The Greenwich Time Lady (s)

It’s all very well having fabulously accurate timekeeping at the Observatory. It’s even ok if you’re anywhere near enough to Greenwich to be able to see the Time Ball being dropped once a day at 1.00pm. But what if you’re a clockmaker in the City, making state-of-the-art timepieces, but can’t actually set your watches in the first place?

Back in 1836, the astronomers at the Observatory were getting sick and tired of getting right to the middle of an exciting experiment, only to be interrupted by a knock at the door by some oik wanting to know the time. Their solution was to get one of their assistants to do it for them – to actually take Time to the people – pretty much literally.

John Henry Belville would set his chronometer (which had originally been gold-cased and made for the Duke of Sussex; Belville had it re-cased in silver to deter the pickpockets of London) and trudge round from railway station to clockmakers telling them the time for a small subscription. It’s interesting to note that he was uncomfortable using his real name, shortening it to ‘John Henry,’ because of the anti-French feeling at the time – you only have to think of the only remaining Antigallican pub, in Charlton to understand that. But his was a popular service and he continued it until his death in 1856.

His widow, Maria, carried on, and the walking must have done her good as she only gave it up when she died in her 80s. Her daughter, Ruth took over the family business in 1892 and became the best-known of the Greenwich Time Ladies. Her routine, like her job, was rigid as clockwork. Every Monday she would climb that hard pull up to the Observatory and set her chronometer, Arnold (because it was made by John Arnold & Son) before setting off to visit each of her subscribers in turn.

Enter the dastardly St John Wynne. I can just see him now, top hat gleaming, cloak swirling, twirling his sinister Edwardian moustache in a silent movie come to life.

He gave a speech to bigwigs in The City in 1908 which was (almost) faithfully reported by The Times, where he suggested that not only was Ruth Belville’s service amusing, quaint and old fashioned, but that as a female she might well have been able to gain access to the Astronomer Royal where a male couldn’t, nudge, nudge…

The first she knew about this was when she was besieged by reporters wanting to get all the dirt on this saucy woman who got her time by nefarious means. What The Times had failed to report, of course, was that St John Wynne was from her arch rival, a telegraph company, who were trying to sell the new-fangled idea of electrical clocks to the City dignitaries. His speech was a classic example of a smear-campaign.

Years later, this sturdy woman, who survived, presumably through that good old-fashioned concept of personal customer service, was to write that far from being disadvantageous, once the scandal had died down a bit and she was no longer considered The Scarlet Woman of Time, it had actually been fantastic publicity and she got loads of new work out of it.

She survived not only St John Wynne’s slurs, but also the widespread introduction of telegraphic communication, and even the BBC radio pips, only retiring in 1940. Time finally caught up with this remarkable woman at the ripe old age of 90, four years later.

2 Comments to “The Greenwich Time Lady (s)”

  1. [...] George Airey himself dancing a little victory jig after the International Meridian Conference or Ruth Belville, skirts akimbo, but I’d be just as happy to see your Uncle Ernie and Auntie Gladys on their [...]

  2. [...] or trudge up to the Observatory and ask. This was, of course, five years before the birth of the Greenwich Time Lady, though her father John Henry Belville had been collecting the time and selling to all comers since [...]