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Belville, (Elizabeth) Ruth Naomifree

  • David Rooney

(Elizabeth) Ruth Naomi Belville (1854–1943)

by Samuel A. Walker, c. 1890 [Image of Maria Belville, Ruth Belville's mother, who was also a ‘time lady’]

Belville, (Elizabeth) Ruth Naomi (1854–1943), horologist and merchant, was born on 5 March 1854 at 9 Hyde Vale Cottages, Greenwich, Kent, the only child of Belville, John Henry (1795?–1856), horologist and assistant astronomer at the Royal Observatory, Greenwich, and his third wife, Belville, Maria Elizabeth (1811/1812–1899), school teacher, from Lowestoft, Suffolk [see below]. Between them John, Maria, and Ruth Belville offered a time-selling service to London subscribers for over a century, despite growing competition from providers of technologically more advanced time services such as telegraph and wireless signals.

John Henry Belville was probably born on 21 July 1795 and baptized on 16 August at the church of St Pancras, London, the son of John and Jane Belville (parish register, LMA, P901/PAN1). His place of birth may have been Bath, Somerset; however, since his mother had recently fled to England from revolutionary France, he may have been born before she crossed the Channel. In England, Belville and his mother settled in Somerset, where they met the astronomer John Pond, who had established an observatory at Westbury and who took an interest in the boy's education. In April 1811 Pond was appointed as the new astronomer royal, at the Royal Observatory, Greenwich, where he brought Belville in his capacity as the boy's guardian. As Belville's daughter later wrote:

for many years Mr John Pond thought it advisable for my father to drop his surname Belville and to be known as Mr Henry as the horrors of the French Revolution combined with the wars in France would have prevented my father from obtaining a post under Government if of French origin.

CUL, RGO, 74/6/2

Only later in life did he begin to use his full name again. On 22 June 1819 at St Paul's, Deptford, Belville married Sarah Dixon (1798/9–1826), and the couple had three sons and two daughters. Sarah died in December 1826 and on 22 July of the following year, at St Alphege's, Greenwich, he married Apollonia Slaney (1810/11–1851), with whom he had a daughter, Cecilia [see Glaisher], who became a noted botanical photographer and who married the astronomer James Glaisher; their eldest son was the mathematician James Whitbread Lee Glaisher.

In 1835 Pond retired as astronomer royal and was replaced by the strict disciplinarian George Biddell Airy. At this time, chronometers—accurate portable timekeepers used on board ships for navigation—had come into widespread use, and an industry manufacturing and setting them had grown up in London. Makers and users of these instruments required regular time-checks against Greenwich time, for which they made regular visits to the observatory. Incensed by these interruptions, Airy asked Belville to inaugurate a service in which a specially corrected pocket chronometer (made in 1794 by John Arnold and now at the Worshipful Company of Clockmakers, Guildhall, London) was carried from the observatory to London subscribers every week. It was an immediate success, and Belville went on to run this service—supplying some 200 London clock and instrument makers with the correct time—for twenty years.

Following the death of his second wife, Belville married, on 22 December 1851, at St Andrew's, Holborn, Maria Elizabeth Last, the daughter of Bartholomew Barcham Last, a Lowestoft merchant. She was then living on Cross Street, Hatton Garden, London, and may have met John Belville during his visits to customers. Two years after the birth of their daughter Elizabeth Ruth Naomi, known as Ruth, John Belville died at home in Greenwich on 13 July 1856, following a long illness. He was buried on 18 July in St Margaret's churchyard, Lee, Kent, near the tomb of his former guardian, John Pond. With Belville's death, the hand-carried time service might have come to an end for, by then, Airy had instituted an automated time-distribution service which used electric clocks to send time pulses by telegraph wires to railway stations and post offices. However, some of Belville's subscribers were keen to retain the personal touch. Maria Belville was asked by about 100 customers to continue her husband's weekly visits and, following approval from Airy, she started plying time herself, alongside other work as a school teacher.

As a child Ruth Belville may have been educated at home in her mother's boarding school—23 Crooms Hill, Greenwich, where she later worked as a governess. From an early age she also accompanied her mother on the weekly time visits across London. About 1890 the women gave up this school and moved to nearby Charlton where, at 29 Elliscombe Road, Ruth took up teaching in earnest, being described as a 'professor of French and Music' (census 1891). In the following year her mother, now partially blind, retired from the time-selling business whereupon Ruth requested, and was granted, permission to check the Arnold chronometer weekly at the observatory. Maria Belville died at the family home on 29 December 1899 and was buried on 3 January 1900 in Charlton cemetery.

By the close of the century Belville faced competition for her service, not just from the observatory but also from the Standard Time Company, a commercial enterprise which supplied hourly electric time pulses to automatically corrected clocks for about half the cost of Ruth Belville's weekly visits. Many existing customers switched to the new service, but some sixty remained loyal. Ruth stayed in Charlton until 1907, latterly at 25 Wellington Road, before moving to 43 St Luke's Road, Maidenhead, Berkshire, where, in the following year, she was the subject of intense press attention following a lecture by the new chairman of the Standard Time Company, St Andrew St John Winne. In his lecture, Winne damned the work of the Belvilles with the faintest of praise, suggesting that 'no mere man' could have got the women's privileged weekly access to the observatory (CUL, RGO 7/96). The lecture, which formed part of a campaign to gain new business, failed and Winne's efforts to undermine Belville's reputation actually led to her gaining customers. In an interview from 1908 she described a routine that involved checking her chronometer at Greenwich every Monday and visiting, at least once every two weeks, forty customers located between the docklands and Mayfair (Maidenhead Advertiser, 11 and 25 March, 22 April 1908).

Belville faced greater challenges in the final decades of her life. In July 1916 British summer time was inaugurated, bringing new attention to the standardized setting of clocks and watches, while from February 1924 the BBC broadcast the 'Greenwich time signal' of six pips to mark the hour. By the mid-1930s telephones were in widespread use, and in July 1936 the General Post Office introduced the ‘speaking clock’, known as TIM after the dialling code used to access the service, and recorded by the Croydon telephonist Ethel Cain (1909–1996). None the less, Ruth Belville continued her personal time service in the face of these mass competitors. At the outbreak of the Second World War she was living in a cottage near Croydon airport, a target for enemy bombing. In 1940 an explosion at the Royal Observatory prompted the relocation of the time department to a safe house in Surrey. Working life had become too precarious for Belville, who retired that year, living off a pension provided by the Worshipful Company of Clockmakers. She died from carbon monoxide poisoning, caused by fumes emitted from a faulty gas lamp, on 7 December 1943, at her home, 57 Plough Lane, Beddington, Surrey, and was cremated on 15 December at the South London crematorium, Streatham. The News of the World reported her death with an article entitled, 'Human “T.I.M.” Found Dead' (12 December 1943) while The Times noted how for 'half a century' she had 'taken the correct Greenwich time to business houses in London on a watch 100 years old' (13 December). Unmarried, she left no heirs and with her death the Belvilles' unusual business came to an end.


  • D. Rooney, Ruth Belville: the Greenwich time lady (2008)
  • D. Rooney, ‘Maria and Ruth Belville: competition for Greenwich Time supply’, Antiquarian Horology, 29/5 (2006), 614–28
  • J. Hunt, ‘The handlers of time: the Belville family and the Royal Observatory, 1811–1939’, Astronomy and Geophysics, 40/1 (1999), 23–7
  • D. De Carle, British time (1947)
  • J. Nye and D. Rooney, ‘Such great inventors as the late Mr Lund: an introduction to the Standard Time Company, 1870–1970’, Antiquarian Horology, 30/4 (2007), 501–23
  • Kentish Mercury (19 July 1856)
  • The Times (13 Dec 1943)
  • Sutton Times and Cheam Mail (17 Dec 1943)
  • The Observatory, 65 (1944), 148
  • Royal Greenwich Observatory papers, CUL, RGO 6, RGO 7, RGO 9, RGO 74
  • Worshipful Company of Clockmakers minutes, GL, MS 2710
  • family papers, priv. coll.
  • census returns, 1841, 1851, 1861, 1871, 1881, 1891, 1901, 1911
  • b. cert. [Ruth Belville]
  • m. cert. [John Henry Belville and Maria Elizabeth Last]
  • d. cert. [Maria Elizabeth Belville]
  • d. cert. [Ruth Belville]


  • CUL, Royal Greenwich Observatory papers, corresp. and papers, RGO 6, RGO 7, RGO 9, RGO 74


  • photograph, 1890 (Maria Belville), NMM, London; repro. in Daily Graphic (31 Oct 1892) [see illus.]
  • photograph, 1903, Getty Images, London
  • S&G Barratts, photograph, 1929, Press Association
  • Fox Photos, photograph, repro. in Daily Express (10 March 1908), 7
  • photograph, repro. in Evening News (3 April 1929), 10
  • photograph, repro. in Popular Science Monthly (Oct 1929), 63
  • photographs, repro. in Rooney, Ruth Belville

Wealth at Death

£185 6s. 10d.: probate, CGPLA Eng. & Wales


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