Sussex Mass & Scratch Dials

SAC 100 - 1962





Scratch dials—what are they? It is now a simple subject, but investigators in the past disputed much as to their origin and use. Some dismissed them as being masons' marks, others associated them with some kind of villagers' game, while some came back to the view that they were really primitive dials to tell the time. A few lines cut directly on the stone of the outer walls of old churches seem hardly worth much thought, but they tell an interesting story of a help to the priest of the Middle Ages in his church ministrations.

In Vol. 60 (1919) of Sussex Archaeological Collections an account was given of 17 scratch dials in West Sussex by Mr. H. Mitchell Whitley. It is time that a record was made of those in East Sussex. The little book by Dom Ethelbert Home, F.S.A., on Scratch Dials, Their Description and History, appeared in 1929. One very important query was resolved by Dom Ethelbert when he was able to show that scratch dials occurred on the older churches of Normandy, and that the Norman clergy used the same device when they settled in England. This disposes of the theory that scratch dials had a connection with Saxon sundials.

Scratch dials were not intended to tell the time, but the hour for mass and, in most cases also, for vespers. As they denote services other than the mass, they should not be called mass clocks or mass dials. In the majority of dials the mass line differs from the rest, being sharper, straighter and more distinct from any of the other lines. A scratch dial consists of a semi-circle (occasionally a full circle), a central peg known as the style or gnomon, and radiating lines cut in the stone, the number of the lines varying greatly. Some dials have a succession of holes round the semi-circle or circle. These dials were generally cut at breast-height, and on south porches or walls. They went out of use when clocks, as we now know them, came in at the end of the 15th century.

There is nothing of the professional touch about a scratch dial. The majority seem to have been cut by persons not much used to tools. They are on a plane with the English shepherd's stick which he stuck upright in the ground and watched until the shadow cast by the sun was at its shortest, and then ate his dinner. Or with the Italian peasant who drives a nail into his cottage wall and awaits the shadow to reach a mark before he has his pranzo. And the New World has its counterpart. A Chilean peasant girl admits to her mistress that she has cut deep notches into the frame of her kitchen window. On being reprimanded (her mistress was English), she asks " How else does my patrona think I am to tell the time? Look, my way is easy. I do not understand your kitchen clock.

When the sun strikes there " she indicated the first notch with her finger—" I put on the soup. That one . . . and I pop the joint into the oven. The last one and I cook the vegetables."' What a delightful link with the mediaeval English priest.

Considering the mutilations suffered in the course of their life and the winds and storms which have buffeted them through the centuries, it is astonishing that so many dials have survived.

In Schedule I are listed 16 churches in East Sussex which possess scratch dials. The number which have survived is small in relation to the number of pre-1500 A.D. churches in the area. Rebuildings and " restorations " have been numerous.

In Schedule II is an addendum to Mr. Whitley's list of 1919, which he never claimed as being complete. There are some interesting additions in this new list.

The total number of churches in the diocese of Chichester which possess scratch dials can now be placed at thirty-eight. It is not claimed that the lists are a complete record; these dials are not easy to spot and the writer would be grateful to hear of any others.

I am indebted to Mr. Ernest J. Ashdown, of Cobwebs, Hadlow Down, for the interesting set of photographs. Scratch dials are difficult subjects for the photographer.


Churches in East Sussex (the area of the administrative county)
on which scratch dials survive.

ALCISTON. On the left side of the blocked-up priest's doorway is a well-defined dial. Four others, less complete, are on the right jambstone, low down. (See Plate I).

DENTON. On the south-west corner of the church, near a buttress, is a clearly defined dial. It falls into the " complete circle " type. The dots are all there. No radiating lines.

ETCHINGHAM. On a lower east jamb of the north door is a clearly defined dial. This part of the church has been renewed, and the stone is probably one taken from the south side.

FIRLE. There is a dial on the right side of the south porch, and another on the right side of the north door. Both are rather faint.

FOLKINGTON. A stone with a dial on it has been inserted upside down in a buttress on the north side of the church. (See Plate II).

HANGLETON. On the top stone of the east jamb of the south door is a very worn specimen. It is probably upside down.

ISFIELD. There is a much worn and mutilated dial on the west buttress of the south aisle. The style hole is much enlarged, with just two radiating lines. Above are radiating lines (see Plate II), very well defined, but a stone has been inserted where the style hole should be. A doubtful dial.

LITLINGTON. A well-preserved dial is on the quoin stone on the south porch. (See Plate I). On a corner stone just above the plinth of the angle buttress on the north side of the tower are two dials at right angles to one another, each having 24 holes in complete circles. (See Plate II).

MAYFIELD. A very clear dial on the right side of the south porch. There is also a dial of simple incised lines on the face of the south wall, over the porch.

NORTHIAM. The Early English south porch has two dials on the east jamb of the outer archway.

RINGMER. There is a much enlarged style hole, with three radiating lines on the westerly buttress of the south-east chapel. The lines point upwards. The chapel was rebuilt in, perhaps, the early sixteenth century, and the dial stone must have been replaced upside down.

RIPE. There is a dial on the right-hand side of the outer archway of the south porch.

TELSCOMBE. On the south-west corner of the tower there is a complete circle of holes. Below is a dial with radial lines in the lower part of a circle.

WESTHAM. On the west side of the south doorway is a clearly cut dial on a jamb stone. It seems to have been moved from its original position.

WILLINGDON. On the Caen stone of the eastern jamb of the blocked doorway there is a good specimen.

WILMINGTON. At the north-west corner of the church there is almost certainly a gnomon hole, but no radiating lines are now discernible.

West Sussex additions

APULDRAM. This is a most interesting addition to the West Sussex dials. It was of so unusual a form (some might aver that it does not qualify for listing as a dial) that I asked Mr. W. D. Peckham for his opinion. He has very kindly reported as follows:

" The Apuldram scratch dial is of unusual form and of some interest. It consists of four scratched lines on the flat sill of a narrow one-light window in the east wall of the church porch, the south jamb of the window serving as gnomon. Some years ago I made a test, and concluded that two of the lines marked 8.45 and 10.15, being the times when the sexton began ringing for Morrow-Mass and parish High Mass, and that the other two were evidence of something like " winter time " when, with late sunrise, both services were said an hour later than usual."

BOSHAM. On the south face of the east buttress of the chancel there is a clearly marked dial, a half circle with seven radiating lines.

EDBURTON. In the 1919 record Edburton is credited with one dial on the north side, and upside down. There are, however, three others on the south side. The best preserved is on the east wall of the south porch, on a corner stone. Just below is another dial, much weather worn; while on the west side of the porch on a cornerstone is a third.

LURGASHALL. There is a circle and a gnomon hole at the south-east corner of the east wall of the tower. On the south wall are two dials, one about five feet above the ground level, and the other about three feet above the first. Both have radial lines in the lower halves.

WEST THORNEY. By the priest's door, on the south side, are three dials. There is also one at the south-east corner of the church.
This is a complete circle specimen.

YAPTON. On the right-hand jamb of the blocked-up priest's doorway in the south wall are two dials. They are small, but well defined. They are unusually low down. On the south-east quoin of the tower there is a half-circle complete with holes. Another dial seems to have been scratched nearby, but it is now very faint. Some accounts have noted other scratchings but, if there have been others, they have been obliterated by the weather. Four must be the total to be recorded in this paper.

There is one other dial to record, but not on a church. Our member, Mr. E. W. Holden, has kindly given particulars of one which he discovered in 1957 when excavating at Old Erringham Chapel, Shoreham. No evidence is forthcoming to prove that the " chapel " was ecclesiastical, and Mr. Holden inclines to the view that the building was connected to a forerunner of the existing manor house nearby. The dial is on the south-east corner of the building. It consists of a gnomon hole from which three lines radiate. The building is on private property, Old Erringham Farm, map reference, TQ 205 077. This is certainly an interesting find.

SAC 100 1962 Page 152

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