Bells have a centuries-long tradition of varied use in the navies and merchant fleets of the world. Signaling, keeping time, and sounding alarms are important in a ship’s routine and readiness. Their functional and ceremonial uses have made them a symbol of considerable significance to navies of the world. There has been a centuries-long tradition of varied use for bells in the Royal Navy, United States Navy, Royal Australian Navy, and in the Royal New Zealand Navy. They have been and still are used for several purposes, e.g. signalling, keeping time, and providing a way of an alarm. The ship’s bell is a special symbol and highly used in ceremonies, one tradition of baby Christenings. Although much of its purpose is obsolete it still plays a significant ceremonial role in today’s Royal Navy.One of the earliest recorded mentions of the shipboard bell was on the British ship Grace Dieu about 1485. Some ten years later an inventory of the English ship Regent reveals that this ship carried two “wache bells”. The bell’s position on the ship may vary. When a ship visits in port it is often seen on a ship bell stand at the quartermaster’s position.
Before the advent of the chronometer time at sea was measured by the trickle of sand through a half – hour glass. One of the ship’s boys had the duty of watching the glass and turning it when the sand had run out. When he turned the glass, he struck the bell as a signal that he had performed this vital function. From this ringing of the bell as the glass was turned evolved the tradition of striking the bell once at the end of the first half hour of a four hour watch, twice after the first hour, etc., until eight bells marked the end of the four hour watch. The process was repeated for the succeeding watches. This age-old practice of sounding the bell on the hour and half hour has its place in the nuclear and missile oriented United States Navy at the dawn of the Twenty-First Century, regulating daily routine, just as it did on our historic vessels under sail in the late Eighteenth Century and watch system is still used in the Royal Navy and Royal New Zealand Navy today. The whole ships’ functioning is centred around watch systems. The Watch and bells system hasn’t changed much at all over hundreds of years in the Royal Navy. The watch system is maintained, however, the bells system is rarely used. The ship maintains the traditional bell with the ships name and used for ceremonies but hardly used during the daily functioning of the ship.
Bells as a way of timekeeping
Before the introduction of a reliable clock to naval vessels, the passage of time was marked by striking a bell with paired clapper blows very time a half-hour sandglass was turned. The sea-day was divided into watches of four hour duration. Except for the dog watches of which there were two 1600-1800 & 1800-2000.
Hence, starting at0800 – 8 bells
0800 Eight bells
0830 one bell
0900 two bells – in the forenoon up to 12pm
0930 three bells
1000 four bells
1030 five bells
1100 six bells
1130 seven bells
1200 eight bells
The time would then resume to one bell at 1230 and so on. For example, 1530 would be seven bells in the afternoon. The striking of eight bells signalled the changing of the watch. A naval tradition has it that the youngest member of the ship’s company on New Year’s Eve strikes the bell sixteen times; hence “ring out the old, ring in the new”
Safety and Communication
The sounding of a ship’s bell found a natural application as a warning signal to other vessels in poor visibility and fog. In 1676 one Henry Teonage serving as a chaplain in the British Mediterranean Fleet recorded , “so great a fog that we were fain to ring our bells, beat drums, and fire muskets often to keep us from falling foul one upon another”. Ringing a ship’s bell in fog became customary. In 1858, British Naval Regulations made it mandatory in that function. Today, maritime law requires all ships to carry an efficient bell.
American ships of the Revolutionary War period and our early national years adopted many of the practices and traditions of the British Royal Navy, including the use of bells. In 1798, Paul Revere cast a bell weighing 242 pounds for the frigate USS Constitution, also known today by its nickname “Old Ironsides”. It is of interest to note that the use of a ship’s bell contributed to the richest single prize captured by the American Navy during the War of Independence. While a Continental Squadron under Commodore Whipple lay-to, wrapped in Newfoundland fog in a July morning in 1779, the sound of ships’ bells and an occasional signal gun could be heard a short distance off. When the fog lifted the Americans discovered that they had fallen in with the richly-laden enemy Jamaica Fleet. Ten ships were captured as prizes, which – together with their cargo – were valued at more than a million dollars.
The bell is an essential link in a ship’s emergency alarm system. In the event of a fire, the bell is rung rapidly for at least five seconds, followed by one, two or three rings to indicate the location of a fire – Forward, amidships, or aft respectively.
Navy Ceremonies and Events
The bell is used to signal the presence of important persons. When the ship’s captain, a flag officer, or other important person arrives or departs, watch standers make an announcement to the ship and ring the bell. This tradition extends to major naval command transitions, often held aboard vessels associated with the command.
Bells in religious ceremonies
The bell’s connection to religious origins continues. Originating in the British Royal Navy, it is a custom to baptize a child under the ship’s bell; sometimes the bell is used as a christening bowl, filled with water for the ceremony. Once the baptism is completed, the child’s name may be inscribed inside the bell. The bell remains with the ship while in service and with the Department of the Navy after decommissioning. In this way, an invisible tie is created between the country, the ship and its citizens. Bells have been loaned or provided to churches as memorials to those vessels; this practice has been discontinued in favor of displaying bells with namesake states or municipalities, with museums, and with naval commands and newer namesake vessels.
Maintenance and Upkeep
Traditionally, the bell is maintained by the ship’s cook, while the ship’s whistle is maintained by the ship’s bugler. In actual practice, the bell is maintained by a person of the ship’s division charged with the upkeep of that part of the ship where the bell is located. In such a case a deck seaman or quartermaster striker or signalman striker may have the bell-shining duty.
Disposition and continuing Navy use
In addition to its shipboard roles, the bell serves a ceremonial and memorial function after the ship has served its Navy career. U.S. Navy bells are part of the many artifacts removed from decommissioned vessels preserved by the Naval Historical Center. They may be provided on loan to new namesake ships; naval commands with an historical mission or functional connection; and to museums and other institutions that are interpreting specific historical themes and displays of naval history. Bells remain the permanent property of the US Government and the Department of the Navy. These serve to inspire and to remind our naval forces and personnel of their honor, courage, and commitment to the defense of our nation.
Bells remain a powerful and tangible reminder of the history, heritage, and accomplishments of the naval service.
For more than a century, the ship’s bell of HMS Lutine has hung in the Maritime Lloyds of London building and the Lutine bell has been synonymous with Lloyd’s.
Rung traditionally to herald important announcements to underwriters and brokers in the Room – one stroke for bad news and two for good – it is recognised throughout the world as the symbol of an organisation whose fortunes are linked inextricably with natural and man-made catastrophes. The bell was carried originally on board the French frigate La Lutine which surrendered to the British in 1793. Six years later, as HMS Lutine, carrying a cargo of gold and silver bullion, she sank off the Dutch coast. The cargo, valued then at around one million pounds, was insured by Lloyd’s underwriters who paid the claim in full.
There has been a centuries-long tradition of varied use for bells in the Royal Navy. They have been and still are used for several purposes, e.g. signalling, keeping time, and providing a way of an alarm. The ship’s bell is a special symbol and highly used in ceremonies, one tradition of baby Christenings. Although much of its purpose is obsolete it still plays a significant ceremonial role in today’s Royal Navy. The bell’s position on the ship may vary. When a ship visits in port it is often seen on a ship bell stand at the quartermaster’s position.
Although bronze cast bells have been used throughout the ages one of the earliest recorded mentions of the shipboard bell was on the period warship Grace Dieu about 1485. Some ten years later an inventory of the period warship “Regent” reveals that this ship carried two “wache bells”.
Henry Teonage, 1676, a serving Chaplain in the British Mediterranean Fleet recorded:
so great a fog that we were fain to ring our bells, beat drums, and fire muskets often to keep us from falling foul one upon another
Ringing a ship’s bell in fog became customary. In 1858, Royal Naval Regulations made it mandatory to ring the ships bell during fog. Today, maritime law requires all ships to carry an efficient bell.
Timekeeping practice of the bell
The measurement of time at sea before the advent of the chronometer time was measured by the Half-hour glass. The ship’s boys had the duty of watching the glass and turning it when the sand had run out. Each time this occurred the ships bell was struck providing time for the crew. From midnight, for the first half hour the bell was struck once, when another half hour past the bell was struck twice, for the third turning, three strikes of the bell, until eight bells was struck and the cycle was repeated. Each eight cycles became a ‘Watch” The watch end was at eight bells and the new watch starts.
The watch system is still used in the Royal Navy today. The whole ships’ functioning is centred around watch systems. The Watch and bells system hasn’t changed much at all over hundreds of years in the Royal Navy. The watch system is maintained, however, the bells system is rarely used. The ship maintains the traditional bell with the ships name and used for ceremonies but hardly used during the daily functioning of the ship.
Ship Routine 1790’s – Part Two
The following ships routine is based on the writings of ‘Jack Nastyface’. He was a sailor of the time and later in his life published a book titled, “Nautical Economy of Forecastle Recollections of Events during the last war” in 1836. It was never reprinted and now a very rare book. It is believed he served onboard HMS Revenge in which he certainly provides a very accurate, descriptive event during the Battle of Trafalgar. A crew were divided into two watches, starboard and larboard. When one was on deck the other was down below. As an example:
24 Hour Clock In practice one dong increment is made every half hour. E.g. the first one bell is made at the end of the first half hour of the watch. Two bells at the end of the first hour. Three bells at the end of one and one half hour of the watch so forth.)
|0000||Middle Watch Commences at 0000: Boatswains mate calls out, “Larboard watch a-hoy”. Larboard watch comes on deck and the Starb’d watch goes down below to their hammocks. Sleep until eight bells.|
|0430||One Bell||0400 Morning Watch Commences: Starb’d watch comes on deck and ‘holy stone’ until four bells. Scrub and wash deck until seven bells.|
|0830||One Bell||Forenoon Watch Commences 0800: Boatswains mate pipes to breakfast. At one bell Larb’d watch stays on deck, Starb’d watch remains below. Six bells hands are called to witness punishment. Eight bells hands are called for ‘dinner’. One bell the piper is called to play a ‘tune’. Also ‘splice the main brace’ is made. Two bells Starb’d watch goes on deck and works the ship until eight bells, also hands are called for supper.|
|1230||One Bell||Afternoon Watch commences at 1200: One bell Larb’d watch comes on duty until four bells.|
|1630||One Bell||First Dog Watch commences at 1600|
|1830||Five Bells||Last Dog Watch commences at 1800|
|2030||One Bell||First Watch commences at 2000|
Ship Routine 1990’s – Part Three
This is the basic ships routine of a ship in the fleet of today. The ships company is divided into two watches Starboard and Port (Larboard) Watch. With a further divide hence we have four watches. Port First and Second. Starboard First and second. This provides four watches and the ship is normally run in a four watch system (one-in-four) distinguishing it from one-in-three and ‘station watches’
|We say 0000hr to 2359hr. When a navy man ‘signs up’ he signs his life away to the Queen (today’s navy) except the last minute of the day. That’s his own!|
 Jackspeak, 3rd rev. ed.
 http://www.royal-navy.org/knowledge/routines/watches-and-bells-pt1.php Accessed 10 December 2007