The sundial that became a moral compass

“Lay me quietly in the earth, place a sun-dial over my grave, and let me be forgotten.”

– John Howard, on his deathbed January 1790

How do you memorialise someone who should be remembered, but has explicitly said they don’t want a memorial?

For the creators of the memorial to John Howard in Kherson, Ukraine, the solution was to take his dying words literally.

John Howard was a curious chap, as Tessa West observed in her biography. As a single-mined man of means, who today may well have had Asperger’s Syndrome, he was the Greta Thunberg of his day. Shaped by his own experiences of incarceration at the hands of the French, once he was in a position of authority in Bedford, UK, he set about inspecting the local prison. What he found was not only squalid, but dysfunctional. The state did not pay prison warders, so they had to make their money from the inmates, which created a cycle of debt and misery.

After coming up with some practical solutions, which could be applied to both prisons and hospitals, he published his findings. They became a bestseller and this spurred him on to set off around Europe knocking on the doors of prisons and telling the local bigwigs what he thought.

But rather than alienating himself, he seems to have been become something of a celebrity. This may have had as much to do with his reputation of also being a brilliant, albeit self-taught, doctor and was asked to help cure the sick while he was in the area.

Eventually his travels took him to Kherson in the new Russian lands where he finally contracted gaol fever (typhus) and died. The funeral was grand, as was his grave and ultimately his sundial memorial, which was built a couple of decades later.

Having been restored in 1990, the sundial has been maintained pretty well which, given the difficult times Ukraine has been through, is a mark of how it is valued.

So what possible use has a sundial now – they were out-of-date even when the memorial was built?

For anyone who likes their time-pieces to have features, this comes well-stacked. First, it is two sundials for the price of one, as the monument is an obelisk with a circular wall which is great for those who like precision or perhaps anyone who happened to be passing by in a newly invented hot-air balloon.

Second it is adorned with a nice picture of a slightly grumpy gilded John Howard.

Third, it comes with a number of inspirational mottoes.

  • ‘Alios salvos fecit’ (He saved others)
  • ‘Vixit propter alios’ (He lived for others)
  • It also says in Russian ‘Rest in peace, People’s friend’.

On my visit it also had two red carnations from an unknown admirer.

But there is one final feature. After visiting it, you become sensitised to other thoughtful monuments.

In Slavy Park, amongst all the heroic Soviet stuff, two memorials stand out despite being rather hidden away. Who could walk past the suffering of this mother who, presumably lost her son in Afghanistan and now seeks solace in religion without a twinge of sympathy?

And who could see this monument to the Chernobyl catastrophe and not just remember their sacrifice, but also that we are all part of the same world.

Back in the UK, John Howard’s wish to not be remembered has also been ignored. Here he is in Bedford.

He seems to be thinking a lot about something.

In his shoes, I’d be thinking why am I standing on top of a bunch of cherubic kids playing around with theatrical Greek comedy masks?

This makes more sense when you know that the statue was created by Gilbert Allen who also designed the Statue of Eros in London’s theatre district. So in one way this is more in line with John Howard’s wish. It isn’t really a monument to him or his life’s work and, judging by the people walking past, he has well and truly been forgotten.

He should also be satisfied that in nearby Cardington, there is little clue that this was where he lived. However, this may be because his works have been overshadowed by a more recent event. A clue is in the village sign with the big grey sausage in the sky. The R101 airship was housed nearby and after it crashed in France in 1930, the 36 who died were buried here in the graveyard.

However, John Howard has left a legacy here which you can still see today.

A set of cottages which he had built to a high standard made sure that locals could live decently. He charged the going rate in rent which covered the cost of repairs and maintenance. He used his wealth to create the conditions for decent living, but it was then up to the people themselves to keep up to it.

As for his former home, there is little to signify who once lived here other than it being called Howard House.

But Howard’s name does live on in a more significant way through the charities that have been established to promote better prison conditions, such as the Howard League for Penal Reform.

One mystery remains. Why did he want a sundial placed over his body?

Was there a sundial in that garden? Was he trying to recreate a little piece of his home in this distant land? Or was he just expressing his exasperation at local timekeeping.

We will never know.

What we do know is that one person can make a big difference, on issues that might at first seem unimportant to the rich and powerful.

We also know that no-one in Kherson has an excuse for being late because they don’t know the time – as long as it’s sunny.

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