If you worked in London from the 1890s to the 1930s, you might have encountered Ruth Belville working her trade along the streets of the London Docks, Clerkenwell, the City, the West End and as far afield as South Kensington and Baker Street. Once a week, every week, Ruth would journey to the Royal Observatory with an eighteenth-century pocket watch in her handbag. She would get the watch checked against the master clock at the Observatory before making her way around thirty or forty customers spread across the metropolis who paid an annual fee in return for a weekly visit from the ‘Greenwich Time Lady’ to inspect her watch. It sounds old-fashioned – a pocket watch in a handbag – but in fact Ruth’s time service was accurate to a tenth of a second (better than the Observatory’s own electrical time distribution system by a factor of ten).
Ruth was the third time-seller in her family. Her father, John, an assistant at the Observatory, had started the time service in 1836 and used to send the silver pocket watch (named ‘Arnold’ after the surname of its maker, and now on show at the excellent Clockmakers’ Museum in London’s Guildhall) to his customers in town each week. When he died in 1856, his widow, Maria, took over the weekly visits, and when she retired in 1892, in her eighties and nearly blind, their daughter Ruth took on the job. ‘It is a hard day’s work’, Ruth once said. She wasn’t wrong. I’ve recently written a book telling her story called Ruth Belville: The Greenwich Time Lady (it’s in shops now). I pieced together her walking route and I have to take my hat off to the woman described by one journalist as ‘hale and hearty’. I walked it; it’s a hard day’s work indeed.
It was a blast writing this book, because it got personal. It’s a story all about people struggling to get by in a big city and it shows, I hope, that the seemingly-simple question ‘what time is it?’ is not so easy to answer. There’s a colourful cast of characters in the book, from millionaires and murderers to the ‘Girl With The Golden Voice’. There are scientists, telephonists, terrorists and horologists, poets and paupers, bombers and bell-ringers. I’ve been recording some episodes for the National Maritime Museum’s podcast series where you can find out more about some of these folk (and there are more to come). Ruth Belville had a tough life, by all accounts, and her story deserved to be told. But when I pieced together the story I found that fact really is stranger than fiction. You couldn’t make some of this stuff up!