The history of the bosun’s call
By Lea Edgar, Librarian and Archivist, Vancouver Maritime Museum
I first became interested in the bosun’s call in an unconventional way. Coming from a landlubbing family, my first experience with the little whistles was with the characters Admiral Boom and Mr. Binnacle in the film Mary Poppins. Mr. Binnacle, in traditional Royal Navy fashion, wore the whistle around his neck on a chain. I was always intrigued by what the whistle sounds meant. Fortunately, working in a maritime museum has afforded me the opportunity to dig deeper into the history of the whistles.
Although somewhat outdated in modern navies, the bosun’s call (also known as a pipe or whistle) has almost always been a symbol of position and a tool for communicating orders at sea. The call’s history may even stretch as far back as Roman times when a type of whistle was used to keep the rowing rhythm on galleys. However, its first documented use was on English ships during the crusades in the 13th century. Whistles were useful because they could be heard over noisy seas. Up until 1562, the Lord High Admiral wore a gold whistle as a symbol of his rank. At this time, it was known as the “whistle of honour.” Whistles used for ordinary command were issued in silver and each officer had his own decorated with designs such as ropes and anchors. After 1671, it became known as the “boatswain’s call.” The boatswain (or bosun) was the officer in charge of rigging, sails and sailing equipment. The whistle was named after him because he needed to issue orders more often than other officers.
Over time, the bosun’s call became a standard in naval and military ships all over the world. Each vessel had an officer who knew the various call codes and who was in charge of using the call to whistle commands. It was also sounded at certain times of the day to mark daily chores and for ceremonies. Today, its use is primarily ceremonial — for example, it is played at Evening Colours. Occasionally, the traditional bosun’s call is accompanied by other flourishes such as voice commands and announcements or sometimes even a gun salute. In modern navies, the bosun’s call is the badge of office of the Chief Boatswains Mate, Quartermaster and Boatswains Mates. In North America, the Sea Cadets seem the most determined to maintain the traditions surrounding the bosun’s call, such as Piping the Side.
These whistles bear a distinctive shape and the design has remained almost unchanged since medieval times. There are five main parts to the structure of the bosun’s call, most of which have nautical names. The gun is the mouthpiece, the keel is the leaf, the buoy is the metal sphere with the hole on top, and finally the shackle is the ring.
It takes practice and skill to control the sounds the whistle makes; however, sailors found themselves with a lot of time at sea to master the little instrument. Using the fingers and the hand to manipulate the flow of air, the whistle is capable of a full octave range of 12 notes. Nevertheless, the use of the bosun’s call did not generally take full advantage of its musical range. Generally, orders used high-low and long-short patterns. The instrument is played by using the palm and fingers as an extra sound chamber. The larger and more open the chamber, the lower the pitch. One may also vary the pitch by lowering each finger.
There are some special effects the bosun’s call can make. These include the warble and the trill. The warble is made by moving the hand quickly from the high position to the low. The effect resembles the song of a canary. The trill is made by vibrating the tongue while blowing, much like rolling the letter R. There are many commands the bosun’s call communicates. One is called the still. This sound calls all hands to attention, orders silence or announces the arrival of a senior officer on board. The still is simply one high note held for eight seconds and ends abruptly. The carry on is played after the reason for the still has been completed. It is a one-second high note, followed by a one-second low note.
An important ceremony involving the bosun’s call is “manning the side.” During the ceremony, a party of sailors (known as side boys) pipe aboard flag-rank officers or important guests. This ceremony originates during the days of sail. When the weather was too rough for the use of ladders, a visiting senior officer was hoisted aboard using a bosun’s chair. The side boys were directed in hoisting the chair by the bosun using his call.
Although more sophisticated methods of issuing orders now take precedence on board naval vessels, the bosun’s call still survives on tradition. Symbolism and ritual are maintained and encouraged by many organizations such as the Royal Navy and the Sea Cadets. Because of this, the bosun’s call is still used and is not merely a museum artifact. So, the next time you are watching Mary Poppins or perhaps visiting a naval ship, listen carefully for the sound of the whistle.
Lea Edgar started her position as Librarian and Archivist for the Vancouver Maritime Museum in 2013. She can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.