by Kate Gibson
Historians have expended considerable energy in working out the extent to which people in the past had ‘time awareness’. This term includes the desire to keep track of time, to control it or to attach value to it. In general, historians agree that by the late eighteenth century, most people in Western Europe were ‘time aware’: they were telling the time using clocks as well as social or natural cues like daylight, and a greater emphasis was placed on time-discipline, defined by historians Glennie and Thrift as ‘standardization, regularity and coordination’. And, although there is some disagreement on the extent and exact timing (no pun intended) of this spread of time awareness, most historians have argued that it was driven by the demands of industry, business and urban life. The greater availability of public clocks on civic buildings, a desire for regularity and standardisation among merchants, coordinated labour in large workplaces like factories and coordinated urban communications like coach travel, all fostered this awareness of time.
This emphasis on economic drivers for time awareness, though, tends to overlook the intense importance of time to Christian theology and practice before 1700. Several historians of the early modern period have pointed out the importance of time in structuring rhythms of worship, of correct time-use as a religious obligation, and of a belief in mortality and salvation as central to perceptions of the passage of time. As historian Matthew Champion points out, the period before 1700 is therefore seen as ‘troublingly religious’ and the story of time awareness as one ‘where precise mercantile practices effaced the older, vague ecclesiastical rhythms of time.’ A trajectory in which an intensely religious early modern mindset simply gave way to secular, urban and commercial modes of thinking about time, seems improbable. The evidence of ordinary people living in the industrialising, urbanising towns of Northern England described in this project suggests that strong time awareness was entirely compatible with faith, and that religion provided an important motivation for keeping track of time.
In our sources, ordinary people overwhelmingly understood time as something finite: a gift from God that must be used wisely under the ever-present shadow of mortality. Young Independent Ebenezer Smith’s diligent record keeping of his daily prayer in his diary was motivated by the thought of ‘how soon or how suddenly I may be called to appear before God & then how awful would be my condition were I not prepared!’ When in his twenties, Anglican solicitor William Gray became obsessed with the idea that ‘more than a third part of my Days allotted to be spent on this Side the Grave were already flown over, and … instead of considering this short Journey through Life, as a Passage to Eternity, I found I had acted with the same Indifference and spent my Time in as much self Security, as though I had been to live here for ever’. As time was so precious, any moment of it not spent in worship or religious contemplation was a potential waste for the faithful. This was a lesson taught to children early. Sheffield nonconformist Emily Read advised her younger brother to ‘think of the sinfulness in the sight of God, of wasting your time’ and reminded him that he would be called ‘to give a strict account for all your minutes’ before God on the day of judgement.
As the desire to use time profitably was so central to these concepts of faith, time-discipline was presented as a practical means to improve one’s piety. Young people in particular developed ways of measuring and evaluating their time use. Seventeen-year-old evangelical Anglican Margaret Gray produced a ‘Plan for the employment of time’, with allotted tasks copied into a table in her diary. On Monday, for example, her day began with ‘Prayers a quarter before eight. Breakfast at a quarter past eight’, before hours of reading, meditation and music. Sheffield razor-maker and Methodist Henry Longden was similarly encouraged by his mother ‘to keep a diary, in which I wrote a faithful register of every hour’. He ‘determined to divide each day into certain portions’, of prayer, reading and worldly tasks of business, so ‘that one positive duty might not interfere with another’.
These individuals all had a highly developed sense of time and an intense desire to practice time-discipline. However, this was not primarily motivated by their working or social lives in the eighteenth-century town, but by their understanding of their faith. The motivation was not economic efficiency, but salvation. To waste time was a sin, to be punctual was a religious duty, and the management of time was a tool to increase piety, with all understandings of time ultimately derived from a sense of mortality and impending divine judgement. Belief continued to have a significant influence on concepts and practices of time past 1700. It was not replaced by secular, economic motivations, but rather continued and coexisted with them well into the nineteenth century.
Paul Glennie and Nigel Thrift, Shaping the Day: A History of Timekeeping in England and Wales, 1300-1800 (Oxford, 2009)
Matthew S. Champion, The Fullness of Time: Temporalities of the Fifteenth-Century Low Countries (Chicago, 2017)
Sheffield City Archives: MD1874, Diary of Ebenezer Smith, pp. 2, 18, 31 Oct. 1801, 10. Jan 1802.
York Explore Libraries and Archives: GRF/4/1/W/1, William Gray II to William Gray I, 25 October 1773.
Sheffield City Archives: MD5690/7, Emily Read to Edmund Read, 6 June .
York Explore Libraries and Archives: GRF/8/2, ‘Some Account of the Personal Religion of Margaret Gray’, 1826, pp. 82-3.
Henry Longden, The Life of Mr Henry Longden, (late of Sheffield), Compiled from his own Memoirs, from his Diary, and his Letters (Liverpool, 1813), pp. 8-9, 44.
Gerrit Verhoeven, ‘Clockwise? Timekeeping in London in the Long Eighteenth Century (1724-1825)’, Cultural and Social History (2020, online only),
Mark Hailwood, ‘Time and Work in Rural England, 1500-1700’, Past and Present 248 (2020)
E.P. Thompson, ‘Time, Work-Discipline, and Industrial Capitalism’, Past & Present 38 (1967),
Anne L. Murphy, ‘Clock-Watching: Work and Working Time and the Late Eighteenth-Century Bank of England’, Past & Present 236.1 (2017)
Jacques Le Goff, Time, Work, and Culture in the Middle Ages, trans. Arthur Goldhammer (Chicago, 1980)
Mark Harrison, ‘The Ordering of the Urban Environment: Time, Work and the Occurrence of Crowds, 1790-1835’, Past & Present, 110 (1986)
Anu Korhonen, ‘”the several hours of the day had variety of employments assigned to them”: Women’s Timekeeping in Early Modern England’, Journal of Early Modern Studies 6 (2017)