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UBC Theses and Dissertations

The importance of being punctual : time, trust, and virtue in Britain, c.1700-1900 Corbett, Kenneth Joseph Robert


This dissertation examines the history of punctuality in Britain during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Exploring punctuality as an instance of time discipline, I challenge the historical narratives which have explained the proliferation of clock-time discipline in the late eighteenth and nineteenth century as a result of the appearance of the factory system, religion, or the advent of steam-powered railways. Following the use of the word in newspapers, magazines, and books, I trace how punctuality came to refer to being “on time” within the context of the payment of debts. Contextualizing the meaning of the word I demonstrate how the discourse of punctuality since this transformation between the end of the seventeenth century and through the nineteenth century was intimately connected with questions about the trustworthiness and honesty of others. The dissertation explores how punctuality, and its absence, was problematized in discussions of commerce, domestic management, the railway journey, and in efforts to create networks of electrically coordinated clocks. In these contexts, punctuality came to symbolize everything from honesty, piety, reliability, good management, and railway safety. In examining these meanings, I argue that punctuality was a middle-class value. It was promoted by middle-class writers for middle-class readers. Being punctual demonstrated that a person, a business, a home, a railway, or even an observatory was well-managed, disciplined, and could be relied upon. Unpunctuality and irregularity raised doubts about whether a person could pay their debts, whether a clock told the right time, and whether a train would deliver you safely to your destination.

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