A recently acquired vintage postcard of the sundial in People’s Park, Halifax provides the basis for a timely New Year’s post. The Smith sundial will be familiar to generations of Halifax dwellers, having been presented to the park in 1873 by Alderman Matthew Smith, a partner in the wire manufacturing company, who later became Mayor of Halifax. The sundial itself actually has an earlier date, Smith having bought it second-hand! Whilst it started its life in People’s Park – and can be found there today – I have a feeling that at some point it was moved to the grounds of the neighbouring Belle Vue House, when that building housed the Public Library.
I remember being fascinated by the sundial when I was younger, and the various inscriptions that it carried. In addition to the one carved on the stone pedestal, which marks the gift of the dial by Alderman Smith, it carries the Latin inscription “TEMPUS EDAX RERUM” which I am reliably informed means “TIME DEVOURER OF ALL THINGS”. If ever you wanted a suitable reminder of the fleeting nature of life as you start a new year, that is it!
I was always fonder of the English inscription that appears around the four sides of the sundial and reads “Time, by moments, steals away, First the hour, then the day”. Sixty years ago, when I first noticed this inscription, I became convinced that these were the opening lines of a poem, which continued “Gather ye rosebuds while ye may”. I was so fond of this somewhat uplifting and life-enhancing philosophy, that I tried to live my life by its hedonistic precepts. Imagine the shock I felt when, on checking the quotation in order to write this post, I realised that I had brought together two completely different quotations with all the skill of a back street cut and shunt mechanic. The bit about gathering rosebuds while ye may comes from a 17th century poem by Robert Herrick entitled “To the Virgin, To Make Much Of Time”, whilst the words on the sundial come from a 18th century hymn by John Newton, entitled “A New Year Thought And Prayer”. The first verse of this rather depressing hymn is “Time in moments, steals away; First the hour, then the day; Small the daily loss appears; Yet it soon amounts to years”
The card was addressed to the delightfully named Emmeline Dearlove, at the far less delightfully named Orphan House at Ashley Down near Bristol. The message says: “Thank you very much for the socks dear. You were a good girl to get them done so soon. Much love from Yours lovingly, G Rawson” I did a quick search to see if I could find any information about Emmeline, but I was unsuccessful. I like to think, however, that she was able to leave the orphanage and enjoy a full and happy life, and that she gathered a multitude of rosebuds while she may.