The Woman Who Sold The Time Of Day

By Michael Van Duisen on Wednesday, August 14, 2013
“Day, n. A period of twenty-four hours, mostly misspent.” —Ambrose Bierce, The Devil’s Dictionary

In A Nutshell

In the 1800s and 1900s, before radio or reliable clocks, the only official clock in England was located at the Royal Observatory, Greenwich. Ruth Belville, like her father and mother before her, would check her pocket watch against the clock located in the Observatory and then travel back to London, charging people to see what the time was. For 103 years, the Belvilles provided Londoners with an extremely accurate time, until an 86-year-old Ruth had to retire because of World War II.

The Whole Bushel

In 1836, a Royal Observatory, Greenwich worker by the name of Henry Belville noticed people would come to his place of work in order to find out the correct time. The Observatory is located on a hill in Greenwich Park and was a substantial distance from most of London, especially in those days. He surmised that if people were willing to spend all that time walking to the Observatory, they might be willing to pay if someone would come to them. Later that year, Henry attracted between 50 and 200 interested customers and his business was started.

He quit his job at the Observatory and, every morning, would travel there to set the time on his chronometer—a special kind of pocket watch, certified to be more precise than any other. (Fun fact: It was called “Arnold” after its inventor, Englishman John Arnold, and was originally owned by the Duke of Sussex.) Then he would travel by horse throughout London, meeting up with his customers and allowing them to set their clocks and watches to his time, which was accurate to one-tenth of a second.

For 20 years, Henry continued with his business, which flourished because of his reputation for accuracy. When he died in 1856, his wife Maria continued sharing the time until she retired 42 years later. It was then that Ruth took up the mantle and remained just as accurate. That reputation served her well because, in 1908, John Wynne, the owner of a company that wanted to spread time telegraphically, publicly slammed Ruth, slandering her business and her person. Luckily, Wynne’s speech had the opposite of its intended effect and, because having the correct time was something of a status symbol, Ruth’s client list actually grew.

Even after radio became widespread, people still wanted to get their time from Ruth, and she continued giving it to them until she had to stop in 1940 because World War II was getting worse. Her remaining 50 clients bid her good luck, ending a 103-year-old company, and she lived for another four years before passing away at the age of 90.

Show Me The Proof

Time & Ruth Belville
Ruth Belville: the Greenwich Time Lady