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The Ship's Bell


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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"!!




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.