From Antiquities and Curiosities of the Church, edited by William Andrews; London :  William Andrews & Co., 1897; pp. 189-199.






THE use of sun-dials, as a means of ascertaining the time of day, dates from a very remote period in the history of man. Reference to it is thought to be made in the words of Job: “As a servant earnestly desireth the shadow;” but the date of that book is uncertain, and the earliest historical mention of the sun-dial is found in the second book of the Kings, in the passage stating that “Isaiah the prophet cried unto the Lord, and he brought the shadow ten degrees backward, by which it had gone down in the dial of Ahaz,” who ascended the throne of Judah about 742 B.C. The construction of the dial was probably learned from the Babylonians, from whom also the Greeks, according to Herodotus, derived their knowledge of the invention. 1 Anaximander is said to have introduced it into Greece in 560 B.C., and there is one in the British Museum which may have served to show the hour in one of the cross-ways of Athens. 190 The Romans were slow in availing themselves of this means of computing time, for the first dial set up in Rome was erected in the court of the temple of Quirinus in 293 B.C. From Rome the invention was brought to our own country. A small stone sun-dial, supposed to date from the period of the Roman occupation of England, having been discovered in 1862 on the site of a disused church. It is now in the museum of Dover.

The number of sun-dials still in existence, or known to have formerly existed, in this country, shows that they must have been very numerous in the middle ages. Probably every parish church had its sun-dial until it was superseded by a clock. One of the oldest is on a stone cross at Bewcastle, the date assigned to which is 670; and one, probably of equal antiquity, may be seen over the south door of Kirkdale Church, in Yorkshire. Another is still visible over the porch of Bishopstone Church, in Sussex. There are more old sun-dials in Yorkshire, however, than in any other county in England; Durham and Cumberland ranking next in this respect. Scotland is also rich in these relics of mediævalism, and it was beside an old sun-dial in the lonely grave-yard at 191 Conanside, in Cromarty, that Hugh Miller wrote these lines: —

“Grey dial-stone, I fain would know
       What motive placed thee here,
  Where sadness heaves the frequent sigh,
       And drops the frequent tear?
  Like thy carved plain grey dial-stone,
       Grief’s weary mourners be;
  Dark sorrow metes out time to them,
       Dark shade metes time to thee.

  Grey dial-stone, while yet thy shade
       Points out those hours are mine,
  While yet at every morn I rise,
       And rest at day’s decline,
  Would that the sun that formed thine
       His bright rays beamed on me,
  That I, wise for the final day,
       Might measure time like thee!”

From the time when the sun-dial was first introduced into England, it was the custom to inscribe mottoes under them, reminding the passer-by of the flight of time and the brevity of human life. These form an interesting chapter of church lore, and it is proposed, therefore, to give a selection of the most remarkable from the churches of this country. The dial on Thornby Church, in Northamptonshire, conveys the following lesson: —


“Mark well my shade and seriously attend
  The common lesson of a silent friend,
  For time and life speed rapidly away,
  Neither can you recall the former day,
  You are not able to recall the past,
  But live thou this day as if it were the last.”

The suggestive question, “Now or When?” appears on the dial on the south-west tower of Beverley Minster. Mox nox, “Night cometh soon,”: the dial on the porch of Elsworth Church, in Cambridgeshire, reminds the worshipper who enters and the rambler who passes. On a pillar-dial in the church-yard of Shenstone, near Lichfield, we find the prevailing sentiment of these time measurers rendered more poetically than in the majority of instances, thus: —

“If o’er the dial glides a shade, redeem
  The time; for lo, it passes like a dream.
  But if ’tis all a blank, then mark the loss
  Of hours unblest by shadows from the cross.”

Hadleigh Church, in Suffolk, formerly bore a dial with the following inscription: —

“Where now you stand the time to spye,
  Who knows how soon you there may lye.
  Both time and place are monitory,
  That thou and they are transitory.
  Heaven is our temple, Death’s the porch,
  Christ is the way, His Word our torch;
193   Here let us walk while we have light,
  Too late begins our work at night.”

But it has disappeared, like many more sun-dials in all parts of the kingdom. The inscription on the sun-dial on the old parish church at Whitby is, “Our days pass like a shadow,” and was the inspiration of the following lines by Patty Honeywood: —

“The summer breeze is sighing, ’midst the grass upon the
       In the storm-swept churchyard crowning the cliff above
                 the sea;
  The city of the sleeping, flecked with sunlight and with
       Speaks in holy whispers softly of the dead that yet
                 shall be.
 ‘Our days pass like a shadow,’ saith the dial quaint and old;
       Many suns have kissed in passing its wan face, and left
                 it stern, —
  Many nights have gone untokened by its finger still and
       But the coming dawn-light beckoned the grey shadows
                 to return.
  Stretch the meadows and the moorland, stretch the waves
                 beyond our ken,
       And the graves are deep and silent where the infant
                 laughs and plays, —
  Birth, the mystery of living, — Death, the mystery of
                 time, —
       Shadows on the dial fleeting, — seconds, moments,
                 hours, days.”


A large proportion of the sun-dials on churches bear inscriptions derived from the Bible, and almost as many convey moral warnings, more or less practical in their character, in terse and suggestive language. On one on the parish church of Hartlepool are the words, “The last hour to many, possibly to you.” The dial on Market Harborough Church admonishes those who look upon it to improve the passing hour, which is more poetically expressed on the one at Churnside Church, in Berwickshire, in the motto: “Be diligent while the light abides.” The same lesson is taught in the words of Young: “Time wasted is existence, used is life,” on the dial over the porch of the church of Hutton Buscell, in Yorkshire.

On a pillar-dial in the churchyard at Conway, in North Wales, is the inscription: “Learn to live and die well.” The admonition, “Pray and work,” appears on the dial on the parish church at Northallerton. On one in the churchyard at Leyland, in Lancashire, are the words: “We are dust and shadow;” and on the porch of Aberford Church, in Yorkshire, the same admonition was conveyed in the warning motto: “Man’s life is short.” A good example 195 of the same kind is given on a dial at Hesketh, in Lancashire: —

“Ah, what is human life!
  How like the dial’s tardy morning shade:
  Day after day glides by us unperceived,
  Yet soon man’s life is up, and we are gone.”

The sun-dial at Standish Vicarage, in Gloucestershire, bears the inscription: “The light of the Church knows no setting,” which we are told by Mrs. Gatty, in her “Book of Sun-Dials,” “has a hidden meaning, due to its having been chosen by Bishop Frampton, who was deprived of the See of Gloucester as a non-juror, but was permitted to hold the Vicarage of Standish, and died there in 1708. He erected the dial, and in addition to the allusion to his career, which he put into the motto, he had the gnomon shaped like the sword of the see, reversed, and pointing upwards, as an emblem of martyrdom.” In the churchyard at Helston, in Cornwall, is a sun-dial with a curious device representing an angel, supposed to be intended for St. Michael, standing between two towers, and piercing with a spear a dragon lying at his feet. One over the porch at St. Ives church, in the same county, bearing the date 1695, is ornamented with a coiled serpent at 196 the top and a rose at the bottom. On the church at Isleworth is a dial on which Time is represented in the conventional manner as a bearded old man with wings, reclining on his back, with a scythe by his side, the point of which is directed to a scroll at his feet, on which may be read the words: “Watch and pray.” A sun-dial on the south porch of Eyam church, in Derbyshire, bears the inscription: “Take to thyself a wise mind.” On Winkleigh Church, in Devonshire, is a curious dial, with the following quaint inscription: —

“Life’s but a shadow,
  Man’s but dust.
  This dyall sayes
  Dy all we must.”

One in the churchyard at Trefnant, in North Wales, has an inscription which enforces the same moral in the following quaint lines: —

“Suns rise and set
  Till men forget
  The day is at the door,
  When they shall rise no more.
  O everlasting sun,
  Whose race is never run,
  Be thou my endless light,
  Then shall I fear no night.”


The singular injunction, “Go about your business,” which is inscribed on a buttress of St. James’ Church, Bury St. Edmund’s, and on more than one sun-dial elsewhere, has the following story told about it by Mrs. Gatty: — “It is said that the witty Dean Cotton, of Bangor, had a very cross old gardener, who protected his master from troublesome visitors by saying to everyone he saw near the place, ‘Go about your business.’ When the gardener died, the Dean had his servant’s favourite formula engraved round the sun-dial in his garden in this wise, ‘Goa bou tyo urb us in ess,’ — the result being that the motto was usually supposed to be Welsh.” The story may be taken cum grano salis; it reminds us of the inscription which Mr. Pickwick discovered at Cobham, and that which Scott’s antiquary, Jonathan Oldbuck, was positive had a Roman origin, but which was so differently interpreted by Edie Ochiltree.

A more feasible story is told concerning a similar motto which might have been seen some years ago on an old house in the Inner Temple. When the dial was put up, the painter asked if he should, as was customary, write a motto under it. He was told to call at a certain hour, when a suitable motto would have been chosen. On 198 calling, however, he encountered a testy old gentleman, who knew nothing about the matter, and, angry at being disturbed in an absorbing study, exclaimed, “Begone about your business!” The man, either resentfully or in mistake, took this for the answer, and painted the words on the dial.”

An amusing anecdote is told concerning the sun-dial on Elmsted Church, in Kent. The vicar, entering the church one morning, accompanied by the clerk, inquired what the time was by the dial. “Well, sir,” replied the clerk, “the dial is half-past ten, but I think it must be fast, as my watch is only ten minutes past ten.” The clerk had presumably never heard of the motto on a sun-dial formerly on Ebberston Church, near Scarborough: — “It is impossible for me to lie.”

Within the present century, many sun-dials have been removed from churches while under repair, or in process of restoration, — a process responsible for so many other acts of Vandalism — and either altogether lost, or set up in other places. A dial which once stood on a pedestal in the churchyard of Kirk Arbory, in the Isle of Man disappeared mysteriously, the plate being discovered some years afterwards in a neighbouring 199 cottage, the tenant of which could give no information as to how it came there. In Alexandra Park, Oldham, a sun-dial may be seen, which formerly ornamented a local church, but it was removed during alterations and repairs; and similar instances may be found all over the country.


 1  Elf.Ed.  For a full discussion of the ancient history of sun-dials, see Horologium, from Smith’s Dictionary, on Bill Thayer’s site, with a link to Chapter LX of Pliny’s Natural History, by Holland, which has been put online by James Eason, also on his site.