Time and the City

8.15am on a Monday morning in 1908. Ruth Belville leaves her modest house on St Luke’s Road in Maidenhead and walks to the station. She gets there 20 minutes later and boards a train for Paddington. An hour later she arrives in London, leaves Paddington and walks to Edgware Road underground station to catch the tube to Charing Cross, where she changes onto a suburban train for Greenwich.

At Greenwich she exits the station and climbs Observatory Hill, arriving at the gates of the Observatory just before 10.00am. She knocks and a porter lets her in. Once inside she gets out her watch – a handsome John Arnold pocket chronometer, no. 485/786 – and passes it to an assistant. The watch, nicknamed Arnold, was originally made for the Duke of Sussex and had a gold case, but Ruth’s father John had it plated in silver to make it less attractive to thieves.

While she waits, Ruth drinks a cup of tea, warming herself in front of the fire in the porter’s lodge. A few minutes later the assistant returns her watch, along with a certificate confirming that it is keeping perfect Greenwich Mean Time. Arnold is accurate to the nearest tenth of a second.

Belville walks back down the hill and heads north, descending into the Greenwich foot tunnel, opened six years previously to allow workers living on the south bank of the river to reach the docks to the north. She walks under the river to the Isle of Dogs, where she takes the Millwall Extension Railway from North Greenwich to Millwall Docks, alighting at Shadwell to visit her first customers: clockmakers and horologists working for the shipping industry.

After completing her business, Belville returns to the station, catching a westbound train and getting off at Fenchurch Street, from where she heads north up the Minories. On the edges of the City she stops off at the offices of various nautical instrument-makers – precision engineers producing the tools which allowed sailors to find longitude while out at sea – before catching the overground train to Farringdon Station.

Next Belville heads into the City, before crossing the river to Borough to see a customer there. She travels through central London and on to the West End, to Bond Street, then back onto the Strand were she visits watch sellers and the newly opened store of Mappin & Webb the silversmiths. Finally she heads further west, visiting the private houses of millionaires in Kensington and Chelsea, before returning to Paddington Station and getting a train back to Maidenhead, her exhausting work, trudging the streets of London, selling the time, over for another week. ‘On an average day I make about 30 calls each Monday after visiting Greenwich’, she told a journalist at the time, ‘and it is a hard day’s work.’


Immanuel Kant walked with such regularity round Königsberg that people would set their watches by him.


Ruth Belville, ‘the Greenwich Time Lady’, was a time courier, delivering the time – accurate to the nearest thousandth of a second – to clockmakers and horologists around London. She plied her curious trade from 1892 until 1940. Her father John Belville had worked at the Greenwich Observatory, and had started a subscription service selling Greenwich Mean Time to London clockmakers.

Before the invention of the electric clock, regulated by its oscillating quartz, it was difficult, and expensive, to be sure precisely what time it was. Public clocks kept notoriously bad time, and clockmakers, who needed a reliable master-clock against which to check their work, were forced either to strike a transit themselves, using a telescope to monitor the passage of heavenly bodies (increasingly difficult in London, with its pea-soupers and light pollution), or to buy the time from a reputable source.

By the time Ruth took over what David Rooney calls the family’s ‘time cartel’, Greenwich had become the centre not just of London, but of world time. Urban space was organised temporally: the city became a clock, and the mechanism of time’s dissemination was straightforwardly hierarchical:

A primary standard sits at the top – the stars passing over the Royal Observatory every night. A clock is set by the stars. Another clock, set by that clock, sends out time signals to intermediate time stations – post offices, for instance. Postmasters use the incoming time signals to set their office clocks; people visit to check their watches against the post-office clocks, and so on down the line.

Time flowed down from Observatory Hill and through the streets, carried by wires or pocket watches to regulate the great mechanism of the city itself. If you couldn’t afford a subscription to the electronic regulatory systems, or didn’t trust the wires, then Belville was your only source of truly accurate time.

By 1880 Greenwich Mean Time had become the legal time for the whole of Britain, but it was only publicly visible in a few places: at the Greenwich Observatory itself, via the red ball that signalled to ships waiting for the tides on the river; on the telegraph company’s time ball outside Charing Cross railway station; and in the window of the London clockmaker Gledhill-Brook. Greenwich’s symbolism as a center of time-keeping, and thus of order, may have attracted the French anarchist Martial Bourdin, who accidentally killed himself with a bomb just outside the main gates of the observatory on Thursday 15 February 1894, in an act that was later immortalised in Joseph Conrad’s The Secret Agent, in which the anarchist Verloc mounts a failed attempt to destroy the observatory with a bomb carried by his wife’s mentally-impaired brother. 


Modern London, by which I mean Victorian London, was erected by and around time. The great commuter suburbs of the city were created by the public transport network, which ran its arteries into previously outlying land, oxygenating the grey tissue of metroland and reducing the time it took to get to the centre of town. Migration streams followed the paths of least resistance. ‘The new kind of travel was to be central to the growth of the modern city,’ writes John Lanchester in his brief history of the District Line, ‘with London as the first and biggest example of its importance: the map of London, the modern city, was created by commuting.’

And the price commuters had to pay for this newfound space? Time. Travelling took time, and people had to think of new ways to fill this dead time as they were rushed along the tracks. New forms of entertainment were developed: on the railways and underground time was killed by reading papers or novels, newly available from railway kiosks. Time gave birth to new literary forms, new modes of entertainment.

Commuters live their lives by the clock, and measure their rewards against it. In Wanderlust, her history of walking, Rebecca Solnit writes about the ‘time in between’ our daily routines: time spent moving from place to place, running errands, time spent travelling, on foot or otherwise, time spent commuting and travelling around. ‘That time has been deplored as a waste,’ writes Solnit:

reduced, and its remainder filled with earphones playing music and mobile phones relaying conversations. The very ability to appreciate this uncluttered time, the uses of the useless, often seems to be evaporating, as does appreciation of being outside – including outside the familiar; mobile-phone conversations seem to serve as a buffer against solitude, silence and encounters with the unknown.

This is an old story. Gradually, in the city, time itself became a commodity as its psychological dimensions were eroded. In E.P. Thompson’s classic study of the tyranny of clock time, ‘Time, Work-Discipline and Industrial Capitalism’, he describes the history of labour in terms of the increasing tyranny of the clock. ‘In Madagascar time might be measured by “a rice-cooking” (about half an hour)’, Thompson records, ‘or “the frying of a locust” (a moment)’, but in Britain during the industrial revolution, the clock began to have the last word. Previously, the working day had been task-orientated, and people worked to the rhythm of their jobs: fishermen attended to the tides, farmers to the seasons. As factory work became the most prevalent form of employment, however, so time was colonised by the ticking hands of the clock. People punched in and out, accounting for the locations of their bodies in space and time. Labour was measured not in terms of tasks completed but in terms of hours spent at it. And with the invention of billable hours came the rise of the idea of leisure. Time spent not working had to be pleasurable, or it was deemed to have been wasted .

Time, once a form of public knowledge, was gradually privatised. In 1698 the pendulum had been introduced to clock-making, providing household clocks with much greater accuracy. But even then most grandfather clocks only had an hour hand (in Tess of the d’Urbervilles Hardy describes a primitive idyll when ‘one-handed clocks sufficiently subdivided the day’). By the turn of the next century the second hand measured out the lives of workers.

The first adjustable alarm clock was patented by Antoine Redier, a Parisian horologist, in 1847, and by the 1870s, after the imposition of the 12-hour working day in England, alarm clocks became popular and, more importantly, cheap. After the advent of the alarm clock, and the changing labour relations it engendered, time was ‘spent’ rather than ‘passed’. At the beginning of the 20th century the philosopher Henri Bergson lamented the loss of the durée, the subjective truth of ‘lived time’ which had been replaced with the mechanical ticking of the clock. People had become enslaved by their clocks, and the mass-mobilisation of the commute, the machine of the city, with its traffic-light escapements; its hooting factory horns and daily commuter rhythms, that dominated lived experience.

In The Mechanic Muse Hugh Kenner argued that the urban crowd, and the poetry which gave voice to it, was itself a product of this new time-consciousness. The poetry of T. S. Eliot, whom Kenner calls ‘the chief poet of the alarm clock’, was made possible only with the invention of new ways of engaging with time. According to Kenner, modernism was a temporal phenomenon not just in terms of its privileging of lived as opposed to clock time, but by virtue of its very mechanisms. Kenner points out that much of Eliot’s poetry, poetry of or against the mass, was dependent on the fact that, sometime during the early 19th century, it became possible to mobilise vast forces of civilians all at the same time for the first time in history: the alarm clock ensured that crowds of people who flowed across London’s bridges each morning and evening could do so with mechanical precision. The city became a self-regulating machine. It still is. ‘Eliot, as so often,’ writes Kenner, ‘was bringing news. He had discerned, beyond the clocks, what the clocks enabled, the new world of the commuter, in which a principal event of the day was waking up in the morning under the obligation to get yourself somewhere else, and arrive there on time.’

And Belville was the herald, the outrider, of that time consciousness. By the turn of the century, she was faced with increasingly strong competition. But she was a persistent thorn in the side of the more advanced telegraphic time-regulating systems that were being developed to replace her. In 1908 Sir John Wynne, a director of the Standard Time Company, which sought to disseminate time telegraphically, gave a speech to the Royal Geographical Society, calling Belville’s method’s of time-couriering ‘amusingly out of date’ and suggesting, scandalously, that ‘she used her feminine wiles to secure the rights to check her watch and Greenwich.’ ‘Surely there should be some censorship as to the time kept by clocks exposed to public view in the streets of London’, argued Wynne, ‘highly desirable as individualism is in many respects, it is out of place in horology. A lying timekeeper is an abomination, and should not be tolerated.’ Yet despite his best efforts, Belville’s service remained popular, and she would continue to deliver the time to London’s clockmakers until 1940. She died three years later. There was no one to take over her business.