The Greenwich Time LadyToday we're used to having the correct time available everywhere. Highly accurate quartz timepieces are cheap to buy, we can get the correct time over the telephone or the internet. Yet it didn't used to be like that.
By the end of the 19th century reliable timekeepers were becoming available. However keeping the time is only one half of the equation. Unless your watch or clock is set to the same time as everyone else, it is of little use. Some signals were available, such as the Greenwich one o'clock ball - but even in London these could not be seen by everyone and if you missed it that was it for the day.
The best way to find the accurate time was to ask the astronomers at, say, London's Royal Greenwich Observatory. Needless to say the astronomers were not happy at being constantly interrupted by a stream of people wanting to know the time.
Selling TimeThe solution was simple: rather than having people come to the observatory, have the time go to the people. John Henry Belville (know as "John Henry") would set the time daily on a John Arnold & Son chronometer then travel round London passing out the accurate time. Of course, such a service wasn't free - a small subscription was required. Henry's clients included railways, watchmakers and rich individuals to whom his service could have been little more than a status symbol. Most were in the City of London or Clerkenwell districts.
Henry continued to sell the time from 1836 until his death in 1856. The role - and the chronometer - were then taken over by his widow Maria, the first Greenwich Time Lady. In 1892 (by then aged around 80) Maria passed the family business to her daughter Ruth who became the most famous Time Lady.
Ruth Belville had a simple routine: Every Monday she visited the observatory and had the accuracy of the chronometer (which she called "Arnold") certified. She then walked around London selling on the time. This simple and relatively inexpensive service continued up until the 1930s - like her mother, Ruth was in her 80s when she retired. She died in 1943 aged 90.
St. John WynneNot everyone was happy with the inexpensive service provided by Ruth Belville. In 1908 a Mr St John Wynne publicly made some unflattering comments on her service. Not only did Wynne suggest that her methods were amusingly out of date, he also implied that she might have been using her femininity to gain business. The comments were made in a lecture to the city United Wards Club and then published in The Times.
Unfortunately The Times neglected to point out that Wynne was a director of the Standard Time Company (STC) . STC sold a telegraphic time signal service and was a direct competitor of Ruth Belville. Wynne's "speech" had in effect been a sales pitch for STC. However once his comments were published in The Times, Ruth found herself besieged by reporters interested in "The Greenwich Time Lady" and the possible whiff of scandal surrounding her.
Ruth managed to weather the storm and continued selling the time honourably In later years she commented that all Wynne had achieved with his dirty tricks campaign was to give her service free advertising.
"Arnold"The chronometer used by the Belville time service was a John Arnold pocket chronometer No. 485/786. This had originally been made for the Duke of Sussex with a gold case. John Henry had the case replaced by a silver one because he was concerned that gold might prove too much of a temptation to the rogues of the London streets.
Ruth's "Arnold" was left on her death to the London Clockmakers' Company.