Tuesday, 29 July 2014

Bristol time

Moving a country from solar time to unified time is no easy matter (France had three separate kinds of time at one point). However, the railways made it a necessity: local time, which varied by minutes as one travelled east or west, was not really compatible with accurate railway timetables. Noon in Bristol, for example, is over ten minutes later than noon in London.When the Great Western Railway came to Bristol in 1841, it brought 'railway time' with it.

Bristolians had other reasons for wanting to know Greenwich Mean Time as accurately as local time. As a major seafaring port (it traded with America and the Caribbean, and was heavily connected to the slave trade), the city had plenty of people who needed GMT in order to calculate longitude and thus navigate accurately on the oceans. And in 1852, the electric telegraph arrived - with Bristol time creating the ridiculous situation of messages from London apparently arriving before they were sent. Within a few months, the city's public clocks moved from local time to GMT.

Today, few of us tell the time by the sun, so we don't notice the discrepancies between solar noon and the time on our clocks. For those who lived through the transition, though, the clock on Bristol's Corn Exchange with its two minute hands must have been very helpful. Installed in 1822 with just one minute hand set to local time, it was later given a second set to GMT. Only when the city' time was unified in 1852 was the Bristol hand removed; it was finally restored in 1989. 


Hels said...

Agreed... the railways DID make unified time a necessity: since local time in every city and town was not incompatible with accurate railway timetables.

But I suspect there was a bit of local pride dented and noses put out of shape. Elderly council members probably said to themselves "We have had our own time for ever... who are these bloody railway people telling US to change our clocks?"

Ralph Hancock said...

It must have been quite tricky to adjust the two minute hands. The gap between solar time and GMT changes continuously through the year, with two periods when the clock is too fast relative to the sun, and two when it is too slow. If you look at an old globe you may find a curious figure-of-eight-shaped diagram printed in an empty space in the Pacific. This is an 'analemma', which allows you to find the difference between solar and clock time on any day.

Chris Partridge said...

Hels, you are absolutely right. This from the Bristol Post:
A lot of people resented this imposition of someone else's timekeeping. When the railway came to Exeter the local authorities firmly refused to adopt what was disparagingly known as "Cockney time" for many years.
In Bristol, one rural gentleman was said to have stood up in the main hall of the Commercial Rooms brandishing his grandfather's pocket watch and declaiming that "one hand was good enough for my grandfather and it is certainly good enough for me!"

HughB said...

My wife has a watch like that - there's GMT and HER time!!! :)