‘Very sad about tot…’

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In a number of respects the Old Navy that I knew and loved is no more. Sailors do not sleep in hammocks these days, the female of the species now serves alongside chaps at sea – and the tot is no longer on regular issue.

It was in Jamaica back in the mid seventeenth century that rum, also colourfully known as rumbustion, rumbullion, kill devil, Barbados waters and red-eye, was first issued on board ships of the Royal Navy – a full half pint of neat rum a day, instead of the beer ration. Disturbed by the ensuing problem of drunkenness Admiral Vernon (nicknamed Old Grogram because of the boat cloak he favoured made out of that material) ordered that the rum issue be diluted 1:4 and issued twice daily; thereafter the drink was called ‘grog’. By 1793 the dilution was usually 1:3.

From Vernon’s time to the end of the Napoleonic Wars, two issues of grog per day remained the custom whenever beer was unavailable. But the use of rum gradually became more widespread, as did the issuing ritual. In Kydd’s day, the ship’s fiddler played ‘Nancy Dawson’, the signal for cooks of messes to repair to the rum tub to draw rations for their messmates. This was always done in the open air due to the combustible nature of rum!
Rum became a currency onboard with its own special vocabulary:

Sippers – a small taste.
Gulpers – the next level up – a substantial swig from a mate’s ration.
Sandy bottoms – you got the entire tot!

Jamaican Cocoanut

Jamaican Cocoanut

In the Age of Sail ‘sucking the monkey’ was a way for Jack Tar to illicitly get his hands on rum from ashore. Canny hawkers would empty out the ‘water’ from coconuts and fill them with rum. The innocent-looking fruit was then ferried out to ships in bumboats – with many eager matelot customers awaiting!
Although Horatio Nelson’s body was preserved in brandy en route back to England, to this day navy rum is known as Nelson’s blood. This is perhaps due to the widespread myth that his body was preserved in rum, and that sailors aboard HMS Victory made a small hole in the cask in which it had been placed then syphoned off and drank some of the spirit, hoping to imbibe not only the rum but of the essence of their great hero.

July 31, 1970 saw the last issue of rum in the Royal Navy. It became known as Black Tot Day.
The First Sea Lord, Admiral Sir Michael Le Fanu (affectionately known as ‘Dry Ginger’) issued this message:

    Most farewell messages try
    To jerk a tear from the eye
    But I say to you lot
    Very sad about tot
    But thank you, good luck and good-bye.


Michael Le Fanu was set to take over as Chief of Defence Staff but a sudden serious illness prevented this. He passed away in November of that year.


Copyright notices
Coconut: By Franz Eugen Köhler, Köhler’s Medizinal-Pflanzen (List of Koehler Images) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Every effort is made to honour copyright but if we have inadvertently published an image with missing or incorrect attribution, on being informed of this, we undertake to delete the image or add a correct credit notice

8 Comments on “‘Very sad about tot…’

  1. Being a US Marine and having served with my British bretheren, I have always wondered if the Marines aboard Royal Navy ships were allowed to partake in the rum ration. Anyone know?

  2. I served as a Jack Dusty (Victualler) from 66-75, remember up spirits and issuing the rum ration at 11:45-12:00 every day (HMS Tenby), recording those that were temperance (not that many). Though never old enough to draw myself (not 20 until ’71) I visited many a mess for sippers and gulpers, not many sandy bottoms though. I was ships company at Sultan on the last day where a wagon was pulled around the establishment, with a rum barrel draped in black, it was a black day!!

  3. As a former Ganges boy of ’58 I went on to draw my tot in various ships and establishments, but by the time the Black Tot Day occurred – July 31st 1970 – I had left the mob, so never saw the ceremonial burials and various funerals of rum tubs!
    To this day I continue to get gifts of bottles of rum on my birthday and at Christmas……..

  4. I joined in 1961, and was based at Terror for the last day of tot. There was a full ceremonial burial of a rum cask being escorted through the base and each matelot received a small plaque commemorating the sad event.

    Being on ships with the full ceremony of up spirits, was unique. Hard to explain to non Navy types.

    • Have you still got your plaque my husband has been trying to find his up in the loft without success.

  5. I joined as National Serviceman in ’54 as Upper Yardman, destined for pilot training, so never got it as a trainee. Later promoted (?) to Midshipman but still not allowed to buy spirits from Wardroom Bar. Consolation in my old age to buy “Pussers Rum” from good wine merchants.

  6. Yep, remember that, I joined Raleigh/Collingwood in June 71 (the last of the direct entry Mechanicians) only to be told rum ration was stopped a few months previous!! although we did get one or two “Splice the Mainbrace”s, I was also was given a hammock on my first ship HMS Jaguar at Chatham, not that comfortable as I remember.

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