Common section


George Scharf ’s drawing of “The Original Oyster Shop” in Tyler Street; the shop itself has gone but all the buildings on the same site have followed its contours.


Have You Got the Time?

The nature of time in London is mysterious. It seems not to be running continuously in one direction, but to fall backwards and to retire; it does not so much resemble a stream or river as a lava flow from some unknown source of fire. Sometimes it moves steadily forward, before springing or leaping out; sometimes it slows down and, on occasions, it drifts and begins to stop altogether. There are some places in London where you would be forgiven for thinking that time has come to an end.

In medieval documents ancient London customs were declared to be “from time out of mind, about which contrary human memory does not exist”; or an object might be classified as standing “where it now stands for a longer time than any of the jurors can themselves recall.” These were ritualised, or standardised, phrases suggesting that the earliest measure of time was human memory itself. In an anonymous medieval poem on the life of St. Erkenwald there are verses which concern the masons rebuilding St. Paul’s Cathedral in the fourteenth century; they discover a great tomb within the ancient foundations of the church, in which rests the unblemished corpse of a pagan judge who speaks thus: “How long I have lain here is from a time forgotten. It is too much for any man to give it a length,” although even in that distant period London was “the metropolis and the master town it evermore has been.” The corpse is baptised, its soul saved, and at the close “all the bells of London rang loudly together.”

Beyond the time measured by human memory there exists, therefore, sacred time invoked by the sound of these bells. The visions of Our Lady in the church of St. Bartholomew, or the miracles surrounding the shrine of Our Lady of Willesden, suggest that London was also the harbour of eternity. The bells provided that sonority where sacred and secular time met. Yet for many centuries a form of communal memory was also commonplace—“In the great hard frost … in the late dreadful storme … ever since the sicknesse yeare … two or three dayes after the great high wind”—when the events of London mark out an imprecise but useful chronology. Public gatherings also measured London time, in “sermon time” or “at Exchange time when the merchants meet at the Royal Exchange.” There was a human scale, also, in the measurement of light and shadow in the city as an index of time: “about candlelighting in the evening” or “when it was duskish.”

The spirit of the city lives, too, in the emblems which adorn it. There were four “wall dials” in the Inner Temple, one of which bore the inscription “Begone About Your Business,” which is a true London apothegm. On the sundial in Pump Court are etched the words, “Shadows we are and like Shadows Depart,” and in Lincoln’s Inn two emblems of sacred time were installed. On the southern gable of the Old Buildings was the motto Ex Hoc Momento Pendet Aeternitas, or “On This Moment Hangs Eternity,” and, beside it, Qua Redit Nescitis Horam or “We Do Not Know the Hour of his Return.” These emblems are the written equivalent of the church bells, resounding through the streets of the city. In the Middle Temple another sundial reasserts the actual nature of London with complementary mottoes. Time and Tide Tarry For No Man and Vestigia Nulla Retrorsum or “No Moment Is Backward.” So even the sun, and the light, are mastered by the urgent rhythm of city activity.

In this context the dominance of clock time in the city can be understood. Wren’s London churches have clocks designed within them; no doubt the dials are a substitute for the bells which once rang out, but there is also a suggestion that time itself has somehow become a deity to be venerated. When in the early eighteenth century Bennett’s Clock Shop, at 65 Cheapside, set up images of Gog and Magog above its frontage the shop’s owner was expressing a general truth; these tutelary deities of London were used to strike the hour, confirming the identity of time and the city. For a city based upon work and labour, upon power and commerce, time becomes an aspect of mercantilism.

That is why the city became famous for its clocks, from that upon St. Paul’s to that of “Big Ben” on St. Stephen’s tower at Westminster, and renowned for its clock-makers. Artificers such as Charles Gretton and Joseph Antram of Fleet Street, John Joseph Merlin of Hanover Place and Christopher Pinchbeck of St. John’s Lane, were often visited by foreign travellers and were themselves notable London figures; Pinchbeck opened a clock-making and clock-work gallery to display his skills, while Merlin had his own Mechanical Museum. The measurement of time, and the ingenuity of its artificial instruments, fascinated Londoners; in a city always moving and always making, the attention to the process of measuring was also an attention to its own energy and greatness. That is why London also became the world centre of watch-making. By the end of the eighteenth century, for example, there were more than seven thousand workmen in Clerkenwell assembling watches at a rate of 120,000 a year, 60 per cent of which were exported. It is almost as if London was manufacturing time itself, and then distributing it to the rest of the world. The nature of its manufacture, with different artisans in different districts making one small part of the assembly, means that Clerkenwell itself could be seen as a clockwork mechanism with its face to the sky.

The position of Greenwich upon the meridian is well known but on this famous site was also erected the time signal ball, a wood or leather sphere five feet in diameter, which was raised and dropped by a galvanic motor clock; this device was considered to be “the most wonderful clock in the world” regulating “the time of all the clocks and watches in London.” In particular “a very small outlay … will secure true Greenwich time to every City establishment.” So time and trade ran together. Another great clock was established at the post office of St. Martin’s le Grand in the 1870s; it was known as the “chronopher” and by means of a “time current” running along the electric telegraph it controlled the time of “sixteen of the most important cities in the kingdom.” London set up and dominated the time of the entire country. With the central position of Greenwich, it might even be said to have controlled the time of the world. There was also the phenomenon of “railway time,” so that the locomotives speeding out of London set the time for the provincial stations through which they passed.

In twenty-first-century London too, time rushes forward and is everywhere apparent; it hangs upon neon boards, and is illuminated on the front of office buildings. Clocks are everywhere, and most citizens have the image of time strapped to their wrists. It might even be suggested that the general and characteristic obsession of London is with time itself. That is why all of its commercial operations are designed to be conducted and monitored in the shortest possible time, just as information is only important when it is of instantaneous access. The faster an action or a dealing can be reported, the more significance it acquires. The affluent Londoners of the fourteenth century who first displayed the counterpoise clock in their households were at the beginning of a process in which London would capture and market time. The city oppresses its inhabitants, and the evidence of that oppression can be found in the time it imposes; there is a time for eating, a time for working, a time for travelling to work, a time for sleeping. It represents the great triumph of materialism and commerce within the city.

The consequences emerge in the activity and imagery of London over a long period. One eighteenth-century observer remarked that in London they “talk little, I suppose, that they may not lose time.” Similarly there is no bargaining, and the custom of having fixed prices “is not the product solely of competition and confidence, but also of the necessity of saving time.” It has often been noted how quickly Londoners walk. If there is a cause for this anxious speed it may lie in the deeply inherited instinct that time is also money.

There is an old London inscription: “As every thread of Gold is valuable/So is every minute of Time.” Time must not be “wasted.” Chateaubriand noticed that Londoners were impervious to art and general culture precisely because of this obsession; “they chase away the thought of Raphael as liable to make them lose time and nothing more.” Significantly he associates this with the need to work; they are “for ever on the brink of the abyss of starvation if for a moment they forget work.” Time and work are indeed intimately mingled within the consciousness of London; they cannot be separated, not even for a moment, and out of this conflation emerges frantic and continuous activity. Like automata, the citizens become the components of the monstrous clock that is London. Then time indeed becomes a prison. A riddle in a London chapbook asked the question, What am I?

Close in a cage a bird I’ll keep

That sings both day and night,

When other birds are fast asleep,

Its notes yield sweet delight.

And the answer? “I am a clock.” Even the gallows was wreathed with the implication of time. One victim of the rope declared in his last speech: “Men, Women, and Children, I come hither to hang like a Pendulum to a Watch, for endeavouring to be Rich too Soon.” The clock of Holy Sepulchre, Newgate, in turn regulated the times of hanging.

It is of course possible to control time; Ned Ward noticed an assistant, in an early seventeenth-century “Musick-shop,” “beating Time upon his Counter” while his customers danced to the sound of pipes and fiddles. This is an ancient yet still familiar scene, of course, and suggests that the permanent refuge of Londoners from the claims of clock-time may lie in song and dance; that is one way, at least, to “beat Time.” And there are also places where time may cease to exist. Among the prison inmates of London, for example, “day after day rolled on, but their state was immutable … every moment was a moment of anguish, yet did they wish to prolong that moment, fearful that the coming period would bring a severer fate.” During the Second World War, Harold Nicolson noted, “one lives in the present. The past is too sad a recollection and the future too sad a despair. I go up to London. After dinner I walk back to the Temple.” He is walking through a timeless city, abandoned to darkness during the black-out, and there are still areas of London where time seems to have come to an end or ceaselessly to repeat itself.

The phenomenon can be particularly noted in Spitalfields, where the passing generations have inhabited the same buildings and pursued the same activities of weaving and dyeing. It may be noticed that by the market of Spitalfields archaeologists have recovered successive levels of human activity dating back to the time of the Roman occupation.

But time also moves slowly in Shoreditch and Limehouse; these areas have acquired a finality, in which nothing new seems able to prosper. The time of Cheapside and Stoke Newington is rapid and continuous, whereas that of Holborn and Kensington is fitful. Jonathan Raban, in Soft City, has noted that “Time in Earl’s Court is quite different from time in Islington,” by which he is suggesting that the rhythms imposed upon the inhabitants of these areas are particular and identifiable. There are streets in which the presence of old time is familiar; the area of Clerkenwell, and the passages off Maiden Lane, are notable in that respect. But there are other places, such as Tottenham Court Road and Long Acre, which seem to exist in a continual state of novelty and unfamiliarity.

There are also forms of timelessness. Neither vagrants nor children are on the same journey as those whom they pass on the crowded thoroughfares.

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