View Full Version : New to the Age of Sail: The Royal Navy's time keeping system - watches and bells

02-07-2013, 13:04
Occasionally I read a passage in which the author describes a number of bells being struck. As I didn't know how the time keeping system worked exactly, I figured I'd look it up and share it here. Many of the more experienced/knowledgeable participants here will likely know all this and or have something more to add to this topic, but if you're 'New to the Age of Sail' I hope this helps you as it did me.

The day and night are divided into 7 periods know as watches and are as follows:
12 midnight to 4am - middle watch
4am to 8am - morning watch
8am to 12 noon - forenoon watch
12 noon to 4pm - afternoon watch
4pm to 6pm - first dog watch
6pm to 8pm - last dog watch
8pm to 12 midnight - first watch

12 noon is determined by the noon sighting using a sextant. The half hour periods were kept by a 30 minute sand glass.

The ship's bell is struck every half hour aboard a sailing ship of the royal navy.
0:30 into the watch - 1 bell
1:00 into the watch - 2 bells
1:30 into the watch - 3 bells
2:00 into the watch - 4 bells (end of first dog watch)
2:30 into the watch - 5 bells (beginning of last dog watch)
3:00 into the watch - 6 bells
3:30 into the watch - 7 bells
4:00 into the watch - 8 bells (So this occurs at 4am, 8am noon, 4pm, 8pm, and midnight)

Thus as one reads a novel and the author reveals n number of bells being struck without also providing the name of the watch in which it is occurring one may not know what time it is. In my reading experience the author usually provides other references (e.g. Lunchtime) to clue the reader in. However, lunch isn't always served at 4 bells in every watch of the day.


02-07-2013, 13:18
Welcome to the Anchorage Leif. Glad to see you're jumping right in with a very informative first post. I'm looking forward to your future posts.

02-07-2013, 14:02
Great info, Leif. Thanks.

02-08-2013, 00:58
Great posting Leif!

Jack Aubrey
02-09-2013, 04:21
Thank you, very interesting

Comte de Brueys
02-19-2013, 01:10
So I post this in the (German time) forenoon watch.

Good information, Leif.

Jack Aubrey
02-19-2013, 04:14
So I post this in the (German time) forenoon watch.

Good information, Leif.
That`s a good idea.
I will see...

06-30-2013, 09:29
After the Nore mutiny of 1797, Royal Navy vessels no longer rang five bells on the last dog watch, as that had been the signal to begin the mutiny.

07-02-2013, 05:37
Very interesting information Leif !

07-11-2013, 23:29
Thank you for this information, Leif.