Sundials

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Sundial at Le Marinel

Are you one of the fortunate householders with a sundial (cadran de soleil) on your property?

The idea of a dial on which shadows cast by the passing sun could tell man the time of day is as old as the ancient Egyptian civilisation.

Parish churches

These dials preceded watches and clocks, and a few have survived on parish churches, at St Brelade, St Mary and St Martin, while others are known to have come from St Lawrence, St Clement, and Trinity. This suggests that all the parishes had them, and invaluable they must have been to the public.

The earliest example in the Island is dated 1556, and is at the Mont Orgueil Castle Museum. It bears the Poulet Arms, Sir Amias (Amice) Poulet being Governor at the time. This one, though somewhat damaged, is circular and may have been designed to be laid flat on some low pillar, but the rest of the local examples appear to have been made to be fixed vertically, on a south wall.

The example which came from St Lawrence Church, and which is now at the Societe Jersiaise Museum, is semi-circular in shape, the diameter being at the top, and the circumference marked in stylised roman numerals, representing the hours; its date is probably about 1560.

Another of similar design, and so probably of similar date, is on a chimney at Hamptonne, St Lawrence. Louis Hamptonne, of the family which gave its name to the house, was Rector of St Lawrence from 1502-1558, and contributed the money to build the splendid little Hamptonne chapel at the parish church, and it is not impossible that he also had the two sundials made — for his church, and for this important house in the parish, although his family did not own it at that period.

Sundial at Museum

The very fact that the chimney is the most unusual place to find a sundial makes them particularly hard to examine or photograph, and it needs keen and young eyes to read the dates and initials that are often incised upon them. By far the greatest number of them are made of thick slate, and are about 2ft x 2ft 6in, rectangular in shape, often with some decorative curves at the top and other variations in design.

This type must face exactly due south, and may have to be set at an angle, as much as 6 degrees in one instance, if the wall to which they are affixed is slightly off true south. The hours, always in Roman numerals, are cut round the edge with lines, suggesting the sun's rays, leading from a central point where the "gnomen" is fixed. This is a slender metal bar, supported by an arm, which stands out from the surface, and casts its shadow at the appropriate hour.

Date carved on dial

The date is usually carved on the dial, and initials often follow, but cannot always be identified. At Petit Ponterrin in St Saviour. RDM and 1726 represent Richard Dumaresq; at the Old Farm, St Clement HDM and 1720 is for Helier Dumaresq, and at La Grange, St Mary, CAT 1747 is for Charles Arthur.

As will be seen, the majority occur in the 18th century, but one at Seaview, St Lawrence, is dated 1674, and one at La Biarderie, Trinity, 1682. Perhaps the latest recorded for this type of dial is that at St. Cyr, St John, dated 1819.

Sometimes there is an inscription, in Latin, like tempus fugit (1766) time flies) at the Museum, and Ut umbra sic vita (1763) (life passes like this shadow) at St Mary's Church. One at St Brelade's Church has its inscription in French, and reads L'Homme est semblable a la vanite: ses fours sons comme une ombre qui passe — a somewhat similar sentiment.

Surely the best known sundial in the Island must be the example in the Royal Square, which we all pass so many times in our lives. It is large and somewhat elaborate, and the inscription reads:

"Regulate your clocks by the sundial. Correction must be made for the equation of time which is given in all the Almanacs."

This example clearly belongs to a transition period when the clock was becoming common, at least in the town, but the sundial was still regarded as the more authoritative instrument. It also assumes that English will be understood by the passers by.

Sundial at Le Bel Royal

Status symbols

One can imagine what a tremendous status symbol it would have been to have a sundial on one's property and not to have to either guess the time, or go to look at the parish church. The only example, as far as I know, to carry the signature of its maker is one at the Museum which has Guerin fecit (Guerin made this) in small letters, and the date 1766.

Perhaps this same Mr Guerin made some of the others which are near in date. There were Guerins who abjured (foreswore) Roman Catholicism in St Saviour's Church in 1699 and 1700, and who were stated to have come from St Nazavic. They were religious refugees who found asylum in our island.

Jean and Pierre Guerin may have brought their craft with them from France, as so many silversmiths did at that period, and one of them, or a son or grandson, may have been the maker of this dial, and perhaps many of the others. It is perfectly possible that his, or other maker's names are inscribed on dials which are too high to be seen clearly.

If you have a sundial, do endeavour to examine it, when you have a long ladder handy, and feel brave about heights. You may find some of the interesting details I have suggested, which were quite invisible from the ground.

Even if you have no sundial, be on the look out for fragments; the example at La Grange was found in bits in the jardin potager, and reconstructed from fragments, although they were incomplete. You may be more fortunate and find all the parts, even if broken.

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