Scratch Dials

This is the text of an article found on the internet about scratch dials in East Sussex. The same principles apply to our own scratch dials found at St. Mary's and St. Andrew's.

(Article retrieved from 18th July 2015)



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.

[list of scratch dials in E Sussex omitted]

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.

This article appears to be a reproduction from Sussex Archaeological Collections 100 1962 Page 152