Royal Navy Rum – issued daily to sailors 1655 to 1970

By , February 8, 2010 2:01 am

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.

Up Spirit ceremony on HMS Endymion, 1905

Up Spirit ceremony on HMS Endymion, 1905

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

Sailors being issued with rum in Portsmouth in 1933

Sailors being issued with rum in Portsmouth in 1933

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.

In 1850, the ration was reduced to 1/4 pint (5 fluid ounces) and then to 1/8th pint (2.5 fluid ounces).


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”

Wednesday, “Ourselves”

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

 Black Tot Day on board HMS Phoebe

Black Tot Day on board HMS Phoebe

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.

28 Responses to “Royal Navy Rum – issued daily to sailors 1655 to 1970”

  1. Social comments and analytics for this post…

    This post was mentioned on Digg by elijahyossie: I love the idea of drunk nuclear submariners……..

  2. Man, I could go for some rum right now.

    Though I like mine mixed with some cola as well as limes.

  3. Daily Rum Rations: A Royal Navy Tradition For 315 Years | WeCharts.com says:

    [...] Excerpt from: Daily Rum Rations: A Royal Navy Tradition For 315 Years [...]

  4. Leslie S. says:

    My husband, the pirate, loves his rum! He sent me this article. lol

  5. [...] Source:http://www.webhistoryofengland.com/?p=677 Tags: cans, enlisted men, nuclear submarines, rations, royal navy, rum ration, surprise, tradition [...]

  6. david wayne osedach says:

    What an interesting tradition! It’s a wonder they didn’t issue home grown scotch whiskey instead of rum.

  7. Wiggles18 says:

    I am surprised that they did that.

  8. Tiki Tim says:

    I remember my tot getting stopped, a black day for the RN.

  9. Patch says:

    I’ll drink to that.

  10. [...] Source:http://www.webhistoryofengland.com/?p=677 Tags: cans, enlisted men, nuclear submarines, rations, royal navy, rum ration, surprise, tradition [...]

  11. hels says:

    Great post, as always. The question is: why did the Navy give rum away, and daily?

    Was life at sea so miserable, that was the only way the Navy could think to improve the sailors’ lives? Did it give the men courage in battle? Was it a cheap way of boosting their salaries?

    My own guess is that non-Navy sailors, especially the more disreputable types, had access to all the rum they wanted. Perhaps the Navy thought they could attract and hold these men, if they matched their previous employment conditions ha ha

  12. gunner says:

    rum rations are not gone, they just have to be requested and take a lot of paperwork for 1 shot of rum per man. I’m in the artillery and have received many official rum rations on the government’s tab. Mostly for a units anniversary or similar occasion.

  13. Milander says:

    The association of rum with the Royal Navy began in 1655 when the British fleet captured the island of Jamaica. With the availability of domestically produced rum, the British changed the daily ration of liquor given to seamen from French brandy to rum.[18] While the ration was originally given neat, or mixed with lime juice, the practice of watering down the rum began around 1740. To help minimize the effect of the alcohol on his sailors, Admiral Edward Vernon directed that the rum ration be watered down before being issued, a mixture which became known as grog. While it is widely believed that the term grog was coined at this time in honor of the grogram cloak Admiral Vernon wore in rough weather,[19] the term has been demonstrated to predate his famous orders, with probable origins in the West Indies, perhaps of African etymology (see Grog). The Royal Navy continued to give its sailors a daily rum ration, known as a “tot,” until the practice was abolished after July 31, 1970.[20] Today the rum ration (tot) is still issued on special occasions by H.M. Queen Elizabeth II order “Splice the mainbrace”! Such recent occasions have been Royal marriages/Birthdays, special anniversaries. Splice the main brace in the days of the daily ration meant double rations that day.

    A story involving naval rum is that following his victory at the Battle of Trafalgar, Horatio Nelson’s body was preserved in a cask of rum to allow transport back to England. Upon arrival, however, the cask was opened and found to be empty of rum. The pickled body was removed and, upon inspection, it was discovered that the sailors had drilled a hole in the bottom of the cask and drunk all the rum, in the process drinking Nelson’s blood. Thus, this tale serves as a basis for the term Nelson’s Blood being used to describe rum. It also serves as the basis for the term “Tapping the Admiral” being used to describe drinking the daily rum ration. The details of the story are disputed, as many historians claim the cask contained French brandy whilst others claim instead the term originated from a toast to Admiral Nelson.[21] It should be noted that variations of the story, involving different notable corpses, have been in circulation for many years.[22]

    The Royal New Zealand Navy is the last naval force left in the world that still gives its sailors a free tot of rum.

  14. [...] ended an enshrined 300-year tradition of a daily rum tot for each serving mariner.more »See also: History & Traditions of England: Royal Navy Rum – issued daily to sailors 1655 to 1970 »Titanic II: Heading Straight to DVD at a Grocery Store Checkout Line Near YouWhen a film trailer is [...]

  15. Ken says:

    This evening a small group of navy friends will drink a tot of Pussers in cape Town, just for old times sake….any excuse hey!

    • john burton says:

      WHERE DID YOU GET IT FROM? I thought it now only came via britain,I bought lots of crates before it went off the market in johannesburg, now drunk, and all gone. I got a bottle of the lower proof stuff from the u/k some 3 years ago

  16. Anonymous says:

    Adding rum to the water was a good idea as a preservative, albeit with the side effect. The modern shipboard preservative is a little calcium hypochlorite in the tanks of drinkable water. Since they didn’t know that, the rum was certainly was better than letting the water go bad barely days after takeoff.

  17. john burton says:

    Royal navy rum, I SUNK LOTS OF NEATERS IN MY RN TIME, Does anyone know what were the 6 blends of rum. Also was the rum , now marketed as pussers rum, a copy of the rum supplied to the RN

  18. roki says:

    I was messing party at the Royal Tournament in 1970. The Arena doors opened and the Household cavalry drummer, mounted on his drum horse, dressed in naval uniform and with black draped drums, led in the field gun crews with black armbands and all the rum issuing equipment on the gun carriage. The officers had their swords reversed and the procession slow marched round the arena and out. It was very emotional. I have never seen a video of this does anybody have one?

  19. [...] 1655 to 1970, the Royal Navy issued daily rations of rum to their sailors.  In the US Navy, alcohol was prohibited in 1913.  Now almost 100 years [...]

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