waste of Daylight, in which he suggested that clocks be advanced by 20 minutes at a time at 2am on successive Sundays in April (80 minutes in total) and then reversed in September.

Willett never lived to see his idea come to fruition, but in 1916, a year after his death, Germany became the first country to adopt daylight saving followed soon after by the UK a few weeks later, along with several other European countries.

Time for a change?

Although many countries across the world have adopted daylight saving, the custom of changing the clocks by an hour in spring and autumn continues to be the source of ongoing debate. The European Parliament voted earlier this year, in fact, to scrap it by 2021, leaving only national governments to now give their assent.

Since most of us carry a timepiece of some sort, there’s little need to look for a public clock. Visitors to London may be disappointed to see the capital’s iconic landmark, often referred to as Big Ben, in the midst of a large-scale restoration project, but right here in Tunbridge Wells we have some fine examples of clocks, large and small, old and new, which often go unnoticed as we go about our daily lives.

The town's timepieces

1. The former occupants of The Clock House, a period building on the High Street, dating from c1850, were Payne & Sons, one of England’s oldest family jewellers, established in 1790 and now only open for private appointments.

2. Described by its creator as “an elegant spire made up of tracery fretwork with forged branches bearing numbers – a jewel to spark off intrigue and imagination of passers-by”, the towering Millennium Clock in the town centre may have divided opinion when it was first unveiled, but there’s no doubt the clock provides locals with an ideal meeting place.

3. A gleaming golden squirrel sits atop the clock in Calverley Road, once the emblem of UK pension giant, NPI, who made the building their headquarters in 1966. When NPI ceased trading, the building became a business and conference centre.

4. An elegant square clockface is perched above the imposing red-brick Skinner’s School, founded in 1887 by the Worshipful Company of Skinners, one of the City of London livery companies.

5. Built in 1676, King Charles the Martyr Church began as the first permanent building in Tunbridge Wells and has grown to become an established landmark close to The Pantiles. It also boasts an impressive sundial.

6. Once considered a Georgian medicinal Mecca, The Pantiles was created following the discovery of a Chalybeate Spring in the early 17th century and is now arguably better known for its famous Jazz nights, diverse boutique shops and mix of popular cafes, restaurants and bars. The beautiful Pantiles clock sits above the buzzing bars and cafes of the elegant colonnade.

7. Designed by architect Decimus Burton, Trinity Theatre was built in 1829 and survived as a church until its deconsecration in 1972 and has since been transformed into a thriving regional arts venue.

8. Tunbridge Wells West station closed in 1985 and the Grade II listed station building is now an American-style restaurant, but the original clock continues to chime the right time.

Time zones

• During the Second World War, British Double Summer Time – that is, two hours ahead of Greenwich Mean Time (GMT) – was temporarily introduced to increase productivity for the period when ordinary daylight saving would be in force. During the winter, clocks were kept just one hour in advance of GMT.

• When the clocks first changed in 1916, there were concerns that delicate striking clocks could be damaged by people trying to force the hands back an hour. Official warnings and guidelines were even printed in newspapers and magazines to reduce the number of “clock casualties”. (Source: Royal Museums Greenwich.)

• So why does daylight saving time begin at 2am and not at the stroke of midnight? It was thought that since most of us would be asleep, most workers with early shifts still in bed and most bars and restaurants closed, that the change in time would not be noticed.

• King Edward VII even employed his own version of daylight savings. Due to his love of hunting at his country estate in Sandringham, Norfolk, he decided to make the most of the daylight and so in 1901, he stipulated that all clocks on the estate should run 30 minutes fast, thus creating his own (enormously confusing) “Sandringham Time”.

The writing's on the wall

Beside clocks with a history, commemorative plaques of various shapes and colours can be found across Kent, usually marking the location of a notable former resident. The idea of a commemorative plaque scheme was first put to the House of Commons in 1863; three years later the Society of Arts (later the Royal Society of Arts) took the scheme and in the 35 years that the RSA managed the scheme, it put up 35 plaques. At the turn of the 20th century, London County Council (LCC) took over the scheme and formalised the selection criteria. It became known as the “Indication of Houses of Historical Interest in London”, a name that lasted until the Second World War.

As the scheme was expanded geographically, the commemorations became more diverse, recognising figures such as Sylvia Pankhurst, campaigner for women’s rights. It is the Blue Plaques Panel which decides who is worthy of a commemoration: recipients must have been dead for at least 20 years and must have lived at the location they are being connected with for a long time – or during an important period of their career.

English Heritage took over the scheme in 1986 and to date more than 900 official plaques have been put up in London by English Heritage and its predecessors since the scheme began in 1866. A series of commemorative claret-coloured plaques was erected across various sites in Tunbridge Wells, marking buildings of particular significance in the town’s history and celebrating the lives of the many notable local figures. One, on the front of a Tunbridge Wells restaurant, states that author “William Makepeace Thackeray Novelist, essayist and author of Vanity Fair, Henry Esmond, Pendennis, The Newcomes and The Virginians stayed here 1860”.

Other local plaques

• The former Chislehurst home of William Willett, renowned house-builder and the initiator of British Summer Time.

• Another, in Sevenoaks, is at a house once occupied by author HG Wells [Lived in this house in 1894 whilst writing The Time Machine].

• Music venue, The Forum, on Tunbridge Wells Common was established 1993 and a plaque on the building marks that: “Joeyfat were the first band on stage. They performed Piecemeal here at 8.48pm on 15th January 1993. Forum founder member Jason Dorman played the bass guitar”.

• A plaque at the former home of social reform pioneer and suffragette Amelia Scott is on the side of a house in London Road, Southborough. During her lifetime, from 1860-1929, Ms Scott was also vice-president of the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies for Tunbridge Wells.

West Malling’s local history society has allocated a series of unofficial blue plaques to a range of buildings in the town, one of the most colourful being a simple kebab house. Why? It was one of the locations used in the Beatles’ 1967 film Magical Mystery Tour; John Lennon and Ringo Starr are filmed in the building (once a newsagent) in the opening sequence of the film. The vinyl markers also carry unique QR codes, allowing smartphone users to learn more about the history behind the plaques in 12 different languages.

• See how many you can spot in your local area and find out more about English Heritage’s Blue Plaque scheme at english-heritage.org.uk/visit/blue-plaques/

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