Alcohol and the Royal Navy often seem to go together – there are the nautical phrases for the time in the evening when a drink is OK, “the sun’s over the yardarm”, and having one too many can lead to a person being described as “three sheets to the wind”.
And, of course, there’s the old sea shanty, “What Shall We Do With the Drunken Sailor?”
Even given all that, though, it might come as a surprise to learn that the Royal Navy was issuing daily rum rations to all enlisted men (even those in nuclear submarines) until 1970.
After “Black Tot Day”, the final rum ration was replaced – by 3 cans of daily beer, instead……
Before Rum – Beer to combat foul water
Like pretty much everyone else, before 1655, sailors drank mostly small beer, or ale.
It was healthier than drinking water which was too often contaminated. Casks of drinking water on board ship quickly got stagnant and nasty, and no-one wanted to drink it.
But on longer voyages, the stuff didn’t keep that well. So the Senior Service needed a better solution – what to give sailors to drink?
The Start of Rum Rations
England conquered Jamaica in 1655, and an enterprising local captain started issuing a daily ration of rum to his sailors, instead of the official Royal Navy beer ration of a gallon (!!) a day.
The Royal Navy took over officially in 1740. From that date, each sailor in the Service was issued with half a pint of strong rum each day, half at noon, half at sunset. Before and after a battle, double rations were issued.
It was issued neat for a few years, but (oddly enough) some sailors stored up their rations, and then got completely blotto on them.
So from 1756, the standard “grog” rum was issued – 2 parts water to 1 part rum, mixed with lime or lemon juice, and cinnamon.
It’s thought that the nickname “limey” comes from this practice of adding citrus juice to the rum, a habit which combated scurvy.
The Up Spirit Ritual
The issuing of the rum ration became an elaborate ceremony. At 11am, the boatswain’s mate piped the tune “Up Spirits”, and a procession ladled out the rum, into portions for more senior NCOs, and the rest mixed with water (etc) for the ratings.
At midday, the boatswain’s mate piped the tune, “Muster for Rum”, and the crew came and got their half-pints of grog.
In the 18th and 19th centuries, the officers’ rum rations were accompanied by toasts – first the Loyal Toast (to the King or Queen) followed by a different toast for each day of the week:
Monday, “Our ships at sea”
Tuesday, “Our men”
Thursday, “A bloody war, and quick promotion”
Friday, “A willing soul and sea room”
Saturday, “Sweethearts and wives, may they never meet”
Sunday, “Absent friends, and those at sea”
See the HSM Hood website for more pictures of the daily Up Spirits ritual in the 1930s
Black Tot Day – the End of the Rum Ration
On 31st July 1970, the last rum was issued to ratings – on a day known as “Black Tot Day”. The Portsmouth Evening News said:
……sailors said farewell to the last issue of Nelson’s Blood, (as rum was known in the navy), by conducting mock funerals and wearing black armbands…The annual Christmas pudding stirring ceremony in HMS Bellerophon was brought forward today so that the usual four pints of rum could be included in the 150lb mix
Different ships carried out different farewell ceremonies. One ship in the Arabian Gulf buried their last barrel, and erected a headstone which said, “Good and Faithful Servant” on it.
HMS Dido put the last tot in a bottle with a note inviting the finder to drink to the health of the Royal Navy, and threw it overboard.
British Navy Pusser’s Rum, on sale since the 1970s, is the Admiralty’s mixture of 6 different rums, as served on board ship for centuries.