Appeal of Bells

We're talking about bells - their close association with the sea and inextricable links with nautical tradition.

When it all began is hard to say, but for centuries a bell was an important part of a ship's inventory. The name of the vessel was engraved or cast onto the surface and - especially on more modern ships - the identity of the builder's yard as well. Even if the ship's name was changed, which often happened when it was captured in times of war, the original bell would remain with the vessel. Sometimes this would be the only positive means of identification in the case of a shipwreck. However the primary purpose of the bell was timekeeping.

"Eight Bells and All's Well"

Long before the phrase was coined, ships at sea were operational '24/7'. Starting at noon - when with luck, the sun's position could be observed - the 24 hours were divided into seven watches: 5 of four hours and 2 of two. These were the Afternoon Watch (noon to 4pm), the First Dog Watch (4pm to 6pm), the Last Dog Watch (6pm to 8pm) and the First Watch (8pm to midnight). This was followed by the Middle Watch (12am to 4am), the Morning Watch (4am to 8am) and the Forenoon Watch (8am to mid-day). 

Watching the Sands of Time

Each watch was timed by a Midshipman with a half-hour sand glass. Every time the glass was turned over, the bell was rung - once after 30 minutes, twice after an hour, three times after an hour and a half and so on, up to eight bells for a four hour watch and four for the two dog watches. The phrase 'ask not for whom the bell tolls' was redundant. Sooner or later it tolled for everyone. But why a bell as opposed to some other sound-producing device?

Sounding a Warning

The reason - a bell's ringing carries a very long way. Just as church bells can be heard all over a parish, so a ship's bell could be heard everywhere from the deepest recesses of the hold to the crow's nest. It was also easy to determine the direction from which the sound was coming. Which is why, long before foghorns were invented, bells were used to warn mariners of coastline hazards. One particularly dangerous example was a rocky outcrop that lay off Scotland's east coast near the entrance to the Firth of Tay. It had claimed countless lives and numerous ships for hundreds of years. Called Bell Rock on account of a warning bell having been installed by the Abbot of Arbroath in the 14th century, it was to be the site of a new type of lighthouse some 500 years later.

A Wonder of the Industrial Age

Built by Robert Stevenson - an engineer with the Northern Lighthouse Board - and based on the design of the Eddystone Lighthouse, it was completed in 1811. Topped by 24 great lanterns, the Bell Rock Lighthouse was the largest of its off-shore type in the world and hailed as One of the Wonders of the Industrial Age. Stevenson constructed more than a dozen further lighthouses in his 50 year career and started something of a maritime dynasty. His three sons continued their father's work while his grandson - Robert Louis Stevenson - was to become famous as the author of Treasure Island.

"I have time to finish the game and beat the Spaniards"

Whether Sir Francis Drake actually spoke those words, or something similar, is open to debate. And the reason he didn't put to sea straight away was due more to the wind and the tide than personal sang-froid. However as soon as the Armada was sighted, bonfires were lit and church bells rung to warn the nation of possible invasion. And some of those bells would surely have been cast at the Church Bell Foundry in Whitechapel. Established in 1570 it has crafted some of the most famous bells in the world, including 'Great Peter of York', the 'Great Bell of Montreal', the bells of Westminster Abbey and 'Big Ben'.

Ringing the Changes

Telling the time, warning of danger - bells are certainly multi-functional. And they are also the 'backing track' to happy, joyous events. Christmas, weddings, the New Year - all are accompanied by the sound of bells. So to end on a lighter note (a top C springs to mind) here's a campanological reference with a nautical theme. In the 1950s film Doctor at Sea, the eponymous Doc - played by Leslie Phillips - is introduced to a new member of his medical team - a particularly attractive young blonde. "This is Nurse Bell..." Dropping his voice to a seductive purr, Leslie Phillips replies "Ding dong!"