Sussex Mass & Scratch Dials





SCM Volume 1 1927  Page 415

I find that most people who tramp afield in this fair county of Sussex are interested in its ancient churches. I wonder how many are aware of a small but interesting feature which may be seen in many of them, which are called "mass" or "scratch" dials. Clocks did not come into use until the time of Elizabeth. Before that, great abbeys like Glastonbury, and cathedrals like Old Saint Paul's had them, but the humble village church had to depend for time to ring the bell for service on the "scratch" dials. They are of the simplest kind; just a hole in which a peg of iron or wood could be inserted, and one or two ray-lines incised to indicate the hours of mass and vespers. The first, the parish mass on Sundays and holy-days was at 9 a.m., and vespers varied from two to three in the afternoon, according to whether it was summer or winter. Often lines, from six to six of daylight, are cut, but these two are essential. Sussex is rich in examples, especially the western side of the county. There are dials of this kind at Oving, Boxgrove, Clymping, Ford and many others ; and on the eastern side at Salehurst, Arlington, Folkington (transferred from its place and now put upside down), and a score besides. Many have been destroyed, or cast aside so-called " restorations." The " scratch " dial is found on the south side of the church, and usually on the jamb stones of the porch, or by the priest's door in the chancel. There is one at Arlington on a stone of a buttress, and another similarly placed, with a very modern gnomon now added, at Alfriston.

Litlington, the little Norman Church in the valley of the Cuckmere, shows clearly the twelve hours of the day. There is still the stump of the iron style in the centre pit hole. Westham has the 9 o'clock ray-line after the horizontal one (6 a.m.). The vesper line is also clearly marked. West Dean (that of East Sussex) has three deep pits in the east side of the quoin stones of the porch. A style inserted in the upper one throws a 9 o'clock shadow. Most probably this is a mass dial, though of the simplest kind. Beyond the porch can be seen a portion of what is perhaps the oldest inhabited parsonage, or priest's house, in England. It dates from A.D. 1230-1380, and its 13th century trefoil-headed windows are shown in the illustration.


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