Maritime Tales - ships and bells

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a shiny gold bell, suspended from a wooden support

HMS Liverpool's bell

The ringing of a ship’s bell had a key role in the lives of seafarers and to me, Stephen Guy, some bells have a haunting quality. 

Ships’ bells served a very practical purpose keeping crews informed of the passing of the hours when they were on watch. As far back as the 15th century, bells sounded the time on board ships. There were no chronometers or watches in those days and time was kept with an hourglass. The bell was sounded every half hour of the four-hour watch. The day was divided into five four-hour watches plus the dog watch between 4 pm and 8 pm. This was split into two, two-hour watches to allow crew members to have an evening meal and to switch watch times for crew each day, on a rota system. The first bell was rung after half an hour, two bells after one hour. Bells that followed were punctuated by pauses – for example, after 90 minutes it was two bells – pause – one bell. The maximum came at the end of the four-hour watch – a sequence of two bells rung four times, with pauses between. In other words, eight bells which meant the end of the watch.

There are many ships’ bells in the collections of the Merseyside Maritime Museum. The bell from the famous liner Mauretania (1907) was presented to Bebington Parish Church, Wirral, by Sir Percy Bates, chairman of the Cunard Line, in 1936. The bell of the sixth HMS Liverpool (1938) hangs in a frame of oak timbers (shown). The frame was made from wood from the gatehouse of the Old Hutte, a 14th century manor house, controversially demolished to make way for the Ford motor factory at Halewood in 1961. For many years the bell hung in the Liverpool Stock Exchange until its closure in 1991.

A Royal Navy bell with a fascinating story is from the battleship HMS Rodney (1927 – 48). She and another battleship, HMS King George V, pounded the German pocket battleship, Bismarck, into a blazing wreck. The cruiser HMS Dorsetshire then torpedoed Bismarck, which finally capsized and sank with her colours flying. Bismarck’s end was hastened by her crew detonating scuttling charges and opening water-tight doors. More than 2,000 crew died and only 118 were saved.

A new Maritime Tale appears every Saturday in the Liverpool Echo.