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by  Jock Phillips

New Zealand’s 19th-century settlers brought their calendars and timepieces from the northern hemisphere, but had to adapt to autumn in April and Christmas in summer. As elsewhere in the world, timekeeping eventually followed a universal standard, but living by the clock down under has had its moments – including six o’clock pub closing, and the world’s first official standard time.

Time past

At the start of the 21st century New Zealanders were governed by New Zealand standard time, exactly 12 hours ahead of Co-ordinated Universal Time, and accurate to many millionths of a second. This level of timekeeping has evolved during a long history.

Traditional time

For people in pre-industrial societies, the passage of time was measured by natural rhythms – the rising and setting of the sun marked day and night, the seasons clocked years, the waxing and waning of the moon told months. Such markers were used by Māori in New Zealand.

In Europe other markers also evolved. The seven days of the week had been established for over 1,000 years, and Christianity recognised Sunday as a day of rest. From about 1600 onwards people accepted a 24-hour daily cycle, its passage told by sundials and water clocks.

Scientific methods

In the 18th century, during the era of the Enlightenment, scientific observation began to replace traditional ideas, including ways of telling time. In 1752 Britain adopted the Gregorian calendar. This adjusted the number of days in the year by using leap days, so that the calendar corresponded with the natural (solar) year.

Southern seasons

While it was relatively easy for British settlers to bring their concepts of clock time to New Zealand, it was harder to adjust to the seasons. There were few who did not find it strange to have short days in June and July, or to celebrate Christmas in the summer. Only comparatively recently has the summer-flowering pōhutukawa replaced the holly as the antipodean Christmas tree.

The 18th century also saw increasing numbers of the élite owning large pendulum clocks and pocket watches driven by springs. Eight years before James Cook reached New Zealand in 1769, English clockmaker John Harrison invented a working chronometer. This enabled navigators to tell their longitude by measuring the time difference between their local noon, and noontime at the Royal Observatory, Greenwich, England. Cook did not have a chronometer on his first voyage, but he had four on his second voyage (1772–75), partly in order to test them.

Social change

Social advances encouraged more exact timekeeping. City dwellers wanted to meet at fixed times to transact business or to attend events such as church services or concerts. As a complex industrial society emerged, the need for accurate time became greater. Factory workers had to conform to timetables, to ensure that everyone in the production line was present when the machinery was switched on. They were paid according to time, not task, and began to distinguish between home and work – ‘owner’s time and own time’.

The colonial working day

When settlers came to New Zealand in numbers in the 1840s, some were already thinking in terms of agreed timetables. In February 1840, it is said, Samuel Parnell laid down the conditions under which he would work: ‘There are twenty-four hours per day given us; eight of these should be for work, eight for sleep, and the remaining eight for recreation’. 1 Wellington workers followed his lead in campaigning for the eight-hour day; there were similar demands in Dunedin in early 1849, and in Christchurch.

  1. Quoted in Herbert Roth, 'Parnell, Samuel Duncan, 1810–1890.' Dictionary of New Zealand biography, Updated 7 July 2005 (last accessed 4 November 2005). › Back

New Zealand mean time

Bells, guns and other markers

It was one thing to agree on hours of work, but it was another to agree on the exact time. Until the 1870s pocket watches, held on a silver or gold chain, were a luxury for the rich; the gift of a gold watch was a special mark of appreciation. Public clocks were not common. Christchurch’s only public clock in the 1860s had no face and told the time by chimes alone; Auckland had none until 1871. Bells summoned people to church, and were used in schools, on farms (where the cook was often the ringer) and in some businesses and workshops. Both Auckland and Dunedin fired guns at an appointed hour.

At sea, ships established longitude by recording on a chronometer exactly when in relation to Greenwich mean time the sun was directly overhead. On land, from 1864 a time ball visible on the roof of the Custom House in Wellington was dropped at noon each day, so that ships’ navigators could set their chronometers. A transit instrument and an astronomical clock set the exact time. Time balls were set up in Dunedin in 1868 and Lyttelton in 1876. In the absence of other markers, people would adjust their timepieces by consulting almanacs, listing the hours of sunrise and sunset.

Local variations

Each locality had its own time, partly because its longitude naturally affected the time of noon at each place and partly because clocks remained erratic. The Wairarapa earthquake of 1855 was recorded 10 minutes earlier in Nelson and New Plymouth. And in Hokitika in the 1860s the telegraph office closed whenever the boss chose, ‘for there is no public time in Hokitika’. 1

Mean time and apparent time

Mean time establishes noon at regular 24-hour intervals. This eliminates any daily variations caused by the earth’s elliptical path around the sun. However, when a time ball (to be dropped daily, indicating noon mean time) was planned at Fort Britomart in 1859, Aucklanders preferred to follow ‘apparent time’ – reckoned by the exact moment each day when the sun was seen to be overhead.

Establishing New Zealand time

In Britain, synchronised train timetables led to the wide acceptance in practice, if not in law, of Greenwich Mean Time in the 1840s. In New Zealand the need to transmit telegraphs was the catalyst. By 1866 a cable across Cook Strait provided a link from Napier to Bluff (Auckland was not yet connected).

Local time variations were disruptive because the opening and closing times in different relaying and receiving offices might not coincide. So in 1868 the Telegraph Department instructed that Wellington mean time should be imposed in all offices.

In many cases post offices shared the same building with telegraph offices, so they too followed suit. This aroused animosity towards a ‘Wellington’ dictate. The upshot in September 1868 was a parliamentary resolution to establish time for the whole country. This was the first instance in the world of a government implementing standard time nationwide.

East-west/north-south divide

When New Zealand mean time was approved, the original motion was moved by a Dunedin member of Parliament. He stated that a Christchurch mean time was preferable to time dictated from the capital city of Wellington, in the North Island. This was because most of New Zealand lies west of Wellington; the South Island was also more populous at the time. In the event the longitude that was adopted ran just to the west of Christchurch, so the South Islanders almost had their way.

New Zealand mean time begins

James Hector, director of the Geological Survey, selected New Zealand time at the meridian 172° 30'. This was within three minutes of the country’s mean longitude and exactly 11½ hours in advance of Greenwich Mean Time. It came into operation on 2 November 1868.

The Colonial Time Service Observatory, built in Wellington in 1869, determined the exact time by precise measurement of the stars. A signal went to the Wellington telegraph office, which transmitted it to post offices and railway stations by Morse code at 9 a.m. each day. This still depended on human action, and it was not until radio began broadcasting time signals in 1920 that an accurate nationwide time was fully established.

  1. Howard Robinson, A history of the Post Office in New Zealand. Wellington: Government Print, 1964, p. 149. › Back

Time and society, 1870s–1930s

Using clocks and watches

After the establishment of a New Zealand standard time, communities put up public clocks. Those in Ashburton and Christchurch commemorated Queen Victoria’s diamond jubilee in 1897; Hokitika’s was a memorial to the South African War (1899–1902), and four others remembered the dead of the First World War.

Affordable, mass-produced American watches became available in the last 20 years of the 19th century, when over 400,000 each of clocks and pocket watches came into the country. It seems likely that by then most households had a clock, and most adults a watch. By the 1920s wristwatches were common.

Work schedules

As a national train network spread and city trains and buses began operating, timetables determined people’s movements. Even in the 1880s sheep shearers worked to regulations based on precise hours of work, enforced by the estate bell. Government offices and banks would open and close at standard times, and other businesses quickly followed. Factories began their days with the blast of a siren.

As early as 1873 the state regulated hours of work for women, and in factory acts passed between 1891 and 1901 these became more prescriptive and eventually included men. A series of laws from 1892 to 1922 prescribed shop closing and tea breaks. A Saturday half-holiday was accepted, and extended shopping hours on Friday nights became a New Zealand institution. Eventually in 1936 the 40-hour week became mandatory in all factories and employment agreements, and the ‘Kiwi weekend’, when everything was closed, had arrived.

Time off

Leisure was also affected by this new consciousness. As early as 1881, licensing acts prescribed pub opening hours. Six o’clock closing was brought in during the First World War. The call, ‘Time, gentlemen please’ became familiar in pubs around the country.

Movies, horse races and rugby games all started at precise times. Indeed, organised rugby was dependent upon the ability to measure game halves of exactly 40 minutes. Many a game became tense as the minutes on the grandstand clock ticked down. At home, mothers were taught by the child health reformer Frederic Truby King to feed and put their babies to sleep by the clock, and they followed recipe books with exact cooking times. Children learnt to tell the time at school. And following the establishment of a national education system in 1877, teachers were tested on their ability to draw up timetables.

Modern times

New Zealand standard time

The establishment of New Zealand standard or mean time had brought a new social consciousness. But time did not stand still. In 1941 clocks were advanced half an hour to 12 hours ahead of Greenwich, to allow for greater use of sunlight during the war, and in 1945 the Standard Time Act made this permanent. Chatham Islands time was set 45 minutes in advance of New Zealand standard time.

International standards

In 1884 Greenwich Mean Time became the international standard, with Greenwich in England as the prime meridian. A system of international time zones was established, and in 1928 Universal Time was brought in.

Atomic clocks, which became available in the 1950s, allowed more accurate calculations, and a new scale called Co-ordinated Universal Time was adopted in 1972. Variations were adjusted with the addition or deletion of leap seconds. Under the Time Act 1974 New Zealand standard time was defined as 12 hours in advance of Co-ordinated Universal Time.

Daylight saving: ‘summer time’

Early in the 20th century the member of Parliament for Caversham, Thomas Sidey, advocated putting the clocks forward in summer to allow for after-work recreation, such as gardening and sport, in daylight. He was finally successful in 1927, when the clocks were advanced by an hour over summer.

From 1928 until 1941 the advance was only half an hour. War regulations in 1941 and the new act of 1945 advanced New Zealand standard time by half an hour for the whole year, and ‘summer time’ disappeared.

The idea was revived in 1974 when an advance of one hour in summer was trialled. There were complaints from dairy farmers, who had to start milking earlier to meet the schedule of the milk trucks. But generally the move was supported, and daylight saving in summer has since become established, although the start and finish dates have been gradually extended due to public demand. Since 2007 daylight saving time has started at 2 a.m. New Zealand standard time on the last Sunday in September, and ended at 2 a.m. (standard time) on the first Sunday in April.

Time keeping in the 2000s

Responsibility for keeping New Zealand time rested with the Colonial Observatory until 1926, when the service was taken over by the Department of Scientific and Industrial Research (DSIR). Astronomical observation was still used, checked by overseas radio signals. However, in 1962 clocks based on the electrical oscillations of quartz crystals were adopted. They kept time accurately to within one-quarter of a second. Subsequently the vibrations of the caesium atom were used, giving an error of no more than one second in 3,000 years.

In 1992 the DSIR was disbanded, and responsibility for New Zealand time moved to the Measurements Standard Laboratory of the Institute for Industrial Research and Development. The official time was kept by three caesium atomic clocks linked with Co-ordinated Universal Time through the Global Positioning System (GPS). The laboratory transmits six ‘pips’ every hour (the sixth pip marking the hour), to the National Radio Station, and through a telephone service.

Just a second

In 1967 the caesium atom, rather than the earth's movement, became recognised internationally as the basis for the unit of time, because it emitted radiation at a very stable frequency. A second was defined as 9,192,631,770 oscillations or cycles of the caesium atom's resonant frequency. This is rather more accurate than the old count of ‘one hippopotamus, two hippopotamus’.

Time and modern society

After the 1960s, wind-up wristwatches were replaced by battery-run models. From the 1970s many people opted for digital displays rather than the traditional moving hands.

Timing at sporting events has become more precise. Running or swimming times are recorded to within one-hundredth of a second, rugby games are timed to the second and a hooter sounds when each half is over. Like everyone else, New Zealanders are more time-bound than ever – cellphones, computers and radios, as well as watches and clocks, all signal the hour, where once it was the chime of a bell that did so.

Hononga, rauemi nō waho

More suggestions and sources

How to cite this page: Jock Phillips, 'Timekeeping', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 28 September 2023)

He kōrero nā Jock Phillips, i tāngia i te 12 Jun 2006