"Black Tot Day:" Royal Navy Issues Last Daily Grog Ration

« Previous story
Next story »
"Black Tot Day:" Royal Navy Issues Last Daily Grog Ration

Sailor on HMS Phoebe receives his final grog ration, July 31, 1970
Image courtesy of http://www.findingdulcinea.com/
(Unless otherwise indicated, all illustrations are courtesy of Wikipedia)

Today in Military History: July 31, 1970

Today's trip into military history is a little out-of-the-ordinary. At the time it occurred, it was highly unpopular with the British ratings (sailors), but led to other navies following suit.


When sea-faring nations began to maintain fighting ships at sea, living conditions for the men who sailed them worsened. Food was notoriously bad and inadequate for the underpaid crews, and circumstances continued to decline as ships sailed farther from home to extend the influence of powerful monarchs. To compensate the sailors and help take their mind off their wretched existence, sailors in Britain's Royal Navy were issued beer, with a daily ration of one gallon. When beer was not available, it could be substituted by a pint of wine or half a pint of other spirits, which depended on what was locally available.

In the 16th century, English ships began making regular voyages to the Caribbean where the crew's wine turned to vinegar even faster than it did in more moderate latitudes, and beer often spoiled before the ship even reached her destination. Therefore, the Royal Navy needed a drink that wouldn't rot in barrels and would take up less cargo room.

During the seventeenth century, the political influence of the West Indian planters led to rum being given the preference over other spirits. [This was partly due to the manufacturers's concern that their product would be taken by pirates.] The rum itself was often procured from distillers in Jamaica, Trinidad & Tobago, and the British Virgin Islands. Sailors were first served rum in 1655 and it became standard practice by 1731.

The half pint of spirits was originally issued neat (that's undiluted, to you teetotalers); it is said that sailors would "prove" its strength by checking that gunpowder doused with rum would still burn, thus verifying that rum was at least 57 percent alcohol by volume, or ABV. [This is the origin of the term "proof" to define the alcohol content of spirits.] The rum helped to boost the spirits of men on a long journey, but often they would become intoxicated by saving their tots and drinking them together.

"Edward Vernon" by Thomas Gainsborough (ca. 1753); Oil on canvas; currently in National Portrait Gallery, London, UK
"Edward Vernon" by Thomas Gainsborough (ca. 1753)
Oil on canvas; currently in National Portrait Gallery, London, UK

The practice of compulsorily diluting rum in the proportion of half a pint to one quart of water (a proportion of 1:4) was first introduced in the 1740s by Admiral Edward Vernon (known as "Old Grog," because of the grogram cloak he habitually wore). He also ordered that lemon or lime juice be added to the diluted mixture, to make it more palatable, and to force the sailors to drink their ration right away. It was soon discovered that sailors under Vernon's command did not suffer the same levels of scurvy as other British sailors. In 1756 Royal Navy regulations required adding small quantities of lemon or lime juice to the ration.The ration was also split into two servings, one between 10 am and noon and the other between 4 and 6 pm.

Although the rum ration was diluted in an attempt to maintain sobriety on board, extra tots were commonly dispensed as rewards for exemplary service or acts of heroism. Before going into battle, captains sometimes ordered a tot for the crews to make them more "brave and willing." And the capture of an enemy prize was always celebrated with yet more drink for the crew.

Rum was a respected part of protocol on navy ships of nearly every nation, but in time the sailor's allotment was gradually reduced. In the case of the Royal Navy, the original ration of a pint of rum per day dwindled to only half a gill, about two ounces, in 1850. Later the evening serving was eliminated altogether. At the same time, petty officers and above would receive their rum neat. In addition, sailors who were non-drinkers received minor compensation – called "grog money" – in lieu of their rum. Sailors known to be under the age of 20 were forbidden grog. But in spite of the shriveling measure of their daily tot, each new generation of sailors enthusiastically maintained the tradition.

Daily Issuance of Rum Tot

The officer in charge of dispensing the rum onboard ship was called the purser, soon mispronounced – or slurred – into pusser. He had two assistants responsible for the proper mixing of the grog. One of was called the "Jack Dusty." He was once the pusser's steward employed in the bread room working with flour. In later years, the Jack Dusty was assigned the task of meticulously maintaining daily book-keeping and inventory records for the ship's rum. The "Tanky" was the Jack Dusty's assistant, whose job it was to tend the fresh water tanks and to mix the rum with the correct amount of water for the grog issue. The selection of the Tanky required discrimination since Tanky could develop into the biggest "rum rat" of all if he was inclined that way and not someone to be trusted.

'Royal Navy Grog Issue' by Robert Sargent Austin, RA (1941); Unknown medium, currently in the Imperial War Museum, London, UK [Note WRNS – Women's Royal Naval Service – are dispensing the grog]
"Royal Navy Grog Issue" by Robert Sargent Austin, RA (1941)
Unknown medium, currently in the Imperial War Museum, London, UK
[Note WRNS – Women's Royal Naval Service – are dispensing the grog]

At 11:00 am the boatswain's mate piped "Up spirits," the signal for the petty officer of the day to climb to the quarterdeck and collect (1) the keys to the spirit room from an officer, (2) the ship's cooper, and (3) a detachment of Royal Marines. In procession, they unlocked the door of the spirit room, and witnessed the pumping into a keg of one eighth pint of rum for every sailor and petty officer on the ship aged 20 or more and not under punishment. Two marines lifted the keg to the deck, standing guard while a file of cooks from the petty officers' messes held out their jugs. The sergeant of marines poured the ration under direction of the chief steward, who announced the number of drinking men present in each petty officer's mess. The rest of the rum was mixed in a tub with two parts water, becoming the grog provided to the seamen.

At noon, the boatswain's mate piped "Muster for Rum," and the cooks from each mess presented with tin buckets. The sergeant of marines ladled out the authorized number of "tots" (half-pints) supervised by the petty officer of the day. The few tots of grog remaining in the tub ("plushers") were poured into the scuppers, visibly running into the sea. The petty officers were served first, and entitled to take their rum undiluted. The ordinary seamen drank their grog in one long gulp when they finished their work around noon.

Rum tub aboard the retired C-class destroyer HMS Cavalier
Rum tub aboard the retired C-class destroyer HMS Cavalier

At sea, rum was a kind of currency, just like money. To offer a shipmate a portion of one's tot, no matter how small, was deemed to be the apotheosis of generosity. The men purchased articles from one another using rum as the currency; they played cards and other games of chance for it, and it was used to repay favors. Rum had a value, and like money, it came in different denominations defined by how much one might take or be given from another's tot. A wet was just enough on the lips to cover them thoroughly with rum. A sipper, a gentlemanly sip when offered; a gulper, one, but only one, big swallow (usually given as a favor), and Sandy Bottoms ... a rare privilege (in some cases, a settlement of a debt) involving drinking the entire contents of another's tot. The currency of the tot went like this:

3 wets (a tiny, tiny sip) equalled 1 sip;
3 sips equalled one gulp; and
3 gulps equalled one tot.

Beginning of the End of the Rum Ration

By the mid- to late 20th century, it was finally conceded that rum was not conducive to the mental concentration needed to wage modern warfare. The cerebral demands of flying supersonic aircraft or operating sophisticated electronic equipment are much different from those needed to load or fire a cannon from the deck of a ship. On January 28, 1970, the "Great Rum Debate" took place in the House of Commons; it was decided to abolish the practice of serving rum, though sailors would be allowed an extra can of beer every day (for a total of three cans for 2/3 of a pint).

The daily tot was served until July 31, 1970, a day that came to be known as "Black Tot Day." Ships bemoaned the dark day in many different ways; some held elaborate ceremonies, and others threw their final ration overboard. According to one source, the HMS Dolphin paid respects to the tot's demise by having "a gun carriage bearing a coffin that was flanked by two drummers and led by a piper playing a lament."


Yet the tradition hasn't dried up completely; both the British and the Royal New Zealand navies, as well as the Royal Canadian Navy, will still "splice the mainbrace." Formerly a command to repair important equipment, this order is now used to signal the issuance of a celebratory rum ration, on special occasions. These might include a royal wedding, a victory, or some other major milestone. Currently, only the monarch or a member of the royal family can call for a rum ration. One was permitted in the British navy after the victory in the Falklands Islands (1982), another after the birth of Prince William (also 1982). More recently, during the 100th anniversary of the Canadian navy in 2010, the Queen signalled a rum ration.

"Splice the mainbrace!"
"Splice the mainbrace!"

Footnote #1: Admiral Vernon's name is immortalized in Mount Vernon, George Washington's home near Alexandria, Virginia. Washington's brother Lawrence had served with the admiral during the War of Jenkin's Ear, and named the estate for his former commander.

Footnote #2: The addition of lime or lemon juice to rum led to British sailors being referred to as "limeys."

Footnote #3: Following the death of Lord Horatio Nelson at the 1805 Battle of Trafalgar, the admiral's remains were stored in a large cask of spirits for the voyage home. According to legend, his loyal crewmembers drilled into the barrel and supposedly drank it dry, either out of extreme thirst or reverence for their fallen leader. The rum ration was thereby nicknamed "Nelson's Blood." It also gave rise to the rum ration slang expression "tapping the admiral."

Footnote #4: The U.S. Navy abolished the daily rum ration in 1862, but on occasion a ship's captain will order a celebratory round of drinks, usually beer. During the Second World War some submarine commanders, such as Adm. Eugene Fluckey of the USS Barb, tried to relieve the stress of living in a contained and dangerous environment by providing his crew with beer after an enemy ship was sunk.

Footnote #5: In 1980, Secretary of the Navy Edward Hidalgo decided to allow crew members of ships that had been out to sea for an extended period to each have two beers (later set to 45 continuous days). According to a letter by Capt. Lawrence B. Brennan, published in Naval History magazine, the surprise announcement to again permit limited beer on board was prompted by Hidalgo's experience on USS Enterprise during World War II, when a kamikaze attack plane crashed though an elevator and destroyed the vessel's cargo of beer.

Posted in top stories | 0 comments
« Previous story
Next story »


* To comment without a Facebook account, please scroll to the bottom.

Add new comment

Plain text

  • No HTML tags allowed.
  • Web page addresses and e-mail addresses turn into links automatically.
  • Lines and paragraphs break automatically.
This question is for testing whether or not you are a human visitor and to prevent automated spam submissions.
Have a tip for us? A link that should appear here? Contact us.
News from the World of Military and Veterans Issues. Iraq and A-Stan in parenthesis reflects that the author is currently deployed to that theater.