Was the use of GMT really all down to the Railways?


Or perhaps not!  Yes, it is true that the advent of the Railways, especially the East to West lines of the GWR, forced the adoption of ‘Railway Time’ in 1840 – a time system based on the Mean Time at Greenwich and circulated elsewhere by means of the Electric Telegraph system then being built alongside the railway lines..  By the 1850s every railway had adopted the same practice and it is often claimed that by 1855 UK Civil Time had been so standardised.  That was not the case in reality however and, following a decision in 1858 that Law courts must follow local time, local solar time persisted until the 1880s when Victorian morality, electric clocks and the 1844 Factory Act stirred things up.

In 1874 Parliament had debated the 1872 Licensing Act and that identified the problem with ‘variable’ pub closure times. It was suggested that Standard Greenwich time be used and many pub landlords in London thereafter took a feed from the newly formed Standard Time Company for this to control an electric clock and so avoid accusations of non-adherence to lawful drinking hours.  Finally in 1880 an Act was passed making Greenwich Mean Time (and Dublin Mean Time) the official time standards for all British legislation.

Then in 1902, a century after the first Factory Act had been passed to protect children working in Lancashire’s cotton mills by prescribing the hours children and adults could work, it was clear that the then practice of merely using a ‘specified clock’ was insufficient. Unwittingly (or perhaps sometimes not!) Factory Managers were being repeatedly prosecuted for allowing illegal overtime.

Towns like Blackburn even installed a time ball and a Noon Gun on their new Market Hall in 1878 to propagate knowledge of GMT throughout the town.

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 By 1913 the Oldham Cotton Spinners Association was the first to install electric clocks in factories there and later across many of Lancashire’s mills, each set to Greenwich Mean Time by an electrical signal from London. 

The railways, the ideals of temperance and moral engineering, the pub managers of London and the Lancashire mill owners were all ones who led the way in keeping time for the entire nation and indeed the world.


Acknowledgements: ‘About Time’ by David Rooney. Penguin Viking ISBN 978-0-241-37049-0.