Sir Standford Fleming
Bibliothèque et Archives Canada, no d'acc 1951-566-1

Sir Sandford Fleming

Sir Sandford Fleming (1827-1915)
When next you look at your watch, spare a thought for Sir Sandford Fleming, the Father of Standard Time and a long-time member of St. Andrew’s. Sir Sandford occupied a pew, marked by a small brass plaque, in the south-east corner of the Sanctuary.

His achievements were extraordinary. As well as his innovations in global time, he was chief surveyor, then chief engineer for the Canadian Pacific Railway, he designed Canada’s first postage stamp – the Threepenny Beaver (1851), and he was no mean chess player, as attested by his weekly chess partner, St. Andrew’s minister Dr. William T. Herridge.

He was a gallant man, who presented prized yellow roses from his greenhouse to the neighbour ladies who passed by his stately home. The house, now just a shadow of its former grandeur, is at the corner of Chapel and Daly Streets.

Born in Kirkcaldy, Scotland in 1827, Sandford Fleming showed a flair and passion for mathematics at an early age. Leaving school at 14, he articled in surveying and engineering. In 1845 at age 18, he emigrated to Canada with his elder brother David, settling first with a relative in Peterborough, and then in Toronto, where he qualified as a civil engineer, mapped the bottom of Toronto harbour from a boat, and undertook surveys, road projects, and exquisitely detailed town plans in the surrounding area. He also designed the prototype for what may have been Canada’s first in-line skate, which he considered ‘altogether satisfactory’.

In Montreal in April 1849, he witnessed the burning of the Parliament Buildings by a mob, and with three others ran to rescue the huge oil portrait of Queen Victoria, later taken to Ottawa to hang in the Senate. The same year he helped found the Canadian Institute at Toronto. In 1852, he joined the staff of the Ontario, Simcoe and Huron (later Northern) Railway, where he served as chief engineer from 1857 to 1862. While hustling south on foot to Barrie on a newly-laid track in 1854, he was confronted by a large bear, sitting happily on the line. He brandished his only weapon, an umbrella, and the bear yielded the right of way. In 1855 he married Jean Hall of Peterborough and began a family of 9 children, of whom 5 would survive him. In 1863 he was the unanimous choice to survey the first section of the Intercolonial Railway, which would link Quebec to New Brunswick and Nova Scotia. This meant a family move to Halifax, a city he loved, and where he would keep a summer home for the rest of his life. He served as an elder at St. Matthew’s Presbyterian Church, Halifax. At his own expense he surveyed Newfoundland for possible railway routes, later built.

When contacted by St. Andrew’s search committee in 1867, he recommended that they consider the young Rev. Daniel Miner Gordon of Pictou, Nova Scotia, and they did. A few months later, Rev. Gordon was inducted as minister at St. Andrew’s, Ottawa.


The December 1904 issue of ‘The Message’, the church magazine published by St. Andrew’s Men’s Association, carried an article by Sir Sandford Fleming on ‘The Service of Public Prayer’. He proposed that St. Andrew’s minister and congregation say a prayer together once a month.
The article prompted letters to the editor in the New Year, including those from John Macoun and James Gibson. In the February 1905 issue, one correspondent wrote that she saw no need for change.
The May 1907 issue of ‘The Message’ reported on page 82 that: “The unanimous action of the Kirk Session regarding the use of the Lord’s Prayer in the public services of the Church must meet with the hearty approval of the whole Congregation. Sir Sandford Fleming has been the pioneer of this movement to allow to the people in the pews the right to join in the service of Public Prayer.”


Increasing government work dictated a move to Ottawa in 1869, and the Flemings bought a stone house which they named Winterholme. Although the house faced Besserer St., the driveway passed through the gate on Chapel St. at Daly. In the conservatory, an orange tree bore fruit, and in the greenhouse his beloved yellow roses grew. Along with church work, Sandford Fleming served many organisations, including the Carleton County General Protestant Hospital as a director and visitor.

In 1871, Sandford Fleming was appointed chief engineer for the proposed Canadian Pacific Railway, and he insisted on the use of stone and iron railway bridges instead of wooden bridges, which burned down far too often. In 1872 he headed the epic expedition which explored railway routes to the Pacific Ocean. In advance, he prepared a booklet of non-denominational prayers for expedition members to use in the wilderness. Unusual for that time, he ordered that native Indian members of the survey team be paid the same wages as everyone else, and that every Sunday be set aside as a day of rest and prayer. In 1845, Canada had a grand total of 16 miles of railway track, but through the 1870′s and 1880′s, largely under his supervision, the rails crept from the Atlantic to the Pacific. Sandford Fleming loved the outdoors, thrived on the work, and organised expeditions in meticulous detail, including the one in 1879 when Rev. Gordon accompanied him. All the while, he wrote reports, articles and books, mostly on professional and scientific subjects, but also including “The Intercolonial, A Historical Sketch” (1876), “Short Sunday Services for Travellers” (1877), and “Daily Prayers for Busy Households” (1879).

In July 1876, he missed a train in Northern Ireland, and in consequence he became the ‘Father of Universal Time’. After consulting the Official Irish Travelling Guide, he arrived at the Bandoran train station 25 minutes in advance of the 5:35 p.m. train to Londonderry. The station was deserted, and when he found the stationmaster, he learned that the Official Guide had a misprint – his train had left on time at 5:35 a.m. During his long night of contemplation in the little station, Sandford Fleming concluded that the world urgently needed a 24-hour clock and a system of uniform standard time.

Time-keeping had long been a problem, as local time was determined by the position of the sun. When the sun was due overhead, it was 12 noon wherever you were. It was common practice for Canadian east-west travellers to adjust their pocket watches at each stop, or to wear several watches, each bearing the local time of towns they would pass through. Ottawa had tried to solve the problem in 1865, when the Dec. 19th Ottawa Times reported that the noon peal of Notre Dame Cathedral’s bell would “keep Ottawa mean time, which is 9 minutes slower than Montreal, 10 minutes slower than New York, 14 minutes faster than that of Toronto, and 18 & 1/2 minutes slower than Quebec (City) mean time.” By March 7th, 1866, Ottawa also had a steam whistle, invented by the printer of the Canada Gazette, George Desbarats, which sounded each day at 8 a.m., 1 and 2 p.m., and 7 p.m.

Once back in Canada, Sandford Fleming plunged into the study of universal time, and divided the globe into 24 time zones of 15 degrees longitude each, the difference between adjacent zones being one hour. Acknowledging, and building on the earlier work of Americans Charles F. Dowd and William F. Allen who advocated 4 time zones for the United States, Sandford became the chief advocate for world-wide standard time. Although subjected to charges that this work was contrary to both nature and the will of God, he persevered, and persuaded the Canadian government to adopt universal standard time. As the delegate for Canada and Great Britain at the International Prime Meridian Conference in Washington D.C. in October 1884, Sandford Fleming saw his scheme adopted. On January 1, 1885 the world’s clocks went on Standard Time.

In 1880, Sandford Fleming retired as chief engineer of the CPR, and was elected Chancellor of Queen’s University in Kingston, a post he held until his death. Under his watch, Queen’s grew from a small Presbyterian College to a thriving university with strong science and engineering departments. His next dream was to link the countries of the British Empire by undersea cable, the ‘All Red Line’, so that telegraphs could cover thousands of miles in mere minutes. Sandford Fleming was the principal proponent of the Canada to Australia Pacific Undersea Cable, so one can imagine his joy to see it completed in 1902.

At St. Andrew’s, Dr. Daniel Gordon had never forgotten his expedition to the west, with its growing need for ministers, and in 1882 he accepted a call to Knox Church, Winnipeg. He was followed at St. Andrew’s by Dr. William T. Herridge, from Montreal, who before long began enjoying weekly chess games with Sandford Fleming.

In later years, honours flowed Sandford Fleming’s way, including a knighthood from Queen Victoria on her Diamond Jubilee in 1897. Nationally and internationally, Sir Sandford Fleming was esteemed as an engineer, surveyor, scientist, author, and visionary. He died, aged 88, at his daughter’s home in Halifax on July 22, 1915. The Ottawa Journal obituary on July 22 included the following: “A man of such genius, such initiation of huge projects, and the doer of such important deeds as Sir Sandford, could have been no other than broad-minded and generous. But these terms left untouched the charm of his personality, his winning and affable nature. True greatness after all is of the heart. No tribute could have been more eloquent than that given by a humble surveyor who served him on a long and arduous undertaking. ‘It was ever a pleasure,’ said he, ‘to do our best for one so kind as Sir Sandford Fleming’.”

In a special railway car, the CPR carried Sir Sandford to Ottawa. Assisted by Dr. Daniel Gordon, principal of Queen’s University, Dr. William Herridge conducted the funeral service at Winterholme. He said that St. Andrew’s regretted the death of one of its pillars and most valued members, and that he would deeply miss Sir Sandford, who had been his close friend for over 30 years. Sir Sandford is buried at Beechwood Cemetery, Ottawa.

To hear his voice, go to, click on “Famous Folk”, then click on Sir Sandford Fleming, and turn on the sound button.

(Winterholme served as the Sir Sandford Fleming Home for Convalescent Soldiers in 1918-1919, and was sold by the family in 1925. Much altered inside and out, with the entrance moved to the south side, the house stands at 309-311 Daly Ave.)

- David B., Sheila U.