The Greenwich Time Lady: How Ruth Belville Sold Time in Victorian London

Ruth Belville outside the gates of the Greenwich Observatory, 1908
Ruth Belville outside the gates of the Greenwich Observatory, 1908. Wikipedia Commons
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The Greenwich Time Lady: How Ruth Belville Sold Time in Victorian London


Time travel may still be a fantasy, but in late 19th-century and early 20th-century Britain, time itself was a commodity up for sale. Yes, you read that right! In a world before smartphones and atomic clocks, a remarkable woman known as Ruth Belville (Elizabeth Ruth Naomi Belville), affectionately called the “Greenwich Time Lady,” crafted a unique livelihood from an equally unique industry. She was the keeper of time, and her prized possession was a chronometer watch named “Arnold.”

At this time chronometers had become a major breakthrough in time keeping (A chronometer is an extraordinarily accurate mechanical timepiece, with an original focus on the needs of maritime navigation.)

Why on earth did she do this? In those days, accurate timekeeping was not like it is today. Regular timepieces of the era struggled to keep up, but not Arnold. This remarkable chronometer was rumored to be accurate to within a tenth of a second, a level of precision that was astounding in its time.

Ruth Belville, however, was the true marvel of this story. A local celebrity in her day, she was renowned not only for her impeccable reliability but also for her astounding longevity in the face of fierce competition that threatened her unusual business. She would daily set Arnold to Greenwich Mean Time as shown by the Greenwich clock and then sell this time to people.

The Greenwich Time Lady’s Unique Trade

Picture this: Victorian London, bustling with horse-drawn carriages and gas-lit streets. Amidst the hustle and bustle, Ruth Belville embarked on her daily journey, often starting at the Royal Observatory in Greenwich, London. There, she synchronized her treasured chronometer with the official Greenwich Mean Time.

Ruth Belville outside the gates of the Greenwich Observatory, 1908

Ruth Belville outside the gates of the Greenwich Observatory, 1908. Wikipedia Commons

With Arnold ticking faithfully on her wrist, Ruth would traverse the city, offering Londoners a service they never knew they needed. She would arrive at the gates of the Royal Observatory at precisely 1 p.m. and sound a signal, allowing the residents of Greenwich to set their own clocks accurately. From there, she continued her rounds, visiting businesses and individuals, offering them the rare opportunity to calibrate their timepieces with Arnold’s unrivaled accuracy.

The Greenwich Time Lady’s Unbeatable Legacy

Ruth Belville was no ordinary clock peddler. She was a symbol of precision and trustworthiness in a time when punctuality was paramount. Her customers revered her for her dependable service, and even though the competition in the timekeeping industry was fierce, she remained unscathed.

Her journey begins with her father, John Belville and Greenwich. This institution, perched on the prime meridian, dictated Greenwich Mean Time, which, in turn, governed global timekeeping.

John Belville’s early life remains shrouded in mystery, though his journey to Greenwich as a teenager, under the wing of an Astronomer Royal, marked the start of a remarkable family legacy. At Greenwich he eventually worked as an assistant, swiftly growing into his role and making London his home.

The Royal Observatory held the country’s most accurate clock, a magnet for clockmakers who frequently sent representatives to synchronize their devices. However, a pivotal shift occurred when Belville himself began taking time to them. Armed with his trusted “John Arnold & Son” timepiece, originally crafted for the Duke of Sussex, he ventured into the world of time commerce. By 1836, John Belville had amassed a clientele of 200 subscribers, who eagerly purchased time from him each week. This unique service, now in the family, persisted for two decades, first in his wife Maria’s care after John’s passing, and later in the capable hands of his daughter Ruth.

Despite John Belville’s era, innovative attempts to disseminate Greenwich Mean Time had begun. Some proposed employing telegraph receivers to broadcast the time to London’s offices. Yet, it was during Ruth’s stewardship that the competition truly intensified.

In 1908, St. John Wynne of the Standard Time Company disparaged Ruth Belville’s service, deeming it archaic and even suggesting that people only indulged her because she was a woman. Modern technology soon eclipsed her simple yet cherished service. In 1924, the BBC commenced broadcasting the ringing of the Big Ben over the radio, marking each passing hour. Then, in 1936, the “speaking clock” was introduced, accessible by telephone.

However, Ruth Belville was not one to yield easily, even when confronted with formidable modern technology and aggressive competitors. At a point where most would contemplate retirement, she continued her weekly pilgrimage to the Greenwich Observatory and completed her 12-mile daily circuit of clients well into her ninth decade. It wasn’t until 1940, at the age of 86, that Ruth decided to retire, at which point the  Worshipful Company of Clockmakers provided her with a pension. She passed away in 1943 at the age of 89, bequeathing her cherished timepiece, Arnold, to the company.

Her death marked the end of an era, but her legacy lives on. Today, she’s a remarkable footnote in the annals of history, a testament to a time when selling time was a one-of-a-kind business.

So, the next time you glance at your smartphone for the time, remember Ruth Belville, the Greenwich Time Lady who once wandered the streets of London, selling time to a world hungry for precision. In an age of technological marvels, her story is a charming reminder of a time when a simple wristwatch could make you a legend.

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I am a Chartered Environmentalist from the Royal Society for the Environment, UK and co-owner of DoLocal Digital Marketing Agency Ltd, with a Master of Environmental Management from Yale University, an MBA in Finance, and a Bachelor of Science in Physics and Mathematics. I am passionate about science, history and environment and love to create content on these topics.

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