Queen Victoria set the time as we know it today. Curator Joanna explores why.

May 2019 marks the bicentenary of Queen Victoria’s birth and The Postal Museum is celebrating all month by sharing stories about how the Post Office changed during Victoria’s lifetime. This blog explores why, in 1880, Queen Victoria gave Royal Assent to standardising time across Great Britain and how the General Post Office kept track of timekeeping.

The sheet of Penny Blacks

A brief history of time

Until the 19th century, the time in Britain varied across the country by as much as 30 minutes because of the difference in sunset times in the furthermost western and eastern points. For a population which conducted its affairs within the immediate locality, any slight differences in time meant little of actual consequence.

Local areas operated their daily lives and communities according to a shared consensus of what the time was, but, when people lived, worked and socialised in a relatively concentrated area, it did not matter that other parts of the country maintained a different time.

The advent of the Mail Coach

With the advent of the mail coach and stage coaches and increased travel, differences in time became more noticeable. Prior to Victoria’s birth, in 1784, the Post Office started to transport mail around the country by horse drawn coach. Armed with a blunderbuss and pistols, and wearing a bright red uniform, mail coach guards were symbols of Post Office authority.

Mail Coach Painting

As well as providing security, mail coach guards undertook administrative duties: recording the arrival time of the mail coach at each collection point on route. However, if the Post Office relied on the local time at each delivery point, working out how long the journey actually took would be extremely complicated.

Order issued to mail coach guards on 9 June 1820

To accurately record the time, mail coach guards carried a time piece, usually set to London time, and locked to avoid tampering. The number of hours and minutes that each leg of the journey ought to take was printed on the time bill and, if the mail coach arrived late, the reason for any additional minutes had to be explained.

Timepiece issued to Mail Coach Guards by the Post Office

Timebill, 1816

Rise of the rail

The Great Western Railway (GWR) was amongst the first of the railways to implement consistency in timekeeping, essential to rail safety. In November 1840, GWR ordered that ‘London time’ be used in all timetables and at stations. Seven years later, the Railway Clearing House advised that Greenwich time be adopted by all the railways in Britain.

Keeping track of time was complicated in 19th century Post Offices as two different times may be utilised simultaneously: both local time and London time. On Monday 22 July 1872, the Post Office issued an instruction that Greenwich Time was to be observed solely at all Post Offices in England and Scotland. Eight years later, on 1 July 1880, the Statutes (Definition of Time) Bill was read in the House of Commons, declaring that Greenwich Meantime was to be the standard time throughout Great Britain, and Royal Assent was given by Queen Victoria on 2 August 1880.

How do you keep track of time in your everyday busy life? It’s time to slow down and celebrate Queen Victoria’s big anniversary. Join us this May for special offers and activities.

– Joanna Espin, Curator