The Bosun’s Call

30th September 2015 — 16 Comments

CallI’m never surprised by what detectorists retrieve from the ground, but here’s an unusual find and one that you don’t see often. Clinton White of St. Albans tells me that he was detecting in Hertfordshire woods with his Goldmaxx, finding lots of bullets, buttons and ring pulls when he came across this unusual item, a bosun’s call, sometimes referred to as a boatswain’s whistle or pipe.

whistal 012

© Clinton White

The Bosun’s Call was once the only method other than the human voice of passing orders to men on board ship, and its high-pitched notes could even be heard in gale conditions. Today more sophisticated communications systems exist but the Royal Navy, always believers in tradition, still use the whistle as a mark of respect to pipe the Captain or special visitors on board. Nowadays it’s a badge of office and its use is essentially ceremonial.

The screw lock karabiner attached to the shackle on this example suggests a relatively modern date, but this is not necessarily so. The whistle itself looks much older and hasn’t got the look of the sort of sleek shiny replicas sold to sea scouts. What do you think?


The following battery example of a whistle from the Detectorists’ Database (also recorded with the PAS) still produces a vey loud call. Found by a detectorist in Lincolnshire, it is thought to be circa 16th century. This example is made from a sheet of silver, with a hollow spherical bulb and applied S-shaped handle.


UKDFD 18043

As they were a symbol of status, base metal boatswain’s whistles were seen as worthless (Spencer, 1998, 107). This has led to their interpretation as toys or pilgrim souvenirs. A silver whistle with similar scrolling keep was found on the Mary Rose (Gardiner, 2005, 256 fig 7.18). Another similar example can be found on the PAS database: LON-8FC268.  From the PAS Database


For those interested in the sounds produced from the pipe and their meanings take a look and listen to Mate Wayne Stacey of SS Ship 198 Eagle Milton, Delaware LCDR USCG Ret. as he explains and demonstrates the four basic sounds. I can’t be sure that they are the same as those used in the British Navy. Although quite long, the demonstration is quite entertaining.


Adapted from a Blog first published in 2012



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16 responses to The Bosun’s Call

  1. Thanks for sharing John.

    Great read!

  2. You can learn something new everyday if you are not real careful! Fascinating read, John! Thanks!

  3. Interesting as always. I wonder what the markings are on Clinton’s Pipe chain?

  4. It never ceases to amaze me how informative your blogs are John. Excellent read!

  5. Always interesting reading material John, my partner still uses our Bosun’s Call while directing me and the wheelie bin onto the street on pea soup mornings 😉

  6. Very good reading now pipe me on board for my breakfast.

  7. Thank you to all those above (and below) for your welcome comments.

  8. thanks John, that brings back my youth, waiting for my brother returning from royal navy duties, he used to teach me them, now sadly I had forgotten them.

  9. We learn something new every day–great article, as usual.

  10. I think the found whistle is one of the cheap souvenir key rings that you can buy in Pompy or Chatham.

  11. Still use them today. Atests for their usefulness. Good read.

  12. Great read John,i prefer the wolf whistle myself, when the nice Ladies walk by

  13. Ah, Me ‘earty:

    It’s one of they traditional reasons why matelots were forbidden from whistling aboard ship as their whistling might be confused with the bosun’s whistle, and also, whistling aboard ship was considered – in days past – unlucky. I’m sure you remember?

    An interesting find, though one rivet made from gold, could cause an eye-watering experience; sometimes known as the roll of the ship – or more likely a roll of lino.

  14. An interesting read John. I have often seen and heard the bosun’s whistle in movies but had never given them much thought, until now.

  15. Fascinating post, John. Knowing virtually about them I’d have guessed they dated to the 18th Century at the earliest.

    I fancy all such badges of office and collect them as I’m able. I possess a Essex Regiment swagger stick from WWI, but if I had my druthers I’d prefer carrying a Lee-Enfield “over the top”.

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