The exact time and the 'right time' before digital timepieces
By 'the right time' or just 'the time' most people mean the time that they live their lives by, i.e. the official time that organisations, public transport and meetings etc work to. It was the time shown by pre-digital clocks and watches. Usually people assumed and still assume a leaway of perhaps a couple of minutes and don't bother about the number of seconds.
The 'exact time' is usually taken as more precise and includes the number of hours, minutes and seconds.
The problem with knowing the time in the past
Before digital clocks and watches, knowing the time was often a hit and miss affair, as it was normal for clocks and watches to lose or gain slightly. In my family home in the 1940s, we checked for the exact time once a week and reset our timepieces accordingly. There were three ways to do it.
The speaking clock, TIM for the 'exact time'
In the 1940s we usually found the exact time by phoning the speaking clock which gave hours, minutes and seconds. The dials of telephones showed letters as well as numbers and the code for the speaking clock was the first three letter of 'time', i.e. TIM.
Phoning TIM was often the task of a young child, as it was something a child could easily manage and would enjoy doing. At the end of the phone a voice would say, "At the third stroke, it will be 11.23 and 6 seconds (or whatever)". This was followed by three beeps which the talking clock referred to as strokes. Then the message was repeated as often as one cared to stay on the phone, with the time accordingly being updated. Not that anyone stayed on the phone for long, because telephone calls were expensive in real terms.
I assume that the voice was recorded. If it were not, it must have been the most monotonous job possible.
Phoning TIM had the advantage that it could be done at a time of one's convenience, but it did cost, and by no means every household was on the phone. (We were for my father's work.)
Big Ben for the 'right' time from the radio
Another way of finding the right time was from the radio - then called the 'wireless'.
The number of strikes of Big Ben marked the hour, one strike for one o'clock, two for two o'clock etc. Once it got to 12 o'clock we never bothered with which of the twelve chimes marked the exact hour. As far as we were concerned, the 'right time' within a few seconds was what we wanted. Big Ben chimed every quarter of an hour.
Also various programmes were broadcast at known times, although how accurate this was I don't know.
The 'pips' for the 'right' time from the radio
The Greenwich Time Signal (GTS), frequently known as the pips, was a short set of six tones at one-second intervals broadcast by many BBC Radio stations to mark the hour. The exact time these pips represent was at the start of the last pip. The pips were introduced in 1924. Their accuracy in modern times can be affected by modern digital broadcasting. At the time of writing this, the BBC FM broadcast of the pips comes a number of seconds before the digital radio sounds them. If you miss the pips on your FM broadcast, you can set your clock a few seconds slow by listening to the digital radio.
Setting the clocks to the right time depended on the type of time piece, as explained on the clocks and watches pages - see the above menu.
British Standard Time, Greenwich Mean Time and British Summer Time
When I was a young child at school in the 1940s, there was always fun twice a year when classmates turned up for school at the wrong time. Let me explain why it happened.
In order to make the best use of daylight, the UK has two time zones. During the dark days of winter, we use what is called British Standard Time or Greenwith Mean Time. Then, at Greenwich, the brightest time of day would be at 12.00 noon.
In the brighter days of summer, we use British Summer Time. In other countries this is called Daylight Saving Time, which makes a lot of sense as it requires clocks to be moved forwards so that the daylight extends more into the evening. The fact that it is darker in the mornings doesn't matter because there are still enough hours of daylight in the summer for most people to get up in daylight.
You may see now why children turned up for school at the wrong time twice a year. It was that their parents missed changing from winter time to summer time and vice versa.
Normally British Summer Time moves clocks forward by one hour, but during World War Two we had what was called Double Summer Time which moved clocks forward two hours. This meant that children in the north of England and Scotland went to school in the dark, so it wasn't a popular move.