Greenwich: The family in the curious business of selling time


The Magnetic Clock, Greenwich Observatory /©Look and Learn / Bridgeman Images
The Magnetic Clock, Greenwich Observatory /©Look and Learn / Bridgeman Images

People involved:

John Pond – Astronomer Royal

John Henry Belville – Horologist and Assistant Astronomer at the Royal Observatory

Sir George Biddell Airy – Astronomer Royal

Maria Elizabeth Belville – Wife to John Henry

Ruth Belville – Daughter to John and Maria

Mr St John Wynne – Standard Time Company (evil competition)


Setting


Clocks, watches, radios, and mobile phones. All these things instantly tell us the time but imagine life without them.


If we look around, how would we know anything beyond what we see – daylight or darkness. We may be able to gauge the morning, afternoon, and evening, but would we know that it was time to go to work, to feed the dog, to dash to a meeting or appointment? Probably not – unless we were tuned into the natural rhythms of the universe.


In the nineteenth century, although clocks and watches existed, most people couldn’t afford them. And those that could often had to set them by a sundial. Realistically, there’s no point in having a watch, clock, or chronometer unless it’s in time with everyone else’s.

Chronometer / Credit: English School / Private Collection / © Look and Learn / Bridgeman Images
Chronometer / Credit: English School / Private Collection / © Look and Learn / Bridgeman Images

We think of commercialism as a modern concept, especially as anything can be sold on eBay (I managed to sell a bag of crisps on it once as an experiment). Yet back in the 1830s, John Henry Belville began to sell time. It wasn’t just any old time; it was Greenwich time – and probably the best time in the world.


John Henry Belville (time seller from 1836 to 1856)


John Henry started his life at the Royal Observatory (RO) in 1811 as a ward to John Pond, the Astronomer Royal. However, he wasn’t officially paid until 1814, even though he was always helping out. If you're interested, there is a lot more information about John Henry here on the RO website.


Before 1840, many London watchmakers would send a staff member up to the Observatory with one of their best watches to check any discrepancies between the two. They’d pretty much knock on the door of the RO and ask to look at its clock. Once the correct time was known, all the watches and clocks in shops like Arnold and Vulliamy would be changed to the right time – Greenwich time.


Sir George Biddell Airy, the new Astronomer Royal, got pretty fed up with the constant interruptions. Eventually, the visits were restricted to Mondays because they took up too much (no pun intended) time. The watchmakers started a petition for a better service – a timeless uprising at the heart of Greenwich – and in June 1836, John Henry began the world’s first-time distribution service.

Arnold Watch / Credit: Science Museum – Lent by the Worshipful Company of Clockmakers
Arnold Watch / Credit: Science Museum – Lent by the Worshipful Company of Clockmakers

Anyone selling time needs a good timepiece – one that customers trust. So, John Henry was given a chronometer originally made by Arnold & Son for the Duke of Sussex (son of George III) who sent it back complaining it was like a ‘warming-pan.’ John Henry didn’t mind the size of the watch, but he was worried about its gold casing and changed it to silver, stating that his ‘curious profession takes him occasionally to the less desirable quarters of the town.’


John built up quite a client base, with over 200 clients across London and Greenwich. He diversified from watch and chronometer makers to banks and city firms that understood the importance of having the precise time. So prestigious was John’s Greenwich precision that many private households subscribed to his services as a status symbol.

Death of John Henry Newspaper Clipping / Credit: Home News for India, China, and Colonies - Saturday 26 July 1856
Death of John Henry Newspaper Clipping / Credit: Home News for India, China, and Colonies - Saturday 26 July 1856

In 1856, John sadly died and was buried beside the Admiralty Vault in St Margaret’s Church, Lee. His death, however, didn’t mean the end of Greenwich time being sold. On the contrary, the clients and businesses John had been supplying still wanted to buy time.


(On a side note – if you want to research John more, especially in primary sources, search for John Henry as he was advised to drop the Belville by John Pond due to anti-French sentiment at the time.)


Maria Elizabeth Belville (time seller from 1856 to 1892)


John’s wife, Maria Elizabeth Belville, requested a pension from the Admiralty, but they declined, stating they didn’t give pensions to the wives of civil servants. This left Maria with a toddler and no husband, which in those days could be viewed as even more of a struggle, considering how women were often regarded. Maria wasn’t deterred, though, and obviously had the fighting spirit because she sought permission from Sir George Biddell Airy to carry on her husband’s time selling enterprise while working a second job as a music teacher.

Maria Belville / Credit: National Maritime Museum
Maria Belville / Credit: National Maritime Museum

Beyond this, not much is known about Maria, except that she and John had a daughter called Ruth. We also know that she continued to sell time until 1892 when she retired due to her age. There was also an article about her in the Daily Graphic on 31 October 1892 (I’m still trying to hunt down the original article).


Ruth Belville (time seller from 1892 to 1939)


John and Maria’s daughter, Ruth, now 38, took over the family tradition.


By now, time signals were being distributed from Greenwich via electric telegraph, and timepieces were becoming more precise, yet the custom of selling time continued.

Every Monday, Ruth would travel by public transport to Greenwich, have a cup of tea with the porter, receive a certificate of accuracy for her trusty chronometer, and spend her day travelling to London’s clock shops, bringing her 40 customers the correct time, whereupon they would adjust their own clocks.

Ruth carried the same watch that her father carried and appropriately named it Arnold. She was reliable and efficient, punctual, and despite all the new technologies, was still required by the clients she served.


De Carle, the writer of British Time and maker of watches and clocks, met with Ruth in 1939:


She always referred to the watch as Arnold, as if it were the Christian name of a dear friend. Her business with a client would be performed something like this: ‘Good morning, Miss Belville, how’s Arnold today?’ – ‘Good morning! Arnold’s four seconds fast today’ and she would take Arnold from her handbag and hand it to you. ‘Arnold’s gay (fast) today,’ but Miss Belville would not reply. The regulator or standard clock would be checked and the watch handed back; that would be the end of the transaction for a week.

Ruth Belville (enhanced) / Credit: Royal Museums Greenwich – National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, London
Ruth Belville (enhanced) / Credit: Royal Museums Greenwich – National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, London

Ruth’s time selling life wasn’t always smooth. By 1908, she was facing competition from the evils of commercialism. The time selling tradition was threatened by a man called Mr St John Wynne from the Standard Time Company. Wynne (or Winne) wasn’t particularly kind about Ruth or her selling of time; in fact, he was downright rude.


As The Times reported, Wynne had been scornful about Ruth’s business.

It might be amusing to the present company to learn how GMT was distributed to the watch and clock trade before the present arrangements came into vogue,” he began. “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.

Wynne’s motives can only be guessed at. The RO used to send telegraphic time signals to railways and post offices, and the Standard Time Company (Wynne) would carry signals to private homes and businesses. If the STC discredited Ruth, they’d inevitably get her clients. But trying to do that by insulting her created a bit of a karmic backlash.


John Wynne on Ruth Belville / Credit: The Times, Saturday, 7 March 1908
John Wynne on Ruth Belville / Credit: The Times, Saturday, 7 March 1908

Wynne’s attempts failed, and Ruth gained quite a few new customers. In an interview from 1908, she described a routine that involved checking her chronometer at Greenwich every Monday and visiting, at least once every two weeks, forty customers located between the docklands and Mayfair (apologies for the quality of the image).

Ruth Belville Interview / Credit: Maidenhead Advertiser, 11 March 1908
Ruth Belville Interview / Credit: Maidenhead Advertiser, 11 March 1908

In her chat with De Carle, Ruth told him that she left her home three times a week and would reach the Royal Observatory by 9.00 a.m. She’d call on around forty to fifty customers ranging from the navy to watchmakers to private clients. As well as carrying Arnold, she carried a shopping bag as she liked to buy things along the way (my kind of lady!).


Apparently, Ruth was a creature of habit, politeness, and formality.

Ruth Belville & her dog / Credit: The Tatler, 18 March 1908
Ruth Belville & her dog / Credit: The Tatler, 18 March 1908

It’s no wonder that finally, she stepped down from her family business, which started in 1836 and lasted for over one hundred years. Radios had become commonplace, and anyone with a telephone could access the speaking clock. Even so, Ruth still had around fifty subscribers when she retired in 1939 at the wonderful age of 86.


Sadly, Ruth died in 1943, overcome by fumes from the burner of a gas mantle turned down low. She didn’t have anyone to pass the tradition on to, and the curious business of selling time in Greenwich ceased. The Worshipful Company of Clockmakers had granted Ruth a pension in her final years, in gratitude for her unflagging work in keeping them on time for so long. She repaid them by donating Arnold to their museum, where he still lives – a symbol of times gone by.

Ruth Belville / Credit: Daily Mirror, Thursday 5 April 1945

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The website is still a work in progress as everything is checked against the primary sources (as far as possible) rather than relying on Google.

 

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