Royal Marines and bluejackets are served rum rations on HMS Royal Oak. © IWM Q 17966

Black Tot Day: The end of the rum ration

Royal Marines and bluejackets are served rum rations on HMS Royal Oak. © IWM Q 17966

Sailors the world over will raise a toast to mark the moment a 230-year-old Royal Navy tradition came to an end when they observe the 52nd anniversary of Black Tot Day – marking the date that the official daily rum ration was scrapped.

What is Black Tot Day?

The commemorative day is a salute to the historic practice of issuing sailors with a daily tot of rum.

Black Tot Day itself became an annual tradition when, in 1970, the centuries-old custom was ended as part of a modernisation of the Royal Navy.

While many sailors lamented the decision, it had been felt that drinking high-strength spirits was no longer appropriate for crews handling complex multi-million-pound weapons, systems and machinery of the modern age.

Royal Navy sailors, however, love their customs and ceremonial rituals, so Black Tot Day was born … a final salute with a tot of rum which has since become a once-a-year tradition to commemorate the end of the historic daily tradition.

Black Tot - The last consignment

Former Royal Navy Commodore Alistair Halliday said it had been a sad day when the custom ended back in the Seventies.

A young man at the time, Alistair recalls the day the daily rum ration came to an end and remembers it as a bleak day for sailors.

He remembers how, while attending the Royal Tournament, which was once the world's largest military tattoo and pageant until it ended in 1999 following a Strategic Defence Review, sailors presented a sombre display that felt like reading the last rites to the rum tradition.

He said: “They had a display that was a gun carriage with a rum barrel on it.

“It was like a funeral.”

From then on, 31 July became known as Black Tot Day as an annual final salute to the rum ration. Alistair added:

“It seems it was a dark day for the Navy.”

Rum Ration Aboard HMS King George V, 1940. © IWM A 1777

Rum rations in the Royal Navy

Rum rations had been issued to sailors as far back as the 1600s but Admiral Edward Vernon made the practice a formal daily practice in 1740 – ordering that half a pint of rum diluted down to one-part rum, four-parts water and divided into two servings, be issued to ratings every day.

For centuries, sailors had gathered together between 1100hrs and 1200hrs for 'Up Spirits' – the serving of their allocated tot of rum.

It was roughly an eighth of a pint.

Rum was not only given as a reward for the hard manual labour sailors endured on board ship but acted as a morale boost and pertaining to the age – a medicine.

In the early days of the rations, rum was laced with lime juice to help keep scurvy at bay.

The tradition developed over the years, later becoming a daily tradition in which junior sailors were served a ration mixed with water, known as 'Gro'’ while seniors were served it neat.

Sailors were not allowed to share their rum allowance, but there were rumours of sailors hoarding rum to drink in the evenings. 

There had been a few occasions in the 19th century where the tradition had almost come to an end but the daily tot survived the ages.

In the Seventies, MP Christopher Mayhew questioned the compatibility of rum rations with the modern role of a Royal Navy sailor.

The Admiralty conceded that there was no longer any official need for daily rum and so the tradition came to an end.

Alistair said: "There was lots more sophisticated systems and perhaps less of the really hard manual graft.

"I think it was decided that it should be scrapped." 

Tots of Rum being poured. LA(Phot) Dave Jenkins. Crown Copyright
Tots of Rum being poured. LA(Phot) Dave Jenkins. Crown Copyright

Sailors had often been under supervision when they were served their rum – which was a very high-strength blend at about 55 percent alcohol.

Now, the Royal Navy’s preferred spirit, Pussers Rum, comes in at about 40% proof and this is the spirit chosen for the annual Up Spirits including this year’s 52nd anniversary Black Tot Day on 31 July.

Alistair told how, back in the 1980s while in Gibraltar, he was able to try some of the rum that was left over from the original rations and he said it was "absolutely delicious".

Sailors are these days permitted to buy up to three cans of beer in lieu of the historical rum, to drink while off duty.

Rum can still be issued under the order of commanding officers to reward sailors for work well done and hard graft – something which Alistair recalled doing when he was Captain of HMS Manchester. 

Other navies around the world soon followed the Royal Navy in ending the daily rum ration tradition, with the Royal Canadian Navy abolishing the official serving in 1972.

The Royal New Zealand Navy carried on the custom right up until 1990.

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