If a train leaves London Paddington station at 9 o’clock in the year 1841, and takes two hours to travel to Bristol, what time does it arrive? Perhaps surprisingly for a British train, the answer is eleven minutes earlier than you might have calculated, leaves on the line or not. Up until the mid-Nineteenth Century, towns in Britain had their own local time, depending on their longitude. Reading was five and a half minutes behind London, Cirencester seven and a half, and Bridgewater fourteen minutes behind.
Back when it took a stage coach days to reach somewhere like Bristol from London, these differences hardly mattered. If a traveller did have a watch, (very likely an engraved gold fob watch on a chain nestled in the breast pocket of an embroidered silk waistcoat, knowing these Georgians) they simply had to adjust it en route to their destination. But with the coming of the railways from the 1830s onwards, journey times across the country were slashed, and timetables started to look fiendishly complicated.
Some timetables showed London time and local times for all trains. Some train companies chose to run to London time, so that you might gain or lose several minutes on leaving a station. From 1852, London time was telegraphed to stations every day so that they could set clocks accordingly. Some stations even had clocks with two minute hands.
There were proposals to standardise time across the country, but initially they were met with hostility by some who felt that their good old local time had worked well for years and they weren’t about to start pandering to these fancy London ways now. It wasn’t until 1880 that the government finally passed legislation which meant that it was the same time whatever station you were standing in Britain. That probably didn’t stop the train being late though.