The Ship's Bell
The Ships Bell History - The origin of this custom is unclear, but records indicate that this method of telling the time was in use as early as the 13th Century.
This method of keeping 'approximate' time, was by means of a half-hour glass (similar to an egg-timer), the bell being struck every time the glass was turned. Half-hour glasses were in use in the Royal Navy until after 1850 and at this period it was common to hear time being expressed in glasses, e.g. "We should finish the job in about three glasses", meaning one-and-a-half hours.
Before you can understand this system of telling the time, you must, firstly, understand the system of watches employed in mostly every navy in the world today.
The bell is struck at each half hour interval within each watch.
First Watch 2000 - 2359
Middle Watch 2359 - 0400
Morning Watch 0400 - 0800
Forenoon Watch 0800 - 1200
Afternoon Watch 1200 - 1600
First Dog Watch 1600 - 1800
Last Dog Watch 1800 - 2000
Striking The Ships's Bell
The time is indicated by striking the hours and the half hours on the Ship's Bell throughout each Watch, except in Silent Hours and during church services.
The time thus indicated is called one bell, two bells etc. According to the number of times the bell has been struck.
The purpose of dividing the period between 1600 and 2000 into two 'dog' Watches is to provide an odd number of watches in the 24 hour day so that the Port and Starboard Watches will rotate and keep a different watch each day.
Seamen, unlike civilians, do not speak of morning, afternoon and evening, but of Morning, Forenoon, Afternoon and Dogs
The Bells and the Dog Watches
The name probably comes from DODGE WATCH: By dividing this four hour watch period into two separate 2 hour watches like this meant a total of seven watches to the day instead of 6.
Thus sailors would not be enabled to keep the same watch each day but would rotate through the watch system.
The suggestion that the name DOG comes from a dog watch being a watch cur-tailed is not to be believed..
Also, a dog watch being two hours long while all other watches are of four hours duration gives rise to the common Naval expression of derision to a junior: "You've only been in the Navy a dog watch".
The custom of striking 1-2-3-8 bells in the last dog watch, instead of 5-6-7-8, is said to have originated in 1797; the mutineers at the Nore had timed their mutiny to start at "five bells in the dog watches" on 13th May, 1797, but the officers got to hear of this and directed that five bells should not be struck.
Since then, one bell has been struck at 6.30pm.
Some still carry out the old routine, but most have come into line with the Royal Navy System, the two Dog Watches are the "First" and the "Last" not the "First" and the "Second"!!
STRIKING SIXTEEN BELLS
Midnight 31st December/1st January is marked by the striking of 16 bells - 8 for the old year and 8 for the new.
The youngest officer on board has the privilege of doing this. It used to be a custom to play practical jokes on this officer, such as smearing the bell-rope with grease, or even connecting up electricity so that the lad got a mild shock when he grasped the bell-rope.
Should a Sailor wish to have his child Christened aboard one of Her Majesty's Warships then it is customary and tradition for the childs name and date of birth be inscribed on the inside of the ships bell.
Now you can ring the bell for yourself using the flash movie at the top of this page - Click the red symbols One Bell - First half hour of the watch, Two Bells - First hour of the watch, Three Bells - Ist hour and a half of the watch, Four Bells - First two hours of the watch, Five Bells - First 2 and a half hours of the watch, Six Bells - Third Hour of the watch, Seven Bells - Third and a half hour of the watch, Eight Bells - 4th and last hour of the watch.
Striking 8 Bells at 0800 is also symbolic of the morning ritual in most navies where, whilst in harbour only, all officers fall in on the Quarterdeck for 'Colours'. At precisely 0800 8 Bells are struck and the 'Still' is piped by the Quartermaster. The officers, facing aft, towards the Ensign Staff are brought to the 'Ho' (Naval equivalent of the verbal order for 'Attention") by the OOD, who takes the Salute for the flag, along with the Captain and XO whilst the Australian White Ensign is hoisted to the top of the Ensign Staff, normally by the duty Signalman.