David Rooney takes a trip to the Clockmakers’ Museum
Join David Rooney as he visits the Clockmakers’ Museum to meet Ruth Belville’s two precious pocket watches, Arnold and Charles. Find out how David re-discovered Charles and how you too can see both historic watches.
Hello. I’m Natasha Waterson, and today I’m here with David Rooney at the Clockmakers’ Museum at the Guildhall in the City of London.
Now David, you’ve brought me here to see Arnold and Charles, but there’s no one else here. What’s the story?
Yeah, we’re here in the wonderful Clockmakers’ Museum in the historic heart of the Square Mile. I brought you here to meet Arnold and Charles as you say, but they’re right here. They’re right in front of you actually – there’s Arnold there.
Arnold is a pocket watch from the 18th century. Now, in the last few episodes, we’ve been talking about some of the characters in the story of Ruth Belville and the distribution of Greenwich Mean Time and some of the people who tried to put her out of business. But how did she actually carry the time around London?
Well, she carried it around using this pocket watch. She famously would bring Arnold, named after his maker John Arnold, so he put his surname on the dial, so that’s why she called him Arnold.
She’d take Arnold up to the Royal Observatory every Monday, get it checked, and then carry him around town in her handbag, selling people, for their annual subscription fee, a weekly look at the watch.
So why did she have Charles too?
Well, she’d had Arnold all of her career because her parents, John and Maria Belville, had used Arnold. He’d been around since the 18th century. But, come 1926, Ruth Belville, now very much on her own, was getting a little bit worried about the safety of her business.
There’d been a general strike in 1926 and she had lots of customers in the London docks; the police and the army were trying to keep order from rioting in the docks and so Ruth must have realised very soon that she was really vulnerable if she just knocked the watch, if she dropped it, if someone jostled her, or even if it was stolen. So what would she do? She wouldn’t have the means to carry time. So, in 1926, she came to the Observatory to take delivery of a back-up watch by a firm called Charles Frodsham‘s, who had been working with the Royal Observatory for many, many years on technological research projects.
She took delivery of Charles Frodsham, serial number 07586 – a five-digit serial number as all chronometers would have. She bought him in 1926 as a back-up watch in case anything happened to Arnold, and she often said, ‘I’ve brought Charles today because Arnold’s not feeling very well.’ He must have been in for an MOT.
But, after that reference the trail went cold. We didn’t know where Charles had ended up. We knew that Arnold was here at the Clockmakers’ Museum because Ruth had left the watch to the museum in her will.
But it was after I had finished researching the book Ruth Belville: The Greenwich Time Lady, and it had gone to the printers two days later, I was working in a country house in Kent and I found a watch with a five-digit serial number that I recognised, and it was Charles Frodsham 07586. He’d been there since Ruth was alive in 1943, 65 years ago, preserved in this country house. What a find.
What a find indeed. And you’ve brought the two watches back together now.
Yeah, we had a bit of a launch party for the book here at the Clockmakers’ Museum in the Guildhall in the Square Mile, and this is the home of Arnold – it has been since 1943 when Ruth died.
I was able to get Charles brought here one last time to stand next to his brother here together at the historic heart of the watchmakers. For the first time since Ruth Belville was alive, these two watches were brought in to the City of London ticking, set to Greenwich Mean Time, and telling time to a fraction of a second. It was really quite a moving occasion.
And Charles is in a wooden box, but Arnold isn’t. Why is that?
Well, Charles had already seen quite a lot of activity before Ruth decided to buy him. He’d been owned by the Royal Navy and used on several ships – an oil tanker, a submarine support ship, even a submarine in the First World War.
So, he was in a protective box, whereas Arnold had never been owned by the Navy. He was bought by one of George III’s sons, the Duke of Sussex, who famously said that it was more like a warming pan. It was far too big and clumsy so he let it go. And that’s when John Belville picked it up. The first thing John had to do was to have it re-cased from its gold case to a silver one, because as he said, ‘My work occasionally takes me through some of the less desirable parts of town,’ in other words, the slums.
So how long are both Arnold and Charles going to be on display here for?
Well, right now Arnold is on permanent display at the wonderful Clockmakers’ Museum here in the Guildhall in the City of London. Charles is here for just a little while longer. Historically, what a moment that they are both back together again since Ruth Belville was alive.
Charles normally lives in a wonderful collection of clocks and watches in Belmont, a house near Faversham and Kent. He’ll be back on show there next season for the open season in the summer. And I just think it is such a story that by the sad tragedy of my own life I recognised that five-digit serial number [in] the hugest of all the collections of chronometers that it could have been in, I managed to find it in the one I happened to be volunteering in that sunny autumn afternoon in Kent.
David, thank you very much.