Alexis Haslam, community archaeologist
With the lockdown currently in place, time is certainly something that many of us have plenty of at the moment. As the Palace is now operating a staff rota system I have been very much enjoying the opportunity to break out, to ride my bike over to Fulham and to wander the grounds during the regular perimeter checks that we undertake. Yet there’s something somewhat eerie about it all. The absence of colleagues and friends, the volunteers, visitors, café regulars and school groups means that the usual chatter is completely absent at a time of year when the grounds really come to life. The cherry blossom and wisteria are showing off as usual, but there’s nobody drinking lattes outside Bishop Terrick’s rooms; there are no selfies being snapped in the lavender-blue wash inside the Tudor arch of the walled garden.
As I passed the south side of the Palace yesterday morning I started thinking of all the strange events the building must have witnessed over its long history and how it was still standing tall as we go through another sad and unusual event. Yet even more so than the building, a far less noticed and much less appreciated ornament decided that it was now due its very own mention. The sundial.
When I said I was going to write something about our stumpy obelisk, several people immediately replied with ‘we have a sundial?! I never knew!’, which just about sums up how this rather nice piece of stonework often melts into the background. It lingers around outside the Terrick rooms, close to the Chapel and the natural play area, where it has stood for quite some time. Now I cannot say precisely how old the sundial actually is, but it is first appears on a painting of the Palace in its Strawberry Hill Gothic phase from c.1790. So it may have been introduced at some point between 1764 and c.1790, although it could of course be older.
The history of sundials can be traced all the way back to Ancient Egypt, but when they were first established in the UK is unclear. The oldest working mechanical clock in the England is the Salisbury clock which is meant to have been commissioned by Bishop Erghum in 1386. Yet mechanical clocks still needed to be set, and sundials continued to be used for this purpose well into the 19th century. The reference to ‘Dial Court’ (which we now call the Eastern Courtyard) in the Parliamentary Survey of 1647 suggests that a clock may have been present then and a sundial would most probably have been a necessary accompaniment. Perhaps our sundial was set up at the same time as the clock in the Tudor Courtyard was introduced. This was built by Edward Howard of Chelsea in 1770.
It appears that we can blame Mr Brunel and his railways for the decline of the sundial. With timetables being set to ‘London Time’, the difference in towns and cities meant that solar time was effectively eradicated. Noon universally became ‘London Noon’, and our sundial probably lost its significance. It was certainly in place in 1813 when Buckler drew the Palace and must have been witness to Howley and Cockerell’s renovations as well as the dreadful cholera epidemics of the 19th century. It lurks in the background in the photographs of those Edwardian Garden parties like an uninvited guest, yet perhaps reached its most famous moment when photographed with Bishop Winnington Ingram and his terrier Jick in a book about Bishops and their pets.
Interestingly it appears to have been appreciated by the nurses and the soldiers recovering at the Palace during the World War I, with both Sister Mary Latchmore and Private Jimmy Morris pictured with it. Sadly this period also witnessed the 1918 flu pandemic, the spread of which becomes all too clear in the Freemasons Hospital No 1 diary with nurses rapidly succumbing to infection. This tragic period of history was shortly followed by the Blitz in World War II. The sundial would have observed the bombs falling, families sheltering in the Palace and Bishop Fisher’s melons and cucumbers getting wiped out in a greenhouse by the bothies.
In our archives, the latest photograph I can find of the sundial is of a building survey taken during the 1970s, when the Palace was managed by the Greater London Council. This depicts the upright metal fitting (or gnomon) which currently resides in our museum. This is different to the gnomon in the earlier photographs and is likely to have been introduced in the middle of the 20th century.
To add to the collection I decided to photograph myself and Elowyn in front of the sundial and the wisteria. We’re socially distanced, just in case anybody is wondering what the tape measure is about. Perhaps one day this image will be used by somebody discussing another unusual period that the palace was witness to. Who knows? Only time will tell.