2 November 2018

“Gliding-on” dramatised folklore about New Zealand’s public servants for television;  cardigan-clad gossipers, who when not gathered around a tea trolley, were clock watching for a 4.35pm end to the day. And tens of thousands of government employees throughout the country clocked off at the same moment.

New Zealand led the world in adopting a national time. New Zealand Standard Time, 11 hours and 30 minutes ahead of Greenwich Mean Time, came into force at noon on 2 November 1868. Despite GMT originating in England, Britain did not standardise its time until August 1880.

There had been a battle of the clocks in New Zealand throughout the 1860s. Although Auckland shared “Wellington time”, local mean time varied, illustrated with 34 minutes difference between Napier and Invercargill. Provincial Governments, keen to preserve symbols of their autonomy, obstructed standardisation. There was no overriding need for a common time while communication was primarily by sea.

This changed in 1866 when a Cook Strait cable connected the North and South Island telegraph networks. The influence of the Postmaster-General further shaped developments when he directed all post offices to adhere to “Wellington time” from January 1867. What then became known as “telegraph time” – and the time on post office clocks in all town centres – increasingly undermined parochialism despite what some saw as tyrannical caprice in Wellington.  Resistance was particularly strong in Dunedin.

“At noon on Monday 2 November 1868, all well-regulated clocks in the North and South Island that were either connected by the telegraph to Wellington, or regulated by a telegraph office clock, struck 12 at the same moment Wellington’s town clock did. Although this was not recognised at the time, this was a significant moment of union for a fledgling and divided colony.” (There were 10,000 imperial troops on active service at the time in New Zealand.)

It was 78 years later, on 1 January 1946, when New Zealand Standard Time was set 12 hours ahead of GMT, or 180° east of Greenwich. This meridian lies closer to the Chatham Islands than the North and South Islands but the change (from the meridian set in 1868 of 172˚30΄ E just to the west of Christchurch)  simplified the relationship between NZST and GMT. However, it means that dawn arrives late in midwinter, especially in south-western parts of the country.

International agreement to base time on a prime meridian through Greenwich occurred in 1884.