The Quarter Boys – East Sussex, England - Atlas Obscura

East Sussex, England

The Quarter Boys

Two gilded cherubs perched on a church bell tower have been reminding visitors of the finitude of life since 1760. 

This pair of gold-painted chubby cherubs perched on the belltower of St Mary’s Church capture the bombastic spirit and opulent aesthetics of Georgian-era England. The statues were fitted with complex clockwork mechanisms that allow them to chime the bell at quarter past the hour, hence the name bestowed on them by the town: “The Quarter Boys.”

The inscription just above the clock reads, “Our time is but a shadow that passeth away.” Erected in 1760, this oddly placed innuendo was intended to remind the residents of Rye of the finitude of life and to seize the brief time we have allotted to us by fate. Carpe diem!  

However, the message may be seen in a more cynical sense, as it probably served as a pious reminder to the townsfolk to save their souls from hellfire by attending services—and of course by donating their all-important pennies for the upkeep of the church.

Even though these pudgy sculptures may lack the visceral impact of a skeletal memento mori, they certainly invoke thoughts of the transience of life with their bell-chiming marking the passage of time. Indeed they are an apt embodiment of the famous last line of the John Donne poem No Man Is an Island: “Therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.” 

Know Before You Go

You can see the cherubs from the street below, but the interior of the church is also worth visiting. On entering the church it is possible to climb the bell tower and see the Quarter Boys and clock up close, and also a spectacular view over the town of Rye and the surrounding countryside. The church is open from 9:15 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. every day and entrance is free.

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