William Watson was born into a farming family in the tiny Yorkshire village of Seaton Ross on 17th May 1784. William, along with all of his seven brothers in due course became a farmer in his own right. His three sisters, also, by marriage, entered into the same activity. In his later life William admitted that he had been “ne’re a Week out of Seaton”. He cannot have had anything but the most elementary education, yet this did not stop him acquiring some unusual skills. Alongside his farming activities, he managed to become a most accomplished surveyor and cartographer and was responsible for producing a number of accurate plans of villages, towns and landed estates in the Vale of York. He also learned how to design and set up sundials. An ability which he advertised in a piece of verse:
I am a Farmer, which I tell,
I also know Surveying well,
Dials I’ve made many sorts,
At School I did not learn these arts,
Astronomer some do me call,
I live at SEATON DIAL HALL.
The original name of his house had been Common farm, but the farm became so ornamented with sundials that it gained the name Dial Hall. Not only did he make sundials for his own use, he eventually started to make a business of it. Dials by Watson began to appear on other build-ings.
He was fond of expressing his thoughts in – it must be said – rather mediocre verse. Hence,
If any Person wants a Dial,
Apply to me I’ll make a trial,
I now can make for any man,
Upon a much improved Plan,
Five Guineas is the price of one,
And each mile distant Half a Crown.
I assume that this advertising jingle is derived from his early dialling career and represents the price of a pretty limited range of product sizes. Perhaps the solar timepiece above the local church porch is the sort of thing he had in mind. Surely the price cannot have been intended to cover some of his later ‘monster’ productions. The modern visitor to Seaton Ross cannot help being astonished by the Watson sundial, which adorns the entire façade of one house on the high street. This dial (pictured) is reputed to be the largest vertical sundial in Britain.
Watson was anxious to share his skills and, in due course, wrote a book on his passion: Dialling Diagrams with explanations, published in Pocklington by John Forth (2nd edition, 1854).
For further information, refer to An Early Yorkshire Land Surveyor: William Watson of Seaton Ross, A.Harris, The Yorkshire Archaeological Journal, Volume 45 (1973), pp.149-157.
Note: the 12-foot Seaton Ross sundial is at OS map ref. SE776419