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Q: Striking eight bells on Navy Ships ( No Answer,   1 Comment )
Subject: Striking eight bells on Navy Ships
Category: Reference, Education and News > Teaching and Research
Asked by: suppo-ga
List Price: $200.00
Posted: 09 Jan 2004 19:24 PST
Expires: 17 Jan 2004 14:55 PST
Question ID: 294939
What event caused the requirment for the Captain of a US Navy ship to
give permission before the striking of eight bells?
- It is related to an attempted mutiny on a US sailing vessel in the early 1800's.
- It is not the mutiny at Nore, may be related to the attempted mutiny
on USS Sommers in 1842.
- The signal to mutiny was the sounding of eight bells. The attempted
mutiny was discovered and thwarted.
- Since then the Captains permission is required to sound eight bells,
an indication all is well at the end of the watch.
- Time is of the essence! I really need a hook up here!

Request for Question Clarification by pafalafa-ga on 10 Jan 2004 07:11 PST

Anything else you can tell us about this tradition?

All the results I'm coming up with refer to "five bells", harking back
to the Nore mutiny.

There's very little mention of a similar tradition for eight bells. 
The more you can tell us about where you heard this, the better we can
track it down for you and get you a "hook up".


Clarification of Question by suppo-ga on 10 Jan 2004 13:24 PST
This is a tough one and I've been digging for the answer for a couple
of weeks. On US Navy Ships it is custom to make 8 o'clock and 12
o'clock reports to the Captain. When these are made there is a blurb
"request permission to strike eight bells on time". Eight bells refers
to the end of the four hour watch, one bell every half hour, and that
all is well. This is common knowledge on US warships. What I've been
tasked to find is where did this requirement originate.

I'm limited on resources because I'm currently at sea in the middle of the Pacific.
- It was an attempted mutiny on a US Warship.
- May require contacting the US Navy Museum.

I'm sorry but this is all the information that I have. Thank you for
picking this up I. Please keep me posted on your findings.


Request for Question Clarification by pafalafa-ga on 10 Jan 2004 15:30 PST
Hello again, suppo-ga,

While looking into this, I came across an alternative explanation
which kind of makes as much (maybe more) sense to me than the mutiny

"...In the really old days, before seagoing clocks, the intervals
between bells were determined by sand glasses.  The noon sun sight
gave local noon, eight bells was to be struck, and the glass was to be
started. Every half hour the glass ran out, was turned, and the bell
was struck on the correct count. Each day the bell sequence was reset
to begin at local noon. If the sand glass was perfect, thefore noon
watch would therefore be longer if going west and shorter if going
east. As clocks came in and time zones became popular, ships started
keeping watches on zone time rather than local sun time, but the watch
bells and names of the watches assume that the watch time will be more
or less in sync with the local sun. The Captain decides when to change
the clock between zones and does so (in a perfect world) in a way that
is fair(in the long run) to both watches.


In other words, eight bells is the opportunity for the Captain to set
the clock, so to speak.

Does this explanation "ring a bell" (Har, Har)?

Are you convinced that an attempted mutiny is at the real root of the tradition?

Request for Question Clarification by pafalafa-ga on 10 Jan 2004 16:31 PST
I'm doing more digging, and I must say, getting more skeptical about
the mutiny story.

Here's a description of naval time-keeping taken from an article written in 1898:


The captain's orderly keeps the time on board a man-of-war...he
reports to the officer of the deck the time in "bells"...  At 8
o'clock in the morning the orderly reports to the officer of the deck
"Eight bells, sir".  The officer replies, "Report to the captain eight
bells and chronometers wound."  The orderly reports to the captain,
"Eight bells and chronometers wound, sir," to which the captain
replies, "Very well, make it so."  The orderly returns to the officer
of the deck and says" "Make it so, sir," and the officer of the deck
says to the messenger of the watch: "Strike eight bells."  If every
one has been prompt, eight bells has been struck at exactly 8 a.m.

The report, "Eight bells and chronometers wound," is intended as a
check upon the navigating officer, to whom the chronometers are

Every half-hour the bell is struck until noon, when an observation is
taken, the formula repeated and eight bells again struck, and the
position of the ship on the chart defined.

There is a curious little deviation from the rule in the British navy.
 Anterior to the naval mutiny at the Nore in 1797...


Several other articles from the early 1900's say the same thing. 
There's no mention of any traditions stemming from a US naval mutiny,
although the British tradition regarding the mutiny at Nore is common
knowledge, and is often mentioned.

Instead, reporting to the captain and seeking his OK is essentially in
deference to his authority as the master setter of the clock,
especially at noon, when position is plotted and "corrections" can be
made for solar noon.

I'd be interested to hear what your thoughts are on all this.

Mean time, I'm still searching.


Request for Question Clarification by pafalafa-ga on 10 Jan 2004 16:43 PST
...and another old description from 1895:


Long before twelve o'clock, all these, and various other minor
preparations, have been so completely made, that there is generally a
remarkable stillness over the whole ship just before the important
moment of noon arrives. The boatswain stands near the break of the
forecastle, with his bright silver call, or whistle, in his hand, which ever
and anon he places just at the tip of his lips, to blow out any crumbs
which threaten to interfere with its melody, or to give a faint " too weet!
too weet!" as a preparatory note, to fix the attention of the boatswain's
mates, who being, like their chief, provided with calls, station themselves
at intervals along the main-deck, ready to give due accompaniment to
their leader's tune.

The boatswain keeps his eye on the group of observers, and well
knows when the " sun is up," by the stir which takes place among the
astronomers, or by noticing the master working out his latitude with a
pencil, on the ebony bar of his quadrant, or on the edge of the
hammockrailing; though if he be one of your modern neat-handed
he carries his little book for this purpose. In one way or other the
latitude is computed, as soon as the master is satisfied that the sun has
reached his highest altitude in the heavens. He then walks aft to the
officer of the watch, and reports twelve o'clock, communicating, also,
the degrees and minutes of the latitude observed. The lieutenant
proceeds to the captain, wherever he may be, and repeats that it is
and that so and so is the latitude. The same formal round of reports is
gone through, even if the captain be on deck, and has heard every word
spoken by the master, or even if he has himself assisted in making the

The captain now says to the officer of the watch, "Make it twelve."
The officer calls out to the mate of the watch, " Make it twelve."
The mate-ready primed-sings out to the quarter-master, " Strike
eight bells!"

And lastly, the hard-a-weather old quarter-master, stepping down the
ladder, grunts out to the sentry at the cabin door, " Turn the glass, and
strike the bell!"


Right out of "Master and Commander", eh?

Request for Question Clarification by pafalafa-ga on 13 Jan 2004 19:51 PST
Hello again, suppo-ga,

Hope you?re enjoying your voyage out there in the Pacific....somewhere.

I?ve looked into your question quite extensively, and I must say, I?ve
enjoyed the hunt.  It?s fascinating to read 18th and 19th century news
stories and official reports of mutinous seamen and the heroic
officers who stood up to them. (The complete lack of sympathy in these
accounts for the plight of the seaman is notable.  I suppose it?s only
in our modern age -- with its anti-authoritarian bent -- that it might
be acknowledged that some officers were miserable SOB?s who might of
had it coming).

The more I look, the more I become convinced that the ?eight bells?
tradition has nothing to do with a specific mutiny or other event.  It
very much seems a tradition that stemmed from the overwhelming
importance of timekeeping on board a ship, and from the acknowledgment
that the captain must have the opportunity for the final say-so on
setting the clock.

Since you asked for an ?event? and I can?t give you one, I?m posting
these remarks as a clarification, rather than as an answer to your
question.  I did want to let you know my rationale, however.


First off, there is the mutiny on the USS Somers (usually spelled with
just a single ?m?).  There are two rather detailed accounts of the
mutiny readily available on the web, and several others that I read in
newspapers from 1842 and afterwards.

There is nothing in these accounts about eight bells (or any other
time) as a specific signal to begin a mutiny.  In fact, the accounts
state that the mutiny was to begin during some unspecified watch, by
sailors staging a fight to attract a senior officer to the deck, who
would then be subdued and thrown overboard.

The main document I consulted was ?The Mutiny of the Somers?, which
can be found here:

This is an 1843 account of the mutiny, and is extraordinarily
detailed.  Here is the passage describing how the mutiny was to begin:


The affray was to be commenced some night when Spencer had the
mid-watch. Several of his men would engage in a fight on the fore-
castle. He was to order them up to the mast, and, under pretence of
settling the difficulty, to call Mr. Rogers, the officer of the deck,
whom they were to seize, as soon as he came to the gangway, and throw
overboard. They would then have the brig in their own possession. The
keys of the arm-chest, he said, he could lay his hands on at any

[I love this next line about the biscuit]...

...He would then cause all the crew to be called up, and select from
them such as would suit his purposes.  The remainder, particularly the
small boys, he should cause to be thrown overboard, as useless
consumers of biscuit...


The BBC also offers an in-depth account of the Somers mutiny:

Interestingly, they report that one of Spencer?s guilty-looking
activities involved the ship?s chronometer:


Among Spencer?s activities he had been seen studying Caribbean charts,
including one for the Isle of Pines ( a large island off the southern
coast of west Cuba, an area far from the course of the Somers , that
had been a known base for pirates ). He had also inquired about the
accuracy of the ship's chronometer, accurate time was considered vital
to determine how far east or west the vessel was from the prime
Meriden which passed through Greenwich England.


Other than that reference to the chronometer, the reports are notable
for their complete lack of any reference to a plot revolving around
?eight bells?.  What?s more, the Mutiny of the Somers report, in
addition to its description of events on the Somers, gives a thorough
overview of most other major mutinies -- British and American -- known
up to that date (including the Bounty -- definitely worth reading). 
Again, there is no mention of a scheme involving eight bells as a
signal.  Nor is there mention of any changes in naval customs having
to do with notifying the captain at eight bells.


The one reference to ?eight bells? -- oddly enough -- has to do with
the hanging of the three leaders of the mutiny.  This account is from
the Woodland (Calif) Daily Democrat - 9/4/1890 :

An Execution at Sea

[By 1890, perhaps sympathies changed a bit.  This article describes
the "tragedy" that befell not the Captain or the ship, but the sailors
of the Somers....]

The ropes adjusted, the captain stood back and in a loud voice gave
the command: "Strike the bell eight!  Stand by! Fire the gun! Walk
away with the whips! Roll drums!

As the last stroke of eight bells rang out upon the tropical air there
was one surge of the whips and three bodies dangled from the yardarm
and three men were strangled to death.  A neck is never broken by such
a method...


Nothing appears to tie ?eight bells? to a reference to a mutiny.  Much
more typical of the era is this account written in 1891 by a US Navy
Lieutenant, stressing the importance of eight bells to the smooth
navigation of the ship:

Ocean Steamship Articles. II. The Ocean Steamship; The Ship's Company
Lieutenant J. D. Jerrold Kelley, U.S. Navy
pg 548

May 1891

Should it be a fine day, with moderate weather, the noon observation
for latitude is a simple one and is always sought; though, in the
open, these people running in regular lanes can place great dependence
on their engine revolutions, their well-tried compasses, and, if the
speed is not excessive, upon their taffrail logs.  When the sun
crosses the meridian twelve o?clock is reported, and "eight bells are
made" by the captain, for no lesser personage dare trifle with the
astronomical proprieties hedging about this occult ceremony.  The
ship?s time, however, remains unaltered, until the clocks are
corrected at midnight from calculations based upon the chronometer
ticking stolidly in the chart-room.


You?ll note the emphasis on the captain?s ?personage? and the
importance of the events at eight bells.  And again, there?s nothing
even remotely suggesting a connection to a mutiny or other specific
event.  These are the same factors I observed in some of my postings
from a few days ago -- the emphasis is uniformly on the importance of
timekeeping, and the deference to the captain?s authority to ?make it


The last thing to note, is that it was considered more or less common
knowledge that the Brits were the odd man out when it came to naval
timekeeping, due to their own change in tradition after the Nore

From the Daily Iowa State Press of May 4, 1904, comes this:


...From 6 to 8 in the evening is the second dog watch, but on British
ships seven bells (half past 7) of the second dog watch are never
struck.  All other ships, even the American, strike these bells.

During the Napoleonic wars there was a great mutiny in the British
navy.  The crews of the fleets lying at Spithead and the Nore agreed
to rise simultaneously against their officers.  The signal agreed upon
was seven bells of the second dog watch...Ever since then seven bells
of the second dog watch has never been struck on British ships, naval
or mercantile.


It?s asking too much to suppose that there was a copycat mutiny in the
U.S. navy, and that the signal was set at eight bells, and naval
traditions were thereby changed, but for some reason, everyone knows
about the Nore, but nobody knows about the U.S. counterpart mutiny.

I believe that, had there been an ?event? in the 1800's that had led
to a notable change in procedures, it would most certainly had been
captured in the written works of the era.

As it is, I just don?t see it being so. 


Having said all that, in fairness, I have to offer up other one other
stray piece of information.

Another famous mutiny -- this one on a U.S merchant vessel -- was the
mutiny aboard the Dreadnought, under the command of Captain Samuels,
in, I believe, 1853.  In an extensive account of the mutiny given by
Captain Samuels himself (as reported in the 8/18/1908 Frederick, Md.
News), no specific mention is made of a time for the mutiny, or any
specific signal.  It simply appeared to be an opportunistic attack
when the captain happened to be on deck and in reach of his mutinous

But in another newspaper account, from the Appleton (Wisc) Post
Crescent or November 11, 1924, they report of the Dreadnought mutiny
simply that ?At eight bells, the attack began..?.

Could that be your ?event??

I don?t think so...I really don?t.  

Hope all this is of some use to you.


There is no answer at this time.

Subject: Re: Striking eight bells on Navy Ships
From: cheekoo1-ga on 17 Jan 2004 11:37 PST
Okay, this site looks like the official navy version regarding the question ...

or please read  thru the following (answer is on the last line):

The use of the bells to mark the time stems from the period when
seamen (1) could not afford a personal time piece (i.e. - a watch) and
(2) even if they could, they had no idea on how to tell time with such
an instrument. The bells mark the hours of the watch in half-hour
increments. The seamen would know if it were morning, noon, or night.
Each watch* is four hours long and the bells are struck thus:

Mid Morning Forenoon Afternoon Dogs* First 
0030 - 1 bell  0430 - 1 bell 0830 - 1 bell 1230 - 1 bell 1630 - 1 bell
2030 - 1 bell
0100 - 2 bells 0500 - 2 bells  0900 - 2 bells 1300 - 2 bells 1700 - 2
bells  2100 - 2 bells
0130 - 3 bells 0530 - 3 bells 0930 - 3 bells 1330 - 3 bells 1730 - 3
bells 2130 - 3 bells
0200 - 4 bells 0600 - 4 bells 1000 - 4 bells 1400 - 4 bells 1800 - 4
bells 2200 - 4 bells
0230 - 5 bells 0630 - 5 bells 1030 - 5 bells 1430 - 5 bells 1830 - 5
bells 2230 - 5 bells
0300 - 6 bells 0700 - 6 bells 1100 - 6 bells  1500 - 6 bells 1900 - 6
bells 2300 - 6 bells
0330 - 7 bells 0730 - 7 bells 1130 - 7 bells 1530 - 7 bells 1930 - 7
bells 2330 - 7 bells
0400 - 8 bells**  0800 - 8 bells 1200 - 8 bells 1600 - 8 bells 2000 -
8 bells 2400 - 8 bells

Notes: * - The period from 1600 to 2000 is split into two dog watches.
These watches run from 1600 to 1800 and from 1800 to 2000. This
alternates the daily watch routine so Sailors on the mid-watch would
not have it the second night, and, the split also gives each
watchstander the opportunity to eat the evening meal.

** - The end of the watch is considered at 8 bells, hence the saying
"Eight Bells and All Is Well."

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