The Church Timekeepers


 From the Scrap book of     D. D. DIXON and Parish Magazine

Description of coats of arms etc.

Seeing that a new Town Clock ‘will shortly be erected in the tower of our Parish Church, in commemoration of the sixty years’ reign of Her Most Gracious Majesty Queen Victoria, the following notes on the old parish Time-keepers may not be considered out of place in these columns.   Traces and records of the Pulpit Hour- glass the Sundial the Morning and Evening Bell, the (old) Church Clock, are found in the fabric of the Church as well as in the pages of the Vestry books.


The Hour-glass, or Sand-glass, as it was known  to the ancient Greeks, by whom it was used to time

Speeches in the Law-courts at Athens, as mentioned in one of the plays of Aristophanes.  The typical form of the Hour-glass is always seen in the hand of the emblematical figure of Time, and is frequent on seventeenth and eighteenth century tombstones, along with the death’s-heads and cross-bones, such as our forefathers were fond of having displayed on monuments to their departed friends. With us the Hour-glass is now entirely obsolete, its only survival being found in the three-minute egg-glass, for boiling an egg with exactness. Preaching by the Hour-glass was very common towards the end of the sixteenth and  during the seventeenth centuries. The first reference we have to this curious piece of Church furniture in the Parish Record Book of Rothbury is in 1648:

” A new Pulpit the yeare above said erected.   Cushion Glasse and Standard, at ye voluntary Contribution of the Parish and Minister.” 

And there is found in the Churchwardens’ accounts for 1667 this item ;

” ffor an houre Glasse •—00—01–00.”

The hour-glass “ecclesiastic” as placed on a standard or frame near the pulpit, so that the preacher could watch the progress of the sand from one bulb to the other, and, if need be, turn it, for these were the days of l ong sermons.

In many churches the old hour-glass has been preserved as a relic of the past, but of the Rothbury   hour-glass that timed the discourses of Thomas  Cotes or John Garthwaite, who from 1656 to 1678   officiated in Rothbury Church, not a vestige remains, and the two entries in the old Vestry book  are the only intimation of its existence.  Butler, in  Hudibras. (1663), alludes to pulpit hour-glasses having been used by the Puritans :

 ” The preacher  having named the text, turned up the glass; and if  the sermon did not last till the sand was out, it  was said by the congregation that the preacher was  lazy; but if, on the other hand, he continued much  longer, they would yawn and stretch till the discourse was finished.”

 The Rev. J. E. Vaux in  his ” Church Folk Lore,” tells of a Vicar who used   to preach for two hours, regularly turning his  glass:

“The Squire of the Parish appeared to  have adapted himself to circumstances, for after the text had been given out, he left the Church,  ‘ smoaked’ his pipe, and returned for the blessing.”





 The use of the Hour-glass was to regulate the  time within the Church. The Sundial told the  time of day outside the Church, by the sun casting the shadow of the gnomon or style on a stone  or dial, on which the hours were marked.   This method of measuring time by the sun is of great antiquity. Traces of it have been found in all parts of the world. In Isaiah xxxviii. 8 we read of “the sundial of Ahaz” although from the Biblical account we cannot gather what its actual form was at that early date. 

The earliest of our sundials in England belong to the Anglo-Saxon period.   Several old examples are found, here and there, built into the walls of old Churches

These stones, roughly   engraved, with lines placed at varying intervals  and radiating from a common centre, where once  was placed the gnomon, upright or horizontal,  according to the position of the dial, were the   time-tellers of Englishmen before the Norman  Conquest ” (Gatty’s of Book of Sundials )

Sun  dials are now looked upon as objects of curiosity,  but when watches were scarce and clocks were  not very common, the dial was an actual time  keeper. Many of the mathematical works of the  seventeenth century were on the art of dialling,  and an ordinary mason of that period was expected to be able to cut and set a sundial. Many  of the old dials had monitory inscriptions and mottoes with, sometimes, the date of their erection  and the initials of their owner inscribed upon them. An interesting horizontal sundial of this  type can be seen on the lawn at Flotterton House bearing the following inscription :—

(Ut Umbra Sic Uita.”
{Life is as a shadoiv.)                 
 ]. W., 1773.

  J. W. are evidently the initials of an ancestor of the present Mr. C. Wealleans.  The writer knows of three other old dials in the parish. One, a horizontal dial, was found dismantled in the grounds at Whitton Tower by the Rev. E. M. Young, Rector; this has been set on a neat stone pedestal, and now stands on the lawn in front of the Rectory. Mr. Donkin has a small vertical sundial in his garden at Haw Hill House,which was taken some years ago from above the doorway of an old mansion at Felton, belonging  to the Smiths of Thirston. It is divided by twelve lines and figures, and bears the date 1766, while the moss-grown pedestal of a sundial stands, a picturesque object, in the garden at Trewhitt Hall.

There are traces of two very ancient circular vertical sundials in the south wall of the Early English chancel of our Parish Church. The most perfect example is that cut on the face of the eastern buttress, about 6 feet from the ground. The circle is 12 inches in diameter and is divided into 8 and sub-divided into 16 spaces, with a hole in the centre for the style or  gnomon. This dial, which appears to be in its original position, divided, as it is, according to the old octaval system  -8 and 16- dates, m the writer’s opinion, from pre-Reformation times, for  it is not until towards the end of the i6th century that dates began to be inscribed on dials, and the  hour lines, drawn according to the modern fashion into 24 equal hours, was generally in use here.

 The Greek and Roman division of day and night into 24 hours, which now prevails over Europe, made its way slowly in England. The roughly executed double circle of the second dial, also vertical is seen on a block in the masonry of the chancel between the two eastern buttresses, on the right of the priests’ door, about 6 feet from the ground. This is apparently the more ancient of the two, and may belong to the Early English period  when the chancel was built.   The diameter of the outer circle is 15 ½ inches, the inner circle 12 inches. There are four very distinct lines dividing the inner circle into four equal parts, with the hole for the style in the centre. This dial may have also been divided into 8 or 16, but  owing  to the weathering of the stone no traces of  a further division can be seen. Sundials near the priests’ doorway are frequently met with in the chancel walls of old churches. 


** Previously to the rebuilding of the church in 1850, a third sundial surmounted the gable of the Early English porch. This was a comparatively modern one, which had probably replaced an older dial. Some of our aged parishioners can still remember the white lines and chapters of this old parish time-keeper, which, along with many other interesting relics pertaining to the original fabric of our Parish Church, was then unfortunately lost sight of.  

The following entry in the Vestry book refers no doubt to the renovating of the sundial on the church porch:

1728 For White lead and Lamb black for ye  Sun Dial..    ..    ..    .     ..0  0   9

           For Whitning and new drawing the lines  and figure-, ..    .     ..0  1   0



  In the Churchwarden’s accounts of the last century we find that half-yearly payments were  made for ringing the morning and evening bell. This may have been a survival of the pre-Refor mation, “Morning Ave bell” at 6 o’clock, and the Curfew bell at 8 o’clock.

 1767 To Ringing the Bell at 6 a.m. and 8 p.m.        ½  year    ..    ..    ..    ..       £0  5s  0p

 1768 To John Ridley for ringing the 6 o’clock   Bell  1/2 year      ..    ..    ..      £0  5s  0p

 1775 To John Selby’s Ringing the Bell M. and  E ½  a year      ..    ..    ..    ..     £0  5s  0p



Note by DDD
** This sundial was discovered in the churchyard by Jonathon Harrison, Sexton in 1901 and is now in the Church


There is no record of how, or in what manner, our forefathers procured the funds for the purchase of this clock, but in the Churchwardens accounts there occur certain entries which extend  from 1740 to 1818, relating to its erection, re-pairs, winding up, etc.

Easter Tuesday, March 31, 1741.

An account of half an Ancient Fabric Cess laid on at Easter, 1740, towards repairing the Steeple, erecting    the bell loft (&c.).

Edwd. Elliot 6 days breaking a passage into ye Steeple …     …     …     ..     £0.9s.0p

Wm. Clark 7 days & ½   at ¼ p. day at ye loft… ….  …     …     …     …               0.10.0p

He 2 days & half making a lease for ye Clock ……………..     ……………              £0.3s 4p

He 4 clasps for ye Clock Case …    …    …                                                                  £0.0s.4p

R. Storrer Senr, Nails and Deals for ye Clock  Case       …     …     …     …        £0.3s.6p



During the 18th century the ancient sundial began to be superseded by the large clock, which even during the i/th century had been erected in several church towers and in market places. Apublic clock was erected at Ainwick in 1717. The present town clock dates from 1771 j the cathedral clock at Newcastle from 1761, and in 1740 a public clock was placed in the tower of Rothbury Parish Church. There is no record of how, or in what manner, our forefathers procured the funds for the purchase of this clock, but in the Church-wardens’ accounts there occur certain entries which extend from 1740 to 1818, relating to its erection, repairs, “ winding up,” etc.


1750 Jos Harle mending- the Clock`                                                                          £0.5s.0p

 1756 To Joseph Harle for work done to the  Clock                                             £0.3s.8p

 1769 To Joseph Harle for mending the Clock  where it was damag’d by the Blowing down of the Clok Face in a Storm of  Wind                                                                                                     £0.0s2p

 To Ale to the Workmen at fixing the Clock Face
 in the Church Steeple                                                                                                                   1p

 1770 To John Ridley for Keeping the Clock  half a year                                     £0.5s.0p

 1771 To John Selby for the care of the Clock ½  yr                                             £0.5s.0p                     

 Joseph Harle’s Bill for the Clock                                                                                 £0.5s.6p

 1773 To the Sexton’s care of th” Clock at                                                               £0.5s.0p
 To Richard Mordeau for cleaning- the  Church Clock                                        £0.4s.6p

 1775 To a Clock Makers Bill v:iz: Cha. Dymock Keely                                         £0.7s.0p

 1776 To Ringing the Bell and Winding up the clock                                            £0.5s.0

 1777 To John Johnson for Cleaning the Clock                                                      £0.4s.0

 1779 To oil for the Clock                                                                                                5p

 1781 Mending the Clock Key by Bob Snowdon                                                   3p

 1786 By Thos Papes ½  years care of the Clock due at Christmas                                 £0.5s.0p

 1818 Thomas Rape care of the Church Clock                                                       £2.2s.0p

At the Easter Meeting of 1818 occurs the last-entry in which there is any mention made of the Church Clock. Very soon after this date it appears to have fallen into disrepair and consequently ceased to go.

Old Walter Mavin, the well-known angler, who was born in 1815, informs the writer that he cannot remember the Church Clock ever going during his lifetime, and that as far back as he can recollect the works were all red rust.

Some years after the Old Church Clock had collapsed, the Bishop of Durham held a confirmation service at Rothbury.   The bells were rung at the appointed hour, and the Bishop, accompanied by the Rector, entered the Churchyard by the east wicket, therefore the silent clock was not then observed—the dial being on the west front of the tower, but when the service was over, his Lordship and the Rector went out by the west gate on their way into the village. On passing the tower the Bishop very naturally looked up at the Clock, and, taking out his watch, remarked to the Rector, “You keep excellent time here; I see your clock and my watch are both alike.” For, just at the moment the reverend pair were pacing through the porch the sexton had slyly crept up into the bell-loft by the stair which at that time led from the interior of the Church—and turned the pointers of the clock to the correct time, and little did the worthy Bishop ever dream of the trick that had been played to make the hands of the Old Church Clock agree so exactly with his gold chronometer.  The Clock had only one dial, which faced towards the west and was enclosed in a diamond shaped frame. When the old Church tower was taken down in 1850, the wheels, axles, and other parts of the machinery were discovered to be perfectly useless, and not worth replacing, therefore the only thing the restorers did was to leave an aperture in the wall of their new tower, which, we are happy to say, is at last to be utilized by the erection of our new Clock. .


 Messrs. Potts have undertaken to place the new Clock in the Church Tower by Jubilee Day.


Parish Magazine Apr, May June  1897