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Ruth Belville: The Greenwich Time Lady

Setting Clocks to the Correct Time

Before there were pips on radios or official government time signals, it was often difficult for people to know if the clocks in their houses were telling the accurate time. The Belville family in London, England solved that problem by providing a door-to-door time check service.

Ruth Belville is shown greeting a man outside the Royal Observatory in 1908.

Ruth Belville is shown greeting a man outside the Royal Observatory in 1908.

Greenwich Mean Time

By international agreement, each day starts as the clock at the Royal Observatory in Greenwich, London ticks past midnight. The Observatory sits on the Prime Meridian, an imaginary vertical line that divides the world into two halves, just as the Equator divides the planet horizontally.

The longitudinal meridian was established to help sailors navigate. By using a clock set to Greenwich Mean Time (GMT) and observing the position of the Moon they were able to establish how far east or west of the Prime Meridian they were.

GMT was also useful in creating train timetables and the start and end of work shifts.

But, what about the mantel clock in the front parlour or the grandfather clock in the hall? How did Londoners know their timepieces were telling the correct time? The only way to be sure was to travel to Greenwich and set a pocket watch to the time shown on the Royal Observatory's official clock. The distance from Central London to Greenwich is six-and-a-half miles (10.5 km); a bit of a chore for a time check.

John Belville had a solution.

The Shepherd Gate Clock at the Royal Observatory was installed in 1852. It is thought to be the first public display of Greenwich Mean Time.

The Shepherd Gate Clock at the Royal Observatory was installed in 1852. It is thought to be the first public display of Greenwich Mean Time.

You Could Set Your Clock by Him

Belville was a senior astronomer at the Royal Observatory and the proud owner of a trusty Arnold pocket watch. He took note of how London's more reputable clock and watch makers sent assistants to Greenwich every week to set the time on their most accurate watches. Back in the shop, all timepieces would be synchronized to GMT.

But, Sir George Biddell Airy, the head of the Observatory was bothered by the clock makers' helpers trotting around his territory with their chronometers and getting in the way of his important work. The solution was to send Belville to the clock makers with the correct time. A small fee was charged.

In 1836, Belville expanded the business to include private citizens. He carried the time to his clients for 20 years, until his death in 1856. That was when his widow, Maria, found out she was not entitled to a pension so she took over his time-keeping service.

By now, the Observatory was putting out a time signal by telegraph but there were still plenty of people who shunned the newfangled system in favour of Maria Belville's weekly visits. She was happy to continue the business of carrying time to clients for another 36 years until she retired in 1892, handing the work on to her daughter Ruth.

Maria Belville in 1892.

Maria Belville in 1892.

The Greenwich Time Lady

By 1892, there were numerous ways in which the citizens of London could make sure their timepieces were accurate. The Post Office and commercial businesses were offering time checks.

A gentleman named John Wynne was a director of a company that was selling telegraphic time signals. In 1908. he launched into a verbal assault on Ms. Belville's low-tech approach to time keeping, even impugning the lady's character.

Who needs a woman trotting through the streets of London in a buggy with an Arnold pocket watch getting all clocks ticking away in unison?

It turns out a lot of people did, and Wynne's attack backfired; it lifted her from obscurity as newspapers, sensing a nice scandalous fight, pursued the woman they christened “The Greenwich Time Lady.” As a result of the notoriety, more subscribers signed on to the Belville service.

Ms. Belville's biographer, David Rooney, wrote that “Ruth Belville carried the same eighteenth-century pocket watch, which she called ‘Arnold’ after its maker, around London each week for a further 48 years.” She retired at the age of 86 in 1940 because the German bombing of the British capital during the blitz made it too dangerous to be out and about.

That Arnold watch still kept accurate time to within a tenth of a second.

But, Ruth knew she was clinging to a business model that was doomed. In 1936, “Tim” arrived. This was the name of an automated, speaking clock that people could dial up on their telephones.

The voice telling the time—“At the third stroke it will be XX o'clock precisely”—belonged to a woman called Ethel Cain. In one of those strange twists of history she lived just around the corner from Ruth Belville in south London.

Ms. Belville is said to have thought the name of the talking clock, “Tim,” to have been vulgar.

In 1833, a red ball atop a building at the Royal Observatory became one of the world's first public time signals. At just before 1300 GMT the ball was hoisted up a poll. At exactly 1300 it dropped, signalling the exact time. It continues to do its duty today.

Bonus Factoids

  • In the 18th century, there was little agreement on where the Prime Meridian should be located; national pride was at stake. So, most countries decided the Prime Meridian ran through their capital cities. Prime Meridians could be found in Paris, Copenhagen, Berlin, and elsewhere. It wasn't until 1884 when a conference in Washington, D.C., agreed that Greenwich would be the location of the Prime Meridian. Even then, the French, as has been their habit, demurred but were eventually brought into compliance.
  • A frequently heard query in the tourist offices of cities where a regular time check is made is “What time is the noon gun fired?”
  • The Arnold & Son watch company founded in London in 1764 still exists, but today it is Swiss owned and its products are manufactured in La Chaux-de-Fonds, Switzerland. They don't come cheap. Retailer has the Arnold & Son Double Tourbillon Jade White Gold listed at $225,000.
  • Cesium is an element that is used to tell the time with amazing accuracy. At the U.K.'s National Physics Laboratory a cesium clock keeps time so well that it drops one second every 158 million years. Meanwhile, the BBC reports that “A strontium clock developed in the U.S. would only have lost a second since the earth began: it is accurate to a second in five billion years.”


This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2022 Rupert Taylor