Today is Black Tot Day and the 45th anniversary of the last ever daily rum ration served to sailors in the Royal Navy. After over three hundred years of tradition, at six bells in the forenoon watch (11am) on 31 July 1970, ‘Up Spirits’ was piped on the Bos’n’s call and the grog tub was rolled out for the last time across the British fleet.
The rum ration had held a sacred place in the hearts of Navy sailors since it was first introduced in 1655 as part of the standard Navy rationing of beer, wine and spirits in place of tea, coffee, cocoa and water on all shifts. Until 1740 each sailor was entitled to half a pint of neat rum (40% proof) and a gallon of beer if they wanted it – and most did.
The rum ration in particular was doled out in a ceremony announced by the Bos’n piping “Up Spirits”. At this call, senior crew members would convene at the door of the Spirit Room, the heavily padlocked home of the ship’s casks of hard liquor. Inside, the Butcher tapped a cask and drew off the day’s ration for the entire ship’s company. Neat tots were issued for the Chiefs and Petty Officers and then the remainder, in a padlocked cask or breaker, was carried to the rum tub.
At Rumcall (played on the bugle) the breaker was unlocked and emptied carefully into the oak tub, with the company arranged in reverence to its shining brass hoops and inscription of “The King – God Bless Him”.
At this point the Petty Officer would consult his ledger and grandly announce the number of tots to which each mess was entitled. Once served, the remainder was poured away down the scuppers (or snuck back to the officers’ cabins).
By 1740, however, Admiral ‘Old Grogram’ Vernon had decided that drunkenness was a scourge up with which the Navy should not put and introduced a ‘Grog’ of 4 parts water to 1 part rum.
However even this dilution was not enough to keep the sailors in a shipshape condition. By 1745 the Navy had decided to cut back on mixing their drinks and moved to issue beer and spirit rations on alternate days. Eleven years later, the thoughtful addition of lime to the rum further mitigated the effects of the Grog and also had the benefit of guarding against scurvy, although it did give the British the nickname of Limeys.
By 1810 it was clear that the Admiralty was taking its dipsological responsibilities seriously as they codified the rum blend to be used across the fleet (thus creating Navy Rum and a recipe still used by Lamb’s to this day) and by 1824 space considerations were clearly more of a concern and the ration was halved to a quarter pint per man (also known as a tot). This freed up more space in the hold for limes, cannonballs, cabin boys and all the ephemera of a modern naval force.
Again, in 1850, Parliament raised concerns about the level of drinking on the high seas and proposed the abolition of the rum ration. Fortunately common sense prevailed and in some presumably excellent negotiations, the decision was made to merely halve the ration to 1/8 pint per sailor per day, to be served once a day, rather than twice, at noon.
Finally on Black Tot Day the ration itself was abolished in an occasion of great solemnity and mourning; some sailors wore black armbands, and some tots were buried at sea. It was widely accepted that the extra can of beer that had been added to daily rations was scant compensation.
Genuine Navy Grog
- Add four parts water to one part navy rum. Add lime (post 1756) and enjoy.
Modern Navy Grog
- Dissolve three teaspoons of honey in 50ml rum.
- Add 10ml fresh lime juice, two dashes of Angostura bitters and 50ml water.
- Add cubed ice and shake for twenty seconds.
- Strain into an ice filled old fashioned glass and garnish with a wedge of lime