If you think moving the clock an hour in October is a tedious, weird thing to do that only cheats you of an hour of precious useful daylight in the evening then do spare a thought for our forebears who centuries ago were trying to come to terms with the government stealing 11 days of their lives.
In 1750 the United Kingdom and our empire, including the American colonies, still adhered to the old Julian calendar, which was now eleven days ahead of the Gregorian calendar, introduced in 1582 by Pope Gregory XIII and in use in most of Europe.
Attempts in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries to adopt the new calendar had flounded on the rock that is the Church of England, which denounced the idea as popish. The main figure behind changing the situation was George Parker, second Earl of Macclesfield, a keen astronomer and a Fellow of the Royal Society. He was assisted in his calculations by his friend James Bradley, the astronomer royal, and he gained the influential support of Philip Dormer Stanhope, the sophisticated fourth Earl of Chesterfield who gained approval from Henry Pelham’s initially reluctant government.
In 1751 Chesterfield introduced in the House of Lords ‘an Act for Regulating the Commencement of the Year and for Correcting the Calendar now in Use’, gracefully commending it, with Macclesfield in support. According to Chesterfield, Macclesfield spoke ‘with infinite knowledge and all the clearness that so intricate a matter could admit of; but as his words, his periods, and his utterance were not near so good as mine, the preference was most unanimously, though most unjustly, given to me.’
When it came to the crunch, the bill passed through Parliament easily enough and King George II signed it in May and the big day was set months in advance.
Wednesday 2nd September 1752 was to be followed by Thursday 14th September and for New Year’s Day to move from March 25th to January 1st, as already was the case in Scotland.
The change was thoroughly unpopular with people who deplored it as popery, disapproved of John Bull’s ways being altered to conform with those of foreigners or who simple-mindedly thought that eleven days had been taken out of their lives. Some claim that mobs gathered to bawl ‘Give us back our eleven days’, there were riots in Bristol and quite a few country people insisted on observing Old Christmas Day on January 5th as still occurs in Orthodox countries.
The changes affected festivals, saint’s days and birthdays, including that of Dr Johnson, as well as the dates of payments of wages, rents and interest, contracts for delivery of goods, military discharges and prison releases. It was all carefully explained in the media of the day under the slogan ‘The New Style the True Style’.
Macclesfield was elected President of the Royal Society, but when his eldest son, the future third Earl, stood for Parliament in Oxfordshire in 1754, one of the cries against him was still ‘Give us back the eleven days we have been robbed of.’
Interestingly, aside from the actual date change, perhaps the most important reminder of this is the date of our Financial year. Back in 1753 the City of London flatly refused to pay taxes early, so the financial year was altered to start on April 6th, as it still somewhat annoyingly does today.