Distribution of time by the Belvilles

Prior to Airy’s arrival as Astronomer Royal in 1835, 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, the Observatory’s Second Assistant, John Henry Belville (1795?–1856) was visiting them instead, carrying the time on a pocket chronometer made by John Arnold and charging a small fee for his service. Originally made for the Duke of Sussex, the chronometer became known as ‘Arnold-345’ or more affectionately, just as Arnold.

In 1852, when time signals began to be distributed from Greenwich via the electric telegraph, there was still a demand from watchmakers and others 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 (1811/1812–1899) asked Airy if she might continue the service in her late husband’s place. Her request was granted. When in 1892 she became too old to carry on, her daughter Ruth (1854–1943) was allowed to continue in her place.

Ruth Belville and her dog. From the 18 March 1908 edition of The Tatler

Ruth Belville outside the Observatory Gates. First published in the Daily Express on 10 March 1908 (p.7), this copy of the image comes from the February 1920 edition of Popular Science Monthly p.75

In an interview in 1908 Ruth described a routine that involved checking her chronometer at Greenwich every Monday and visiting, at least once every two weeks, some forty customers in the London area.

On 5 November 1914, Ruth’s dog (pictured left) attacked another dog and its owner. As a result, she was summoned to Epsom Police Court and charged with ‘keeping a dangerous dog not under proper control’. She lost her case, the dog was ordered to be destroyed and she was ordered to pay costs of 32s. 6d.(Surrey Advertiser 25 November 1914)

The service offered by Ruth was continued until well into her 80s and finally came to an end during the Second World War, probably in the autumn of 1940.


Images of Ruth Belville at work

Ruth Belville with the 'time-keeper' of the South Metropolitan Gas Company who is checking the time from Arnold in her right hand. The photo dates from 1929 when Belville was 75 years old. It is known to have been published in 1929 in the following newspapers in America: Lancaster Daily Gazette (April 6), Joplin News Herald (April 8), Bakersfield Californian (April 10), Ogden Standard Examiner (April 10), Anniston Star (April 19), Burlington Gazette (April 20), Sandusky Star Journal (April 26), Salt Lake City Telegram (April 28)

Belville supervising the setting of an office clock. From the October 1929 edition of Popular Science Monthly, p.63



Further Reading

Ruth Belville The Greenwich Time Lady. David Rooney, National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, 2008