The Last Watch aboard Titanic: Ship's Bells for April 14th, 2012

Jay Roches

Apr 14, 2012
They Never Heard Eight Bells

In another post I had an idea I think is intriguing enough to merit a post of its own. It's a suggestion for something to do in commemoration of the 100th anniversary of the sinking of the Titanic. Unfortunately it is a bit late and I don't imagine many people will see it in time, but I think it could be of interest to some.

The crew of the Titanic never completed their last watch. That watch started at 20:00 (8 pm). It was due to end at midnight, and it never did. They never heard eight bells.

I thought that it might be appropriate for those who are commemorating the sinking of the Titanic on April 14th to mark the passage of the last four hours before the sinking by remembering the times the ship's bell rang to signal to the crew how much time they had left on duty. The incident occurred just 20 minutes before the crew went off duty. Half an hour before the end of a watch, seven bells ring. Eight bells signal the end of the watch. On the Titanic, there never were eight bells on the night of the 14th/15th of April, 1912.

One could use a real bell or a computer or phone. There are several apps for simulating ship's bells, but you would need to choose one that lets you have the bells ring at a time that's not a real half-hour.

There were no ship's bells after the incident. Impact was at 10:02 New York time, which is 11:02 PM EDT. The lookouts rang their bell three times when they saw what turned out to be the iceberg. That was several minutes before impact. Perhaps one could ring a bell three times, urgently, at 11:02, and then periodically read aloud descriptions of what was happening.

This is a little long, so if you just want to know when you could ring a bell in memory of the Titanic's lost crew, here they are in Eastern Daylight Time for April 14th/15th, 2012. To make things easier for people not familiar with 24-hour time, I've used AM and PM. For those who prefer 24-hour time, I'm sorry.

6:58 pm (4 bells, new crew comes on at 8 pm Titanic time)
7:28 pm - 1 bell
7:58 pm - 2 bells
8:28 pm - 3 bells
8:58 pm - 4 bells
9:52 pm - 5 bells (there is an extra 24 minutes because the clocks were changed)
10:22 pm - 6 bells
10:52 pm - 7 bells
11:02 pm - Titanic collides with an iceberg.
11:48 pm - First boat leaves.
1:02 am - Last boat leaves.
1:25 am - Titanic disappears.

Explanation of ship's bells

The working day aboard a ship is divided up into seven "watches". Each member of the crew is assigned to work or rest in alternating watches. The first four, starting at midnight, are four hours long. Starting at 16:00 (4 pm), there are two two-hour "dog watches" (this allows for the crew to be on duty at different times each day and lets everyone have dinner at 5pm or 6 pm). The last watch, from 8 pm to midnight, is another four hour watch.

Ships used bells to help the crew keep track of time. Half an hour after the watch began, one bell would be struck. An hour in, it was two bells. Two hours in would be four bells. The end of the watch, and the beginning of the next, was signalled by eight bells. While they were meant for the crew, the passengers would also have heard the bells.

The Brown Chronology and the last watch aboard Titanic

David G. Brown compiled an excellent and highly detailed chronology of the sinking that includes times for the ships' bells.

Below is a table of the bells struck on the last watch before the impact, from 8 pm to 11:40 pm "bridge time." Using Brown's chronology, I have compiled a simple chronology that begins at 8 PM on the night of the 14th, when the last watch began. I have listed the equivalent times in Eastern Daylight Time. DST did not exist in 1912, of course, but I feel that providing EDT times will make things easier. Add four hours for GMT.

The first time is Bridge Time. This is used by the crew, and it is this time that is used for the ship's bells. It may be different than times you are familiar with. For a detailed explanation of the several methods of timekeeping, please see the Brown chronology. There is a 'loss' of 24 minutes during the last watch, as the clock was turned back from 10 PM to 9:36 PM. Four bells were sounded at the first 10 PM, but five bells were not sounded until 10:30 PM, 54 minutes later.

8:00 PM -- 6:58 PM EDT Watch begins. Four bells (not 8 as with some other ships) are sounded because this is the end of the Second Dog Watch. Lightoller, Moody and Boxhall are on duty.
8:30 PM -- 7:28 PM EDT One bell.
9:00 PM -- 7:58 PM EDT Two bells.
9:30 PM -- 8:28 PM EDT Three bells. Ten minutes later, the Titanic receives an ice warning that Capt. Smith probably never saw.
10:00 PM -- 8:58 PM EDT Four bells. Ships clocks adjusted for the day. They are turned back 24 minutes, to 9:36 PM.
9:36 PM -- 8:58 PM EDT New time, after clock adjustment.
10:00 PM -- 9:22 PM EDT It is 10 pm for the Titanic's crew for the second time. No bells are struck. Murdoch replaces Lightoller.
10:30 PM -- 9:52 PM EDT Five bells. Eighteen minutes later, the Californian sends an ice warning. Philips replies: "Shut up, I am working Cape Race."
11:00 PM -- 10:22 PM EDT Six bells.
11:30 PM -- 10:52 PM EDT Seven bells. This is the last time the ship's bells would be struck.
11:40 PM -- 11:02 PM EDT It has been less than a minute since Murdoch received the message: "Iceberg, right ahead!". Time of impact. Many crew think of the time of impact as "shortly after 7 bells," not 11:40.
12:00 PM -- 11:22 PM EDT No bells. The 12-to-4 watch comes on duty. The 8-to-12 watch is not relieved due to the emergency. All crew members are on duty. The usual adjustment to the clock is never made.
12:06 PM -- 11:25 PM EDT CQD distress call is sent out for the first time.
12:19 AM -- 11:41 PM EDT The order is given to load the lifeboats.
12:26 AM -- 11:48 PM EDT The first boat is launched, No. 7.
12:30 AM -- 11:52 PM EDT No bells. It has been 50 minutes since the impact. Boxhall fires the first rocket around this time.
1:00 AM -- 12:22 AM EDT No bells. By this time, boats 7, 5, 3, 8, 6, 16, 14 and 9 are launched. This is half of the 16 all-wooden boats.
1:30 AM -- 12:52 AM EDT No bells. In the last half hour, boats 12, 11, 13, 15, 2, and 10 have been launched.
1:33 AM -- 12:55 AM EDT Titanic to Carpathia: "Engine room full up to boilers." This is the last message received by another ship. Boat 4, the last wooden lifeboat, is launched.
1:40 AM -- 1:02 AM EDT One hour and 56 minutes after impact, collapsible D is the last boat to be launched, 5 minutes after collapsible C.
1:50 AM -- 1:12 AM EDT Collapsibles A and B wash off the deck. Nearly everybody still aboard the ship will die.
2:00 AM -- 1:22 AM EDT No bells. 24 hours earlier, the crew were halfway through their watch, probably looking forward to some rest.
But tonight is April 14th, 1912, aboard the RMS Titanic. In the last two minutes the ship has broken in two, and the bow is on its way to the bottom of the Atlantic.
1:25 AM EDT The Titanic's stern disappears.

I am very grateful to David Brown for preparing the chronology and any errors are mine; moreover I hope that there are no objections to the use of these times.*

Thanks for your time if you've chosen to read this. It's a very short and simple chronology but things seem different when you look at the situation in half-hour intervals.

* Except that 5 bells is 0152 GMT, not 0158. The April 14th and 15th Titanic times are correct, only the GMT and EST are affected.