Black Tot Day The Day Grog Died
Today July 31st is the day, in my view, the Great British Empire fell.
For the British Royal Navy (and for most rum lovers everywhere), Black Tot Day refers to July 31st, 1970 – the day that the daily rum issue was brought to an end, and with it, the end of one of the most unique and enduring rum blends ever created.
The rum ration, or “tot,” from 1850 to 1970 consisted of one-eighth of an imperial pint (71 ml) of rum at 95.5 proof (54.6% ABV), given out at midday. Senior ratings (petty officers and above) received their rum neat, while for junior ratings, it was diluted with two parts of water to make three-eighths of an imperial pint (213 ml) of Grog. The rum ration was served from one particular barrel, known as the “Rum Tub,” which was ornately decorated and made of oak and reinforced with brass bands with brass letters saying “The Queen, God Bless Her.” Due to its highly volatile nature, rum was stored in large barrels in a special rum store in the ship’s bowels.
Not all sailors necessarily drew their rum: each had the option to be marked in the ship’s books as “G” (for Grog) or “T” (for Temperance). Sailors who opted to be “T” were given threepence (3d) a day instead of the rum ration, although most preferred the rum. Sailors under 20 were not permitted a rum ration and were marked on the ship’s books as “UA” (Under Age).
The time when the rum ration was distributed was called “Up Spirits,” which was between 11 am and 12 noon. A common cry from the sailors was “Standfast the Holy Ghost.” This was in response to the bosun’s call “Up Spirits.” Each mess had a “Rum Bosun” who would collect the rum in a metal container called a “fanny” from the Supply rating (Jack Dusty) responsible for measuring out the correct number of tots for each mess. The officers did not get a rum ration (but had unrationed access to a range of duty-free commercial spirits).
Tot glasses were kept separate from any other glasses. They were washed on the outside but never inside, in the belief that residue of past tots would stick to the side of the glass and make the tot even stronger.
Sailor’s ration of alcohol was originally beer with a daily ration of one gallon (i.e. eight pints). This official allowance continued until after the Napoleonic Wars. When beer was unavailable, as it would often spoil easily, it could be substituted by a pint of wine or half a pint of spirits, depending on what was locally available. The half-pint of spirits was originally issued neat; 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% ABV). In later years, the political influence of the West Indian planters led to rum being given the preference over arrack and other spirits.
The abolition of the rum ration had been discussed in Parliament in 1850 and again in 1881; however, nothing came of it. In 1970, Admiral Peter Hill-Norton abolished the rum ration as he felt it could have led to sailors failing a breathalyzer test and being less capable to manage complex machinery. This decision to end the rum ration was made after the Secretary of State for Defence had taken opinions from several ranks of the Navy. Ratings were instead allowed to purchase beer, and the amount allowed was determined, according to the MP David Owen, by the amount of space available for stowing the extra beer in ships. The last rum ration was on July 31st 1970 and became known as Black Tot Day as sailors were unhappy about the loss of the rum ration. There were reports that the day involved sailors throwing tots into the sea and staging a mock funeral in a training camp. In place of the rum ration, sailors were allowed to buy three one-half imperial pints (280 ml) cans of beer daily and improved recreational facilities.
While the rum ration was abolished, the order to “splice the mainbrace,” awarding sailors an extra tot of rum for good service, remained as a command which could only be given by the Monarch and is still used to recognize good service. Rum rations are also given on special occasions: in recent years, examples included the 100th anniversary of the Royal Canadian Navy in 2010 and after the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee celebrations in 2012.
Alcohol was not unique to the British Navy – in fact, almost every Naval force around the world would have at some point served a daily issue of alcohol to its crew. The reasons behind this daily booze allowance being introduced were simple – it was a useful tool for keeping morale on board the ships and provided a much-needed alternative to drinking water. What did these crews have against hydration, you may wonder?!
Well, without modern storage vessels, water would have been transported in wooden barrels. While wood may have provided a flavourful bonhomie when aging spirits, water would fare less well – often spoiling in the barrel with algae and bacteria quickly propagating within. Alcohol was, quite literally, a solution to this problem.
As more stable shipping materials were developed, the hydration issue became less and less of a justification. The tradition of the daily rum issue soon fell simply to morale and was contended by the advent of both Temperance and technology. One by one, Naval forces worldwide ceased their booze ration, seen as a move towards a more modern era of warfare. Today it would be almost unthinkable to bring any daily morning alcohol routine into the armed services (Bloody Mary, anyone?).
Source For The Word Grog And History
The practice of compulsorily diluting rum in the proportion of half a pint to one quart of water (1:4) was first introduced in the 1740s by Admiral Edward Vernon (known as Old Grog, because of his habitual grogram cloak). The ration was also split into two servings, one between 10 am and noon and the other between 4 and 6 pm. In 1795 Navy regulations required adding small quantities of lemon or lime juice to the ration, to prevent scurvy. The rum itself was often procured from distillers in Jamaica, Trinidad & Tobago and the British Virgin Islands. Rations were cut in half in 1823 and again in half, to the traditional amount, in 1850.
The word grog, is said to be short for grogram, and to have been applied first as a personal nickname to Vernon, for who you will read about below, as he wore a grogram cloak and changed the size of shots that were given out.
This has all the appearances of folk etymology, but no evidence for Grog before Vernon’s 1740 order has been found, and all the contemporary examples seem to support this origin.
This situation led to the following order (Edward Vernon was born in 1684 and died in 1757):
By Edward Vernon, Esq., Vice-Admiral of the Blue, and Commander-in-Chief of His Majesty’s Ships and Vessels in the West Indies.
Whereas it manifestly appears by the return made to my general order of the 4th of August, to be the unanimous opinion of both Captains and Surgeons that the pernicious custom of the seamen drinking their allowance of rum in drams, and often at once, is attended with many fatal effects to their morals as well as their health, which are visibly impaired thereby, and many of their lives shortened by it, besides the ill consequences arising from stupifying [sic] their rational qualities which makes them heedlessly slaves to every brutish passion, and which having their unanimous opinion cannot be better remedied than by the ordering their half pint of rum to be daily mixed with a quart of water, which they that are good husbands may from the savings of their salt provisions and bread purchase sugar and limes to make more palatable to them. You are, therefore, hereby required and directed, as you tender both the Spiritual and Temporal Welfare of His Majesty’s subjects and preserving sobriety and good discipline in His Majesty’s service, to take particular care that Rum be no longer served in species to any of the Ship’s company under your command, but that their respective daily allowance of half a pint a man for all your Officers and Ship’s company be every day mixed with the proportion of a quart of water to every half-pint of rum to be mixed in one scuttled butt kept for that purpose, and to be done upon deck, and in the presence of the Lieutenant of the watch, who is to take particular care to see that the men are not defrauded in having their full allowance of Rum, and when so mixed it is to be served to them at two servings in the day, the one between the hours of 10 and 12 in the morning, and the other between four and six in the afternoon. And you are to take care to have other scuttled butts to air and sweeten their water for their drinking at other times, and to give strict charge to your lieutenants in their respective watches to be very careful to prevent any Rum or other spirituous liquors being privately conveyed on board the ship by your own boats, or any others, as both you and they must expect to answer for the ill consequences that may result from any negligence in the due execution of these orders. For which this shall be your warrant. Given under my hand on board H.M. ship the [Burford, 21st August, 1740.]
The order exists at the Public Record Office only in the form of a copy, which is neither signed nor dated. It is endorsed: “Copy of an Order for preventing Drunkness [sic], August 21st 1740”, and with a note that it was enclosed “in Mr. Vernon’s of October 7th 1740” (source: L. G. Carr Laughton – The Mariner’s Mirror, 1919).
The First Source In Print
For the amusement of his shipmates, Thomas Trotter (1760-1832), Scottish physician to the fleet, wrote in 1781 The Origin of Grog, which celebrated the introduction of this mixture on the Burford some 40 years earlier: Stating that it was Vernons Coat
Written on board the Berwick, a few days before Admiral Parker’s engagement with the Dutch fleet, on the 5th of August, 1781. By Dr. Trotter.
’Tis sung on proud Olympus hill
The Muses bear record,
Ere half the gods had drank [sic] their fill
The sacred nectar sour’d.
At Neptune’s toast the bumper stood,
Britannia crown’d the cup;
A thousand Nereids from the flood
Attend to serve it up.
“This nauseous juice,” the monarch cries,
“Thou darling child of fame,
“Tho’ it each earthly clime denies,
“Shall never bathe thy name.
“Ye azure tribes that rule the sea,
“And rise at my command,
“Bid Vernon mix a draught for me
“To toast his native land.”
Swift o’er the waves the Nereids flew,
Where Vernon’s flag appear’d;
Around the shores they sung “True Blue,” 1
And Britain’s hero cheer’d.
A mighty bowl on deck he drew,
And filled it to the brink;
Such drank the Burford’s gallant crew, 2
And such the gods shall drink.
The sacred robe which Vernon wore 3
Was drenched within the same;
And hence his virtues guard our shore,
And Grog derives its name.
1 A favourite Song.
2 Flag-ship at the taking of Porto Bello.
3 Admiral Vernon usually wore a Grogram cloak in bad weather, from which the sailors called him Old Grog; hence the name, in honor of him, was transferred to the spirit and water, because he was the first officer who ordered it in this manner on board his Majesty’s ships.
The following definition of Grog is from A Classical Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue (2nd edition – London, 1788), by the English antiquary and lexicographer Francis Grose (1731-91):
Rum and water. Grog was first introduced into the navy, about the year 1740, by Admiral Vernon, to prevent the sailors intoxicating themselves with their allowance of rum or spirits. Groggy, or grogified; drunk.
The earliest instance of Grog that I have found is from The Derby Mercury (Derby, Derbyshire, England) of Friday February 3rd 1748:
From the WHITEHALL and GENERAL Evening Posts, &c. February 2.
The following is an exact Account of the late Action fought between Admiral Knowles and the Spanish Admiral; taken from the Jamaica Gazette.
Kingston in JAMAICA.[…] The next Day we met a Spanish Sloop form Cadiz, going into the Havannah, who told us of the Peace: I cursed him for coming in our Way, for we should have gone and taken all the Galleons else, and been as rich as Princes: I am sure we deserved it, for we lived at Short Allowance all the Cruize, and but two Quarts of Water a Day, to make it hold out in Hopes of meeting them (but short Allowance of Grog was worst of all) and now we have bro’t this Prize here, we are told she will be given up to the Spaniards again, so we have fought them for nothing.