The woman who sold time – and the man who tried to stop her

Vin, who was trying to win over customers for his own time-keeping company, gave a speech later published in The Times, arguing that the Bellevilles' method was "ridiculously out of date."

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Photo: Getty Images
Photo: Getty Images
Disclaimer: The translations are mostly done through AI translator and might not be 100% accurate.

For more than a century, a member of the Belleville family would go to the Royal Observatory in Greenwich at least three times a week.

He would set the correct time on the clock there and go around London selling that information to clients.

When the last of the Belleville time sellers, Ruth, died in 1943, she had spent more than half a century collecting time and passing it on.

Her competitor, St. John Wynn, tried to ruin her company.

But that backfired on him - in the end, he only further strengthened the Bellevilles' business.

Wynn, who was trying to win over customers for his own time-keeping company, gave a speech later published in The Times, arguing that the Bellevilles' method was "ridiculously out of date".

He also suggested that Ruth Belleville used her feminine charms to gain clients.

The Belville scheme was a family business, started by John Henry Belville in 1836.

He was the child of a refugee who fled the French Revolution, and then became the protégé and apprentice of John Pond, the Royal Astronomer.

(Incidentally, when describing Belleville to a colleague, Pond said the young man was "reliable but not very bright".)

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Early 19th-century businesses that wanted to know the exact time - such as fortune tellers and horologists, banks and inner-city firms - would usually send an employee to the Royal Observatory to knock on their door and ask to see their watch.

Pond's successor, George Airey, got fed up with it and limited access to the clock to once a week, on Mondays.

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Companies that depended on accurate time weren't happy with this denial of service, which allowed Belleville to start his own time-sharing company.

As Pond's former assistant, he had access to and visited Greenwich Observatory every morning.

He would adjust his pocket chronometer, before heading off in carriages to clients who paid a fee to look at it and set their own watches to it.

When he died in 1856, he had more than 200 subscribers.

His third wife and only widow, Maria, took over the business.

And when Maria died, their daughter Elizabeth Ruth - known as Ruth - became a time seller.

'Time is money'

The Bellevilles all used the same trusty John Arnold clock (originally made for the Duke of Sussex, who rejected it because he said it "looked like a nightstand").

It was a stunningly simple idea - so simple that the technological pioneers underestimated its genius.

Vin addressed a group of London councilors and aldermen to point out a possible flaw in Belleville's method.

As director of the Standard Time Company, he told his lecture audience that "the inaccuracies of London's public clocks are directly responsible for enormous amounts of financial loss".

He described the "inconveniences" of the Belleville system and blamed the "current woes" on "the apathy shown by the government, the City of London, the city corporations and the public".

He said: "Perhaps it would be interesting for an esteemed audience to know how Greenwich Middle Time is communicated to the watchmaking and watchmaking profession."

"A woman in possession of a chronometer once obtained permission from the Astronomer Royal (perhaps an ordinary man would not have been so successful) to visit the Observatory and correct the time as often as she pleased.

"This work is still done by her successor, also a woman, I think."

Winn, having insulted almost everyone, and then compared London unfavorably with Paris, Berlin and "other continental cities", also disparaged private watch owners for being "unaware of their own responsibilities" and reproached "the public's attitude towards time in general".

He wasted no time praising the Standard Time Company, a commercial enterprise that provided electrical time pulses every hour to automatically correct clocks.

An editorial in The Times about "lying clocks" caused quite a discussion in the reader's letters section.

A certain Mr. John Cockburn of Upper Norwood proposed "a certain censorship of the times shown by clocks exposed to the public eye in the streets of London."

"It is not uncommon to find clocks that show the time that differs by up to three or four minutes from each other in a distance of only a hundred meters. As much as individualism is desirable in many respects, it has no place in horology."

"False timekeeping is an abomination and must not be tolerated."

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A certain H. Berthoud from Wimbledon wrote to the paper to say that he had heard "that a large number of foreigners" exclaimed in surprise that London did not have the correct clock "at all the important crossroads in the metropolis".

And a certain Robert Orb was particularly irritated: "In Bern and Nechatel, public clocks were controlled pneumatically 25 years ago."

"Telegraph offices in the Indian Empire received the time signal at exactly the same time at four in the afternoon; and here we are in London, in the summer of 1908, foolishly and impotently clattering about countless 'lying clocks', which are not only a scandal and a shame, but cause huge financial losses to the community.

"The disappointing lack of interest and stupidity of the public, led by stupid municipal and other governing bodies, who drone on about practical work, but are unable to appreciate the depth of meaning of the old English adage 'time is money'."

All those angry men who wrote to the newspaper seem to have been unaware of the effect their discourse had on Ruth Belleville's modest business.

Instead of causing people to abandon her old-fashioned methods and embrace electrical synchronization, the correspondence brought her services to the attention of many who were not her previous subscribers.

It became fashionable to have such a personal service - and being able to afford an update three times a week carried a certain prestige.

Media attention brought Ruth Belleville the nickname The Weather Lady of Greenwich and she began appearing in publications from Tatler to the Evening News.

She later stated that Vin brought her huge publicity.

Donald De Carle, Fellow of the British Horological Institute (and author of many standard works on the subject) met and interviewed Ruth Belleville in 1939, a year before she retired.

She described how she would go to the Royal Observatory to arrive before 09:00 to check her watch and get a certificate of its accuracy.

De Carle said: "She always called her watch Arnold, as if it were the personal name of a dear friend."

"She would say, 'Good morning! Arnold is yellow for four seconds today' and pulled Arnold out of her handbag and handed him over.

"The regulator or standard watch would be consulted, and the watch returned to the owner; and that would be the end of the transaction."

After setting Arnold up for the week, she would spend the rest of the day taking time for her clients.

Belleville ran a steady business until 1940, when World War II made it difficult for the 86-year-old to walk the streets safely.

She died three years later, with Arnold by her side, who bequeathed it to the Watchmaking Company's museum.

When she finally ran out of time, her death certificate was published in several national dailies.

The Belleville tradition died with the Weather Lady of Greenwich.

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