How did we tell the time without clocks and calendars?

Susie Johns, Economic and Social History, Keele University, 2020 Cohort

I am writing this article in the 68th year of the reign of Queen Elizabeth II, five months since the annual Statutes Fair came to the market town where I live, five days after the last full moon.  I started writing a little after daybreak and expect to be writing for the time it would take five sermons to be given in my town’s church on Christmas Eve. 

Or, in other words, on Tuesday the 2nd of February 2021, starting at 8.30am and expecting to finish around 1.30pm.  These references to time are just some of the authentic methods used by people in the past when recalling incidents as witnesses for the Consistory Courts.  National events, the monarchy, local customs, natural phenomenon, and ecclesiastical proceedings all appear in the archives alongside more familiar units of time and named months and days. 

It is Consistory Court witness testimonies that I am using to complete my CASE PhD in History at Keele University, in partnership with the Staffordshire Archives and Heritage Service.  My research will explore how perception of and reference to time developed over two and a half centuries, from c.1550 to c.1800. 

It is often assumed that consistent timekeeping was synonymous with industrialisation; that the change from reliance on natural routines to accurate timepieces was swiftly adopted due to the creation of railways and factory shifts.  While industrialisation may well have seen a synchronisation of time perception more aligned to our modern day use of universal clocks and calendars, this development was not necessarily as abrupt as is popularly accepted.  Other contributing factors including changes in employment models, the introduction of church spire clocks, and time pieces becoming increasingly affordable were occurring during this period, all of which may also have affected how people perceived and referred to time.  By conducting longitudinal research over 250 years of court records, these changes can be tracked and considered in the context of wider societal developments.

The research will also compare how time was referenced by people in different demographic groups identified by age, gender, social status, occupation, and geographic area.  The routines and pace of rural and urban life can be distinct, with existing research identifying differences in the time references used in these contrasting environments (Hailwood, 2020; Wrightson, 2017; and Verhoeven, 2020).  The Lichfield Consistory Court records held by Staffordshire Archives and Heritage Service cover the county of Staffordshire but also the cities of Birmingham and Coventry in Warwickshire, areas of the Black Country and the Derbyshire Peak District, providing several diverse regions with a variety of population densities, economies, and industries to compare within one archive.

As part of my PhD, I am working with Staffordshire Archives and Heritage Service to promote public and volunteer engagement.  In current Covid times, Teams has enabled on-going volunteer meetings to brush up on palaeography skills and delve into the archive to find juicy cases and interesting information to share with the public.  The Bawdy Courts blog can be found at to keep up to date with this research and the work of the fantastic volunteers finding hidden gems to share.

Hailwood, M. (2020) ‘Time and Work in Rural England, 1500–1700*’, Past & Present. Oxford University Press (OUP), 248(1), pp. 87–121.

Verhoeven, G. (2020) ‘Clockwise? Timekeeping in London in the Long Eighteenth Century (1724–1825)’, Cultural and Social History. Taylor and Francis Ltd., pp. 1–21.

Wrightson, K. (2017) ‘Popular Senses of Past Time: Dating Events in the North Country, 1615-1631’, in Braddick, M. J. and Withington, P. (eds) Popular culture and political agency in early modern England and Ireland. Boydell Press, pp. 91–107.

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