The woman who sold time - and the man who tried to stop her

The photo dates from 1929 when Belville was 75
Ruth Belville with the time-keeper of the South Metropolitan Gas Company [Gazette Herald US]

For more than a century a member of the Belville family would visit the Royal Observatory at Greenwich at least three times a week. He or she would set the time on a watch and head across London to sell that information to their clients.

When the last of the Belville time sellers, Ruth, died in 1943, she had clocked up more than half a century collecting the time and passing it on.

But a competitor, St John Wynne, had tried to scupper the company.

It backfired - in the end, he just boosted Belville's business.

Pocket watch
The watch used by the Belville family was made by John Arnold [Clockmakers' Museum]

Wynne, trying to poach customers for his own time-synchronisation company, made a speech later published in the Times, claiming the Belville method was "amusingly out of date".

He also intimated that Ruth Belville used her feminine wiles to get custom.

The Belville business was a family concern, started by John Henry Belville in 1836.

He was the child of a refugee who fled the French Revolution and then became a ward and apprentice of John Pond, the Astronomer Royal.

(As a side note, when describing Belville to a colleague, Pond said the young man was "steady tho' not clever".)

Businesses in the early 19th Century that wanted an accurate time - such as clockmakers and horologists, banks and City firms - usually sent an employee to the Royal Observatory to bang on the door and ask to see the clock.

Pond's successor, George Airy, became fed up of this and limited the access to once a week, on a Monday.

Portrait of horologist John Arnold and his family
Horologist John Arnold and his family, not wondering what the time is [Getty]

The time-reliant businesses were unhappy with this cut in service, giving Belville the chance to start his time-distribution company.

As a former assistant to Pond, he had the access and visited Greenwich Observatory every morning.

He would set his pocket chronometer first thing, before tripping off in his buggy to clients who paid a fee to look at it and set their own timepieces.

When he died in 1856, he had more than 200 subscribers.

His third wife and only widow, Maria, took on the job.

And when Maria died, their daughter Elizabeth Ruth - known as Ruth - became the time seller.

'Time is money'

The Belvilles all used the same trusty John Arnold watch (originally made for the Duke of Sussex who rejected it because he said it "looked like a bedpan").

It was a staggeringly simple idea - so simple that more technological pioneers underestimated its genius.

Wynne (sometimes Winne) addressed a group of London city councillors and aldermen to point out the possibility of errors in the Belville method.

The director of the Standard Time Company, he told attendees of his lecture that "the irregularities of London's public clocks are directly responsible for an immense amount of financial loss".

He described the "inconvenience" of the Belville system and blamed the "present vagaries" on "apathy displayed by the government, London county council, the city corporation, and the public".

He said: "It might be amusing to the present company to learn how GMT was distributed to the watch and clock trade.

“A woman possessed of a chronometer obtained permission from the Astronomer Royal at the time (perhaps no mere man could have been successful) to call at the Observatory and have it corrected as often as she pleased.

"The business is carried on to this day by her successor, still a female, I think."

Ruth Belville in the Evening News
Ruth Belville flaunting her muliebrity in the Evening News [Evening News]

Wynne, having insulted almost everybody, then went on to compare London unfavourably to Paris, Berlin and "other continental cities", before berating private clock owners for "failing to recognize their responsibilities" and bemoaning the public's "attitude to time generally".

He was keen to promote the Standard Time Company, a commercial enterprise that supplied hourly electric time pulses to automatically corrected clocks.

text from the club annual
The write-up of St John Wynne's lecture in the Transactions of the United Wards' Club [United Wards Club archive]

An editorial in the Times about "lying clocks" provoked quite the debate in the letters pages.

A Mr John Cockburn from Upper Norwood suggested "some censorship as to the time kept by clocks exposed to public view in the streets of London".

"It is not unusual within a hundred yards to find clocks three or four minutes at variance with each other. Highly desirable as individualism is in many respects, it is out of place in horology.

"A lying timekeeper is an abomination, and should not be tolerated."

Ruth Belville at the Royal Observatory
Ruth Belville plying her timeshare trade (while, as Wynne suggested, capitalising on her womanliness) [ROG]

An H Berthoud from Wimbledon put pen to paper to say he had heard "a great many foreigners" exclaim in surprise that London did not have an accurate clock at "all the most important crossroads in the metropolis".

And a Robert Orb was particularly incensed: "In Berne and in Neuchatel public clocks were pneumatically controlled 25 years ago.

"About the same time every telegraphic office in the Indian Empire received a time signal precisely at 4pm; and yet here we are in London, A.D. 1908, fatuously and impotently pottering about with innumerable 'lying clocks' which are not only a scandal and a disgrace, but which inflict heavy pecuniary losses on the community.

"The disheartening indifference and stupidity of the public, led by stupid municipal and other governing bodies, who prate about practical work, but are incapable of appreciating the depth of the meaning of the English adage 'time is money'."

All the angry men writing to the newspapers did not seem to realise the impact of their discourse on the humble business of Ruth Belville.

Far from spurring people to abandon her old-fashioned methods and embrace electronic synchronism, the correspondence brought her services to the attention of many who had not previously subscribed.

It became fashionable to have such a personal service - and there was some cachet in being able to afford a thrice-weekly update.

The media attention earned Belville the nickname the Greenwich Time Lady and she featured in publications including Tatler and the Evening News.

She later said Wynne had given her great publicity.

Ruth Belville and a dog
Ruth Belville, clearly worn out by "using her femininity" to get special access to the Royal Observatory at Greenwich [ROG]

Donald De Carle, a fellow of the British Horological Institute (and author of many standard works on the subject) met and interviewed Ruth Belville in 1939, the year before she retired.

She described how she would set out to the Royal Observatory so as to arrive before 09:00 to check her watch and get a certificate of accuracy.

De Carle said: "She always referred to the watch as Arnold, as if it were the Christian name of a dear friend.

"She would say, ‘Good morning! Arnold’s four seconds fast today’ and she would take Arnold from her handbag and hand it to you.

"The regulator or standard clock would be checked and the watch handed back; that would be the end of the transaction."

Having set Arnold for the week, she would spend the rest of the day taking the time to her clients.

Belville supervising the setting of an office clock
Ruth Belville supervising the setting of an office clock, as a man up a ladder employs his masculine wiles by showing an inch of sock [Popular Science Monthly]

Belville maintained a steady business until 1940, when World War Two made it difficult for the 86-year-old to safely walk the streets.

She died three years later, with Arnold at her side, which she bequeathed to the Clockmakers' Company museum.

When she finally ran out of time, her obituary was published in a number of national newspapers.

The Belville tradition died with the Time Lady of Greenwich.

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Royal Museums Greenwich

Clockmakers' Museum at the Science Museum

United Wards Club