For whom the ship’s bell tolls

May 15, 2019 by Stephen J. Thorne

Bronze bell from HMS Erebus, the ship lost in 1846 during John Franklin’s expedition to find a northwest passage.
Franklin Expedition
Ships’ bells mark the watch, sound alarms, send signals, declare a ship’s presence in foggy weather and even serve as baptismal fonts.

Usually engraved, the ship’s bell is often the primary identifying element of an historic wreck, as was the bronze bell from HMS Erebus, explorer John Franklin’s vessel that was found after 168 years beneath Arctic waters.

Bells aboard modern ships often bear the name of the shipyard that built the ship in addition to the name of the ship itself. If the ship’s name is changed, maritime tradition dictates the original bell with the original name remain with the vessel.

For all the high technology of modern-day ships, both naval and otherwise, a bell remains standard equipment and has been since at least the 15th century. International law requires it. By regulation, U.S. Navy ships have two bells.

William Soper, Keeper of the King’s Ships between 1422 and 1427, noted at least one English royal vessel, Rodcogge de la Tour, had a brass bell “to mark the watches of the sailors.” A prize vessel, she became part of Henry VI’s Royal Squadron in June 1414.

The earliest bell to be recovered from the sea bottom was taken from the wreck of a Portuguese armada ship off the coast of Oman on the Arabian Peninsula. It was dated 1498.

Ships’ bells are probably best known for telling time, but not in a way that any landlubber would readily understand.

Instead of bells marking the hours and quarter-hours as, say, the Peace Tower on Parliament Hill does, there were traditionally eight bells per watch aboard ship, one for each half-hour of each four-hour watch.

“Eight Bells, 1887” by Winslow Homer.
Addison Gallery of American Art
This was rooted in the Age of Sail, when ships’ watches were timed with a 30-minute hourglass. Bells would be struck every time the ship’s boy turned the glass. They were rung in a pattern of pairs, with odd bells at the end of each sequence, so 90 minutes into a watch they would ring two bells plus one, and at two hours, four bells, and so on.

The Royal Canadian Navy and Royal Navy’s use of bells for time purposes aboard ship are largely limited to ceremonial roles at colours (08h00).

The U.S. Navy still marks the passage of a watch with the ringing of the bell. “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 21st century, regulating daily routine, just as it did on our historic vessels under sail in the late 18th century,” says a report on the U.S. Naval History and Heritage Command website.

This ship’s bell from HMCS Swansea bears the names of three children for which the bell was used as a baptismal font.
CWM – 19660080-001
The ringing of a ship’s bell also serves as a warning signal to other vessels in fog and poor visibility.

On June 20, 1675, Captain William Holden of HMS Assistance issued sailing orders to the squadron under his command. Order 8 said that “if it prove foggy weather by night or day, we must ring our bells.”

In 1676, Henry Teonage, a chaplain in the British Mediterranean fleet, wrote: “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.”

It was just such bells that contributed to the richest single prize captured by the U.S. Navy during the War of Independence, and it occurred off that haven of North Atlantic murk, Newfoundland.

“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,” the U.S. site reports.

“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.”

Today, the International Regulations for the Prevention of Collisions at Sea, Rule 35, states that at while anchor “in or near an area of restricted visibility,” vessels of 12 metres or more “shall at intervals of not more than one minute ring the bell rapidly for about five seconds.”

American ships first adopted practices and traditions of the British Royal Navy around the time of the Revolutionary War, including the use of bells. In 1798, Paul Revere—who warned, “The British are coming”—cast a 242-pound bell for the USS Constitution, the frigate affectionately known by the nickname Old Ironsides.

Ships’ bells can be rung as “boat gongs” marking the arrivals and departures of senior officers and dignitaries, usually numbered according to seniority. On New Year’s Eve, ships might strike 16 bells—eight for the old year and eight for the new.

Eight bells—the end of the watch—can also mark a seaman’s death. The term “eight bells” is also a nautical euphemism for “finished,” as in “dead.”

The Royal Navy began the custom of baptizing children of ships’ crews under or in the ship’s bell, inscribing the child’s name inside afterward. “In this way,” says the U.S. heritage and history site, “an invisible tie is created between the country, the ship and its citizens.”

Typically, the bell is taken down for the rite and inverted in a special cradle draped with the ship’s ensign. After the service, the holy water is poured over the side to mingle with the waters of the ocean.

“It is believed that blessings and promises made during the service will protect the child on whichever waters of the Earth he or she may travel,” Richard Mackenzie wrote for the CFB Esquimalt Naval and Military Museum.

Life and duty at sea are steeped in legend and tradition—even the cleaning of the ship’s bell. Traditionally, the bell is maintained by the ship’s cook, while the ship’s whistle is the responsibility of the ship’s bugler.

Seafaring legend has it that the ship’s cooks and boatswain’s mates had a duty arrangement to allow the harried cooks more sleep.

Boatswain’s mates, who rotated 24 hours a day on watches, would build the fire in the stove so the cooks could rise a little later and begin cooking right away. Between meals, the cooks would reciprocate by shining the bell, traditionally the boatswain’s mates’ responsibility.

Read about the Bells of War in the coming July/August issue of Legion Magazine.


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