Menu Icon


| Grand Auctions

Collectable silver: Bosun Whistle - Boatswain’s call

The word ‘bosun’ (Bo’sun / Boson) is derived from ’boatswain’. The boatswain was the individual onboard a ship in charge of anchors, cables and rigging amongst other duties. They would either be integrated as a warrant officer onboard a warship or a petty officer onboard a merchant vessel. Originally, the bosun whistle was utilised to pass commands on to the crew onboard the ship. With its distinctive high pitched sound, the message could be heard throughout the ship over noise of crew activities or during a time when experiencing poor weather conditions. To this day, the bosun whistle is used by the Navy in traditional bugle calls for announcing events and ceremonies and they are also used as standard by military navies from around the world.


Silver bosun whistles can be found dating back to the mid 18th century. However, examples from this period are generally rather crude probably due to being manufactured from melted coins by the ships coppersmith or tinsmith. Towards the end of the 18th century, silversmiths began producing much high quality examples which continued throughout the 19th century.

Construction and design

Unlike most whistles, the boatswain’s call is designed without a diaphragm and is comprised of three key sections. These consist of a barrel or buoy, the pipe section also called the gun or cannon and the keel. Typically a suspensory ring referred to as the shackle will be fitted to the keel section. In order to sound the boatswain, air must be blown through the tubular gun section which directs the air to the spherical buoy section which is incorporated with a hole in the top. To create pitch variations, the player opens and closes the hole with a finger.

Collecting silver bosun whistles

There are several factors which can determine how collectable or desirable these items can be. Although the earliest examples are of a lower quality, they can still be seen as charming items to collect. If the bosun is made by a prominent silversmith then this will naturally enhance its value. However, unlike many other areas being defined solely in this way, various other factors should be taken into account such as whether it is engraved with the name of the ship, naval base or individual. When there is positive evidence to suggest that the bosun whistle was used at for example the battle of the Nile, Copenhagen or Trafalgar the value can increase considerably.

Notable bosun whistle makers

Paul Storr, Joseph Wilmore, Hilliard & Thomason, Henry Matthews and T Simpson & Son.

If you have any silver you would like to sell or have valued, please contact Robin Newcombe, silver specialist at Grand Auctions, Folkestone, Kent for further details.