The Time Peddler

The Time Peddler. 2021.
Photo credit: Charles-Olivier Bourque

“Songs are in the air, messages on the wires, stars in the sky and blood on the streets. There are long lives and a lot of change, but all the way through people are asking a simple question: what time is it?”

— David Rooney, Ruth Belville: The Greenwich Time Lady

The Time Peddler is a multidisciplinary project that explores the story of Ruth Belville: The Greenwich Time Lady whose biography was written by David Rooney (published in 2008 by the National Maritime Museum, Greenwich). In his work, Rooney describes the life events of the Belville family from 1836 until 1940.  During this period, the Belville family sold time as a means to provide central Londoners (mainly clockmakers and the navy) accurate and certified Standard Time from the Royal Observatory’s clock. By comparing Belville’s  pocket watch (named Arnold)  to the Observatory clock, Ruth received a certificate from an astronomer and then walked many miles to her clients who did not have the time to go about this verification. 

The story spans a period of great change (invention of the telegraph, daylight savings time, telephone and radio) and a world that experienced pivotal historical events (Jack the Ripper murders and both World War One and Two).  What interested me in this story was how a single woman was able to work independently in a male dominated environment, walk hundreds of miles in dangerous urban landscapes, and provide a valuable service to her community. Reflecting on Belville’s story, many questions come to my mind… 

Questions:

  • How does shifting perceptions of time affect the public’s use of urban landscapes and community spaces?
  • How does our trust (or lack of trust) in technology influence our actions?
  • How do world events, which are often beyond our control, impact our day to day lives? 
  • How can ephemeral commodities (like time) support independence for marginalized communities?