by Richard Coates
When I am asked about the origins of place-names. I sometimes find my way into obscure (for me!) corners of libraries and amass material which few people have put together but the results may also be of general interest, as in the case of the place-name Dial Post.
Names containing dial were still considered 'mysterious' (PNSr 368) when The place-names of Surrey was published in 1934. Considerable light was shed on the matter during correspondence in 1942-3 in Notes and Queries (vols. 183-5), when Gill (1943b : 266) suggested, with the aid of Shakespearean (Henry VI, II, 5) and other references, that the names in question referred to shepherds' sundials cut in the turf. Such dials are amply documented for Sussex by E. Lovett (1911: 272-4), though none exist now, so far as I know. The idea that these are the reason for dial in place-names is probably the right one for many cases of Dial Field, Dial Bank and the like, though two problems remain. What is the significance of the colours in Blue Dial, Red Dial in Cumberland (PNCu 469)? And why are such names not recorded before the c. 16, when the technology reaches back at least into the Iron Age as far as the simple vertical-stick or gnomon dials are concerned.
A hint of an answer to the second problem is provided by Mayall and Mayall (1938: 19), who say of the period 1500-1800 that:
The suggestion is clear that the 'new' rustic dial of the 16th century was some-thing more elaborate, even though turf-cut, than the simple vertical stick; as is suggested indeed by the pictures in Lovett's article.
However, these turf dials will not do for all cases. There are occasional mentions of Dial Stones (e.g. ref. under Dial, PNCh 5 i 159). 'Turisto' (1942: 138) suggests that such things are wayside dials for travellers, like the famous one relating to Maud Heath, the builder of the Causeway at Kellaways, Wiltshire; and this may well be so. Gill (1942: 29) adds to this the idea that a 'dial post' was simply a dial on a post. We can hardly say that this is implausible, but it may be simplistic. What would this entail? Not merely a dial on a wooden upright, surely. I know of no such object which has achieved permanence. Dials are normally made of, or set in, stone. A looser interpretation of post as 'up-right marker of any material' might help us, though. Gill himself draws attention, in another context (1943a: 117) to Dial Carreg, a 'square, upright stone shaft' near Cwmyoy (Monmouthshire) and 'Turisto' mentions (1942: 138) stones of similar characteristics at Cains Cross, Stroud, Gloucs. and Wilton Bridge, Ross, Herefs.
It seems likely that these were 'pillar dials' (Mayall and Mayall 1938: 57-8) 'still found in the rural districts of England, Scotland and Wales' in 1938.1 These were dials with (usually) four faces mounted vertically (so-called 'direct vertical dials'), and therefore permanent and conspicuous objects; which might sanction their appearance in a place-name.
As for Dial Post in Sussex: there are two of them. The better-known one is the hamlet at TQ155195 in West Grinstead. The earliest mention of this known to me is in a will of 1702 published in the Collections vol. 34, p. 142. Dr T. P. Hudson informs me that there are other early c. 18 references. There is also a Dial Post Farm half a mile south of Rusper at TQ198367, which is the one referred to by Hilaire Belloc in connection with the haunting of ' "Normans" (as they called the house) on the Dial Post Road' (The four men (1902: 1651)). Normans is at TQ212374. 'Turisto' (1942) also mentions a Dial Post on the Ledbury road out of Tewkesbury, but I have not been able to verify this. If it is genuine, it is the only case of the name I know outside Sussex.
It seems probable that the classic pillar-dial came into vogue in the c. 17, as did other ornate dial-types. Maud Heath's memorial is such a dial—I have only seen a photograph of it, but it appears to be an Italianate piece of Jacobean date. There was a famous dial which I shall discuss in a moment erected in London in c. 1694. These two factors are consistent with a first appearance in the records of Dial Post Farm (W. Grinstead) in 1702. I hazard the guest that the Dial Posts were such pillar-dials, dating from the c. 17.
This idea (though conjectural, because we do not know for certain what there was at either Dial Post) also helps us with the name Seven Dials in Brighton. Like so many other names in Brighton, it replicates a famous, London place--name, the Seven Dials (St. Giles-in-the-Fields, WC2). At that place there was from c. 1694-1773 a pillar dial with each face pointing up one of the approach roads, all mounted on a Doric column (cf. Kent/ Thompson 1970: 447-8). The dial itself is referred to in John Gay's poem of c. 1720. Trivia:
Gay seems to have been non-numerate, however, as does popular folklore, since
the dial had only six faces! The appearance of this name in c. 19 Brighton is
not complimentary, because even by the standards of c. 19 London the Seven Dials
were an unspeakable slum and a byword for disease and criminality.
Belloc, H. (1902) The four men. London: Nelson.
Cousins, F. W. (1969) Sundials. London: Baker.
Garraway Rice, R. (1886) The White family of Horsham, etc. SAC 34 127-59.
Gay, J. (1720) Trivia (esp. Il lines 73-6). In Collected poems I, pp. 134-81. Ed. V. Dearing with C. Beckwith. Oxford: Clarendon Press (1974).
G[ilI], W. W. (1942) Place-name: 'Dial Post'. Notes and Queries 183, p. 291.
Gill, W. W. (1943a) Place name 'Dial Post'. Notes and Queries 185, p. 117.
Gill, W. W. (1943b) 'Dial' in mirror place-names. Notes and Queries 185, pp. 266-7.
Johnston, P. M. (1899) The low side windows of Sussex churches. SAC 42, esp. pp. 124-9.
Kent, W. (1970) An encyclopedia of London. (Revised by G. Thompson.) London: Dent.
Lovett, E. (1909) The simple sundials of the Southdown shepherds. In A. J. L. Gosset (ed.) Shepherds of Britain. London: Constable (1911), pp. 272-4. Also in Folklore of 1909.
Mayall, R. N. and Mayall, M. L. (1938) Sundials. How to know, use and make them. London: Hale. (Page-reference) are to the 1958 third printing by Branford of Boston, Mass.)
'Turisto' (1942) Place-name: 'Dial Post'. Notes and Queries 183, p. 138.
Whitley, H. M. (1919) Primitive sundials in West Sussex churches. SAC 60, pp. 126-40.
Volumes in the English Place-Name Society's Survey containing relevant material: PN Ch=Cheshire V i (1981) p. 159. PN Cu=Cumberland Ill (1952), p. 469. PN Mx=Middlesex (1942) p. 205. PN Sr=Surrey (1934) p. 368. PN Sx=Sussex I (1929) p. 188. EPNE= English place-name elements I (1956) p. 131.
Other counties alleged to contain dial-names (from N & Q 183-5): Buckingshire; Gloucestershire (Bristol); Isle of Man; Somerset; Wiltshire; Yorkshire (W. Riding); also Black Mountains.
SAC Newsletter XL August 1983 Page 344
Content from Sussex Archaeological Collections and Notes
09 March, 2010