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Ruth Belville, the lady who sold time

If you wanted to know the time in 1930s London, you could listen for the pips on the radio, subscribe to a telegraphic time service - or arrange a weekly visit from an octogenarian spinster called Ruth Belville. For almost 50 years, Miss Belville had carried Greenwich Mean Time from its home at the Royal Observatory to a few dozen clients around the city, using a watch even older than she was. Members of the Belville family had been running this service with the same silver-cased chronometer for more than a century, and despite the arrival of new technologies, their business flourished. But as newly discovered documents show, at the start of the 20th century one of the most powerful people in the time industry did his best to put Ruth out of business…

Marie Belville

IN EARLY 19th-century London, time was in high demand but short supply. Good clocks and chronometers were becoming more widespread, but a good clock is little use unless it is set to the same time as everyone else's - a standard time.

Most people who owned a clock had to set it by sundial, which was accurate to two minutes at best. And if you wanted to do better than that? By far the most accurate time was kept by astronomers, who needed it for their own observations and who also supplied it to mariners for the calculation of longitude. “So if someone wanted more accurate time, they could come and knock on the door of the observatory and ask the Astronomer Royal, 'Can I have a look at your clock please?',” says David Rooney, curator of horology at the Royal Observatory in Greenwich. And people did. Chronometer makers in particular needed to know the time accurately during the manufacturing process and to set their finished chronometers. John Pond, the Astronomer Royal, grew sick of being asked the time, and the chronometer makers tired of having to ask: eventually they sent Pond a petition asking for a more convenient service.

Pond gave the job to his assistant John Henry Belville, or Mr John Henry as he called himself to disguise his French origins during a time of widespread anti-French feelings. Henry needed a suitable timepiece to carry Greenwich time from the observatory to the city, so Pond gave him a chronometer by the greatest makers of the day, John Arnold & Son. The chronometer had been made for the Duke of Sussex, George IV's clock-mad younger brother. But it was too large for the duke's taste: he sent it back, complaining that it was “like a warming-pan”. Henry was more bothered by its gold case, which he had replaced by a silver one because, according to a later newspaper report, “his curious profession takes him occasionally to the less desirable quarters of the town”.

“Genuine Greenwich time must have been a great status symbol” Henry started his rounds as the world's first time distribution service in June 1836, travelling to the city on the new London to Greenwich Railway. He had about 200 clients, not just chronometer makers and watch and clock repairers, but also banks and city firms, which were becoming increasingly aware that it was important to know the precise time of a financial transaction. Along the way he stopped off at some private households, for whom having the genuine Greenwich time - accurate to a few tenths of second - must have been something of a status symbol.

Ruth Belville

When Henry died in 1856 the job passed to his widow, about whom we know almost nothing. She retired in 1892, leaving the time delivery service to her daughter Ruth. For the next 16 years Ruth quietly carried on the business. Every Monday morning, she left her cottage near the town of Maidenhead in Berkshire and travelled to Greenwich. There she checked her chronometer against the observatory clock, obtained a certificate showing how much Arnold - as she called the watch - differed from GMT, and then set off on her rounds. But in 1908 Ruth's routine was about to be rudely interrupted: the forces of big business were planning an attack.

This rather shabby episode came to light only last year during preparations for the new Time Galleries at the Royal Observatory, Greenwich. In the observatory's Cambridge archives, Rooney discovered a file of letters and press clippings. With that file, and fragments of information from other archives, he has reconstructed the story.

It starts on 4 March 1908, when a Mr St John Wynne addressed a group of city councillors and aldermen at London's United Wards Club. Titled “A plea for uniformity”, its theme was the need to synchronise clocks across the land. Wynne argued that a modern, efficient society needed to be well ordered in time. Although GMT had become the legal time in Britain in 1880, Wynne felt that too many people and businesses were sloppy about setting their clocks.

There was no need for such sloppiness, he declared. After all there was a perfectly good time distribution service - by electric telegraph. Time by telegraph had been around since 1852, yet inexplicably there were still those who clung to old and inefficient ways. There were even some who relied on the services of a woman who wandered about with a chronometer.

As The Times reported three days later, Wynne had been scathing 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.” It seems that Wynne wasn't just rubbishing Ruth's service but her character, hinting that she may have used her womanly charms to gain access to the observatory. Without such special treatment, how could she stay in business?

Who was this man? Wynne, it turns out, was a director of the Standard Time Company - the largest private supplier of telegraphic time signals in Britain. His audience may have known, but The Times failed to mention it. Rooney also found that the worst of Wynne's insinuations are missing from the official version of the speech, published in a pamphlet. “It may have been sanitised, which suggests to me that the lecture itself was more critical than the published account. How many other lectures did Wynne give that weren't published or picked up in the press? My feeling is this was a drip-feed assault on a rival business,” he says.

Wynne's motive is clear: he wanted an even bigger slice of the time industry. While the Greenwich observatory's own telegraphic time signals went mainly to the railways and the post office, the Standard Time Company established its own telegraph network, carrying signals from its own regulator clock (checked against GMT by a direct telegraph line from Greenwich) to private homes and businesses. With Ruth gone, STC might sign up her clients.

The first Ruth knew of all this was when a reporter from The Times turned up on her doorstep, waving a copy of his article. Soon she was inundated with reporters eager to find out more about the “Greenwich time lady”. She was mortified and feared for her livelihood: the observatory could so easily end what had never been more than an informal arrangement. She wrote a series of apologetic letters to the then Astronomer Royal William Christie. “I deeply regret that the Observatory should think I had anything to do with starting this controversy.” Christie was evidently unperturbed.

In the event, Wynne's efforts backfired. “I think the Standard Time Co. will not attack me again in public,” Ruth wrote in a notebook a few years later. “All the result he obtained” was “to advertise the chronometer at the Company's expense”. She continued her rounds for another 30 years.

Rooney believes that even in its later years, Ruth's business was not the anachronism most people thought. The telegraph had its own drawbacks. You had to rent your own telegraph line, which was expensive, and when wires and relays failed - as they often did - the service came to a halt. Ruth, on the other hand, only missed a day if ill. After 1924 the time pips were broadcast by radio, but early wireless sets were costly and required a licence and a large aerial.

Eventually radios did become commonplace, and from 1936 anyone with access to a telephone could get their GMT by calling the speaking clock. Yet when Ruth finally gave up her rounds, probably in 1939 at the age of 86, she still had some 50 subscribers. She died four years later leaving no heir, and so remains London's last time carrier.

From issue 2540 of New Scientist magazine, 25 February 2006, page 52

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