To celebrate our new season of Family Story Walks, artist Juwon Ogungbe explains the stories behind some of Greenwich’s most notorious residents…
Ruth Belville (1854-1943)
Ruth Belville – also known as ‘The Greenwich Time Lady’, was a successful businesswoman who sold the exact time from the Royal Observatory to various locations in London for almost 50 years.
In the days before radio and telegraph signals, clock and watch makers needed to receive the precise time from messengers sent from the Royal Observatory. Ruth’s father – John Henry Belville started the service in 1836. Ruth eventually took over the business from her parents.
The time was kept on a chronometer. Ruth Belville inherited a pocket chronometer from her father. Nicknamed ‘Arnold’, the chronometer had been bought from John Arnold – a famous watchmaker.
John Henry Belville sent messengers to deliver the time to customers. When Ruth took over the business, she chose to deliver the time in person. Every Monday, she would visit the Royal Observatory to check her watch against the standard clock, which was certified correct to within a tenth of a second. She would then travel across London by public transport to deliver the precise time to between 30 -40 clients every week, including clock shops, factories, offices, and banks.
By 1908, some businesses preferred to get the correct time through telegraph signals, but Ruth Belville still managed to keep many customers. Her business faced some challenges during the First World War, which was a disruptive time for many people, but she continued after the war ended.
Competition in the time selling business soon became fierce. The director of a rival company – St John Wynne attracted media attention when he made a public speech that criticised Ruth Belville’s business. Wynne said Ruth’s way of selling time to customers was sloppy and out of date, because it wasn’t done with the use of machines. He also accused Belville of using her femininity to gain business.
Newspapers covered the story and Ruth Belville stood her ground in interviews. Luckily for her, most of her clients didn’t own in-house telegraph stations. Many of them just wanted to have the exact time in their homes and workplaces, to show off that they could afford to have it.
The Royal Observatory decided to ignore St John Wynne’s attack. Ruth Belville attracted more clients because of the media controversy and her business became the talk of the town. She eventually retired from her business at the ripe old age of 86!