People: John Henry Belville (aka John Henry)

Name Belville, John Henry
Place of work Greenwich
Employment dates
1 Mar 1811 – 13 Jul 1856

Posts 1811, Mar 1

Second Assistant (but until 1822, sometimes referred to as the Junior Assistant)

Born 1795, Jul 21


Died 1856, Jul 13


Family connections Ward of John Pond, Astronomer Royal (1811–1835). Father in law of James Glaisher, Superintendent of Magnetical & Meteorological Department. Husband of Maria & father of Ruth, the Greenwich Time Ladies

Known addresses 1811–1822 Royal Observatory, Greenwich
  1822–1825 16 Park Row (RGO6/1/55)
  1825–1833 Park Terrace (now 1-12 Park Vista) (RGO6/1/56)
  1833–1840 Valentine Terrace, Blackheath Road (now 37-45 (odd) & 55-75 (odd) Blackheath Road)
1840–1844 17 Prior Street (RGO6/72/246)
1844–1856 9 Hyde Vale Cottages (now 19 Hyde Vale)

Life under Pond

When John Pond arrived at Greenwich as Astronomer Royal at the start of March 1835, he came with 15 year old John Henry Belville who is said to have been his ward (his mother was possibly a refugee who had fled the French Revolution). Belville at once began to help out, being paid as an assistant at the rate of £100 a year, the money presumably coming from the Board of Ordnance (ADM/BP/40B/48 also referenced as ADM359/40B/48). Supposedly at Pond’s suggestion, he dropped the name Belville because of the anti French sentiment that existed as a reult of the ongoing Napoleonic War. As a result he is always referred to in the volumes of Greenwich Observations as Mr. Henry or John Henry. In March 1814, he appears to have been put on the Admiralty’s payroll (ADM181/24). This brought the number of established assistants to two, the two post holders being referred to respectively as the First and the Second Assistants.

In 1819 Belville married Sarah Dixon and started a family. In 1822, two additional assistants were appointed. As there was insufficient accomodation for everyone at the Observatory, Belville and his family moved out into 16 Park Row, a house around a third of a mile to the north. The accomodation was arranged by Pond and shared with William Richardson, one of the new assistants. The 1870 Street Directory lists two houses in Park Row with the number 16 – one to the north of Trafalgar Road and the other to the South. An article in volume 14 of the Quarterly Journal of the Royal Meteorological Society states that Belville’s house was about 180 yards from the river, suggesting he lived in the number 16 to the north of Trafalgar Road in what is now a car park.

In 1822, Pond had anticipated that either additional rooms for the assistants would be built at the Observatory or a house would be built nearby in the Park. By 1825, plans had been developed further and in 1826 procedures were put in place to enclose an additional part of Greenwich Park to build three houses (Work16/126). By 1827, Admiralty approval had been given for the work to proceed (ADM359/47B/60). But while all this was going on, Belville had moved (in 1825) into a house in the newly built Park Terrace at the western end of what is now Park Vista, with arrangements being made to pay his rent, pay for coals and candles and pay some of the smaller expenses. The arrangement proved rather convenient and as a result, all plans for erecting new buildings to which there had in any case been some opposition, were abandoned. They were revived for a while in the 1830s after Pond’s long absence from the Observatory, but were again abandoned (RGO6/44/25). In January 1836, an independent valuation conducted for Airy put the unfurnished rent of Belville’s then house in Blackheath Road at £38 and the associated taxes etc at £9.3s (total £47.3s) + up to £5 if furnished (total £52.3s.) The amount actually paid to Belville in 1835 was £52 plus £20 for coal and candles, making a total of £72 (RGO6/72/19&223).

In a note written for Airy by Pond in 1835, Belville was described as being ‘steady tho’ not clever’ and as ‘a good computer; but when much exertion is required requires exciting’. His responsibilities were described as: observing with the Troughton Circle, observing with the Zenith Tube with William Simms, computing the transit observations and correcting the proofs of the printed observations jointly with Simms. Like the other assistants, he also spent time rating the chronometers and operating the Time Ball, which at that time, was dropped by hand (RGO6/72/223&226).

From the time of his arrival at Greenwich, Belville began to keep his own meteorological records. Initially, they were made at the Observatory. When he moved out into Park Row, he stopped making records at the Observatory and made them from home instead. His series of observations were continued until at least 1850 and are a useful extension to the official Greenwich series which began in 1838. Useful too was the information in his journal relating to developments at the Observatory during Pond's time. Sections were copied by Airy (RGO6/1/53–56) and used when he wrote up the history of the buildings to accompany the site plans which he published in the 1845 and 1862 volumes of Greenwich Observations.


Life under Airy

By the time Airy came to replace Pond as Astronomer Royal in 1835, for various reasons, standards at the Observatory had declined. The First Assistant, Thomas Taylor, was removed from post and William Simms resigned soon after. Under Airy, both Belville and Richardson suffered financially. In 1836, Airy got permission to reform the allowance system to simplify its administration. Belville and Richardson however were left out of pocket, receiving a total allowance of just £60 each for rent, coal and candles. For Belville, the reduction amounted to £12 a year and may be why he moved to a much smaller house in 1840. Airy also blocked (probably on orders from the Admiralty), the triennial pay rises to which Belville and Richardson were entitled. This decision was eventually reversed, but not until 1843.

Under Airy, Belville’s responsibilities also changed. He was put in charge of the Transit observations and reductions, the rating of the clocks and the comparisons of chronometers. In this he was assisted by William Ellis. Although Belville retained charge of the chronometers (assisted by Rogerson, following the death of Ellis in 1852), his other responsibilities changed in 1849, when the work load of the Observatory was reorganised to accommodate preparations for the installation of the new Transit Circle. Belville was put in charge of the observations and reductions with the Mural Circle rather than the Transit Instrument. He was then put in charge of the Transit Circle and the reduction of the zenith distance observations made with it. Following Belville’s death in 1856, William Lynn Lynn a former Greenwich Computer who had taken up the post of Junior Assistant at the Cambridge University Observatory in 1855, was appointed to replace him. He commenced work as Seventh Assistant in September 1856.


Family matters

Belville was thrice married. His first wife Sarah died in 1826 two weeks after giving birth to their fifth child. Ten months later, Belville married his second wife Apollonia Slaney who nine months later gave birth to a daughter Cecilia. James Glaisher, the Superintendent of the Magnetical and Meteorological Department, caused something of an upset at the end of 1843 when he married Cecilia who was then just 15 years old. The first Belville knew of the proposed marriage was supposedly when Glaisher asked him for the day off, and when asked what for, is said to have replied “to marry your daughter!” Belville disapproved of the marriage, but for it to have proceeded, he must have given his consent, however unwillingly. His relationship with his daughter broke down and working relationships at the Observatory must have been under severe strain. Apollonia died in January 1851. In December of the same year, Belville married Maria Last who gave birth to a daughter Ruth in March 1854.


The Belvilles and the Greenwich Time Service

Prior to Airy’s arrival at Greenwich, some of the London watch makers such as Arnold and Vulliamy would send a member of staff to the Observatory every week with a good quality watch to establish the difference between the time it showed and the true time as measured with the instruments at Greenwich. Once the error was known, the other clocks and watches at the watch maker’s premises could be set to the right time. Concerned at the amount of time that was being wasted servicing these requests, Airy restricted such visits to Mondays. By 1840, instead of the watch makers sending someone to Greenwich, Belville was visiting them instead, carrying the time on a pocket chronometer made by John Arnold and charging a small fee for his service. In 1852, when time signals began to be distributed from Greenwich via the electric telegraph, there was still a demand for Belville’s service, so it continued. When he died, in 1856, on discovering that she was not eligible for a widow’s pension, Maria asked Airy if she might continue the service in her late husband’s place. Her request was granted. When she became too old to carry on, her daughter Ruth was allowed to continue in her place. The service finally ended when Ruth retired in her 80s at around the time the time the Second World War started.


Furher Reading

Extracts from Belville’s Journal relating to Meteorological Observations made by him from 1811 onwards. Quarterly Journal of the Royal Meteorological Society, Volume 14 (1888)

The Belville Family and the Royal Observatory, 1811–1939. Hunt J.L. A&G (1999) 40 (1): 1.23–1.27