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Saturday, 29 August 2015

Time as measured in Jane Austen's time.

This is something of a rewrite of an earlier post, but I am concentrating on time for people in the late Georgian era, and have included a couple of useful charts for sunrise and sunset times in Britain through the year.  This is London and will vary slightly to north and south.  The whole of Britain only subtends a couple of degrees of arc, however, and for the purposes of the inexact time of the era will do just fine.

Time Generally

      Time by the late Georgian era was no longer measured by the Church and its offices, but they happened to coincide with the times of day most people cared about – midnight, sunrise, rising time, opening of offices and shops, noon, knocking off time or sunset, which depended on the time of year which came first, and bedtime.  Recent research suggests that people of the 18th century and before may have slept for four hours, woke and either rose for a drink or engaged in sex for a couple of hours and then went back to sleep again for four hours; this is apparently a natural biorhythm.  I’m a little sceptical, myself, since the average working man would not have had ten hours overnight to play about with like that.  Possibly it may have been a pattern followed by some of the leisured classes, but Austen never mentions her characters getting up in the middle of the night, so I’m inclined to go with her.  As to natural biorhythms, once I’m off, I’m off until my alarm clock puts his soft paws on my face and bites my nose gently seven hours later. 

Even in the Regency time was not as all-important as it is now.  Time nowadays is measured in nanoseconds and consumes all our lives.  Then the nearest quarter hour was good enough – and likely to be different in every village or at every church steeple by which gentlemen set their watches.  Accurate chronometers for the use of sailors had been invented in 1750 for the purposes of calculating longitude at sea, but pocket watches were not of that degree of accuracy, and nor did this particularly matter.  Especially as the time from one place to the next might be anything up to an hour different.
Country wide timekeeping only became important with the widespread use of railways; when ‘railway time’ was adhered to as the standard.
No Regency buck is going to look at his watch and say ‘it is three seventeen’; for one thing that means of expressing the time is modern, and for another it would not occur to him to be that accurate – unless he was trying to break a record driving from London to Brighton, when he would probably start on the hour or half hour in any case.  He would for every day purposes say either ‘it’s about quarter past three’ or if he was trying to hurry up the females in his life ‘hurry up, it’s coming up twenty past three already’.

sunrise times London

Sunset times, London

The country year, in common with the medieval year, was governed by farming expediency; such religious festivals as were retained in a Protestant country were those which, like the pagan festivals, fitted in to the farming year.  Most people by now had some idea of what the date was, but most country people would still count time as being along the lines of, ‘the day after old Mrs. Scroggins slipped on the ice, which is two years since there was ice as bad as this and the river froze’.  The state of the moon would also be something more people would be aware of than in these times of street lighting, and high rise buildings that block the moon.  ‘I’ll sow my seeds on the waxing moon next month’ would be a statement that made sense to any countryman [and as a matter of interest some extensive research seems to concur with the old country saying that seeds should be sown with the moon waxing. Something to do with tidal drag.]

The farmworker’s day was determined as it always has been by the time of year; he worked from dawn until dusk. The hardest work of the year was during harvest, when the day was very long too; in winter there were less tasks to do on the land save marling it but the few animals that were not slaughtered still had to be cared for, and there was repair to tools and fences.

The year was still divided into quarters, and this was the day on which debts were settled, rents were paid, quarterly pay was given, disputes were heard by magistrates, and many fairs were held, including hiring fairs where country servants might hope to get a position.
Quarter days:
Lady Day, 25th March, held as New Year’s day until 1751 and the reason for the superstition of cleaning the grate completely on New Year’s eve [it makes sense at the end of spring to be without a fire where it does not do so in the middle of winter]
Midsummer Day 24th June
Michaelmas Day 29th September
Christmas Day 25th December

Country folk were still calculating by the quarter day up to the second world war in some places.

Moon phases as they relate to time of rising and setting.

Nothing irritates me much more than to read things like ‘the sickle moon was just rising as they went to Almack’s’
The rising and setting times of the moon are determined by the phases and though that may vary by some hours in general the following is true.

The New Moon or dark of the moon rises very early in the morning, between the late early hours and early morning and sets in the early evening.  This is only really noticeable when there is the first sliver of new moon visible.

First Quarter  rises quite early in the morning and sets sometime at or after midnight.

Full Moon rises early evening, sets very, very early in the morning

Third Quarter rises after midnight and sets  during the first part of the morning

During each of these phases of course the time shifts slightly each day. 

NOTE: tides will be high roughly when the moon is at Zenith and Nadir . This is also affected by latitude. I haven’t come across a reliable engine to do the maths for me yet.  Just please, don’t have a high spring tide, or any kind of high tide, as the sickle moon rises.  High springs are with full moon.  

Note 2: the graphs are drawn by me from data in books, so please attribute me if you use them. 


  1. Great post, thanks for bringing it back.
    The theory of being up in the night and going back to sleep (after doing some housework etc) is also featured in Lucy Worsley's "If walls could talk". Maybe it depended on the individual: Some will have slept through like a stone, other did some bred-baking at 3 in the morning. Anyway, I love the idea and the diversity.

  2. Thanks Anna! yes, I guess that could have worked. Everyone is different!

  3. Nice post! I just shared on the Beau Monde blog of RWA.

  4. Another fabulous post, Sarah. I've bookmarked it and tweeted it as well. I wonder if those in the Regency were as familiar with the effects of the full moon as we are today? The way it influences the behavior of animals & people, for example. I can imagine a rakish gentleman in a romance novel blaming his sudden burst of inappropriate ardor on moon madness, for example. But I don't know if they even had any idea of the concept!

  5. Thanks Mimi! the word 'lunatic' deriving from the Latin 'luna', the moon, was in use in Middle English for those experiencing cyclical madness as a result of the moon. It became used more widely for someone insane in the first years of the seventeenth century [Oxford Shorter on Historical Principals: I love that book] so being moonstruck was not an unfamiliar concept!

  6. Had this as an email so posting it here, and my reply below:
    That post on your blog was terrific...and I have a question...did the phases of the moon affect postal deliveries??? That is to say, if you were waiting up for a postal delivery that arrived at dawn, would mail only travel along the postal routes on nights when the moon was full enough to see???

    And, weren't there decorative clocks in the eighteenth century? Given what you've mentioned about imprecise time, how were they set??

    By the way, I'm not so sure about the sex-in-the-middle of the night thing, either. The thing is, a person might wake up in the middle of the night, ready to go, but if your partner is sleeping, they might not appreciate being woken up for that purpose....I wonder if the four-hour thing was really the servants, jumping out of bed in the middle of the night to take care of one more thing they had to do that they forgot because they were so exhausted by a day's work???

    Anyway, thanks for another excellent, informative, post!

  7. No, apparently not, the mails ran regardless of moon or weather, and unlike today managed to get through eventually even with 6' drifts of snow, though often as much, as was reported with shock and horror, as 3 days late. They carried lanterns on the coaches designed to throw light forward as far as possible, and the drivers knew their way very well. The service was an extraordinary one, and I have every respect for the drivers of the mail.
    the clocks of the time were ornate, but it didn't mean they kept good time. They may have been set by 'London time' when first made, but over a few years might have been ten minutes, half an hour or more out of true, and much of that depended on the keeper of the clock keys. Have you ever owned an eight-day clock? if you have, you will know that in the last 24-36 hours of its cycle, it will run slow, and indeed if you let it run right down you can hear the slowness in the striking mechanism which sounds very weary. It was customary in a well-regulated household to wind the eight-day clock every seven days, on Sunday evening, so that it did not run slow, and so much depended on the regular habits of the winder as well as the accuracy of the clock. The best clock makers boasted that their clocks would only lose or gain five minutes in a year. But if the clock was not regulated very often? then that soon added up. And it depended on being set accurately in the first place. The setting of the clock would generally be done by using the pocket-watch of the master of the house, which might, or might not, be to Greenwich standard. And again, depending on the accuracy of that timepiece and the habits of a household, might depend on how accurate it was. There's an amusing side plot to chase there, in a retired admiral with a high quality watch, which he has normalised yearly at Greenwich, who insists on keeping all his clocks accurate, and whose time is consequently very different to local time as measured by the church clock as the vicar refuses to put it right, as to him it IS right, and the admiral has no right to impose London time on the village.

    haha I agree, it isn't going to necessarily work. I really don't know, as I said, I am sceptical.