On this day 1970…the last rum ration

On this day in 1970 the Royal Navy served up its last rum ration in what became known as “Black Tot Day”.

The end of a Royal Navy tradition, as the daily ration of rum is abolished due to safety concerns, 31st July 1970. Cook Thomas McKenzie drains the last drop from the barrel at the Royal Naval Dockyard in Chatham, Kent. (Photo by Leonard Burt/Central Press/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

“Black Tot Day” at the Royal Naval Dockyard in Chatham, Kent. Cook Thomas McKenzie drains the last drop from the barrel while his shipmates read a “eulogy”.

The rum ration in the Royal Navy – known as the “daily tot” – had been a tradition dating back to the mid-17th century and immortalised in its most famous form, “grog”, in 1740.

In the early days of the navy, the daily ration for sailors was a gallon of beer. However, from 1655 onwards, after England had taken the sugar/molasses/rum producing Caribbean islands such as Jamaica from the Spanish, half a pint of rum was introduced and quickly became preferred to beer – keeping better than beer and being stronger in alcohol.

Drunkenness naturally became a problem and in 1740, Admiral Edward Vernon, formalised the tradition and ordered the ration to watered down in a 4:1 water to rum ratio and split into two servings.

Because of his habit of wearing a particular style of coat known as a “Grogham”, Vernon was known by his sailors as “Old Grog” and because of that the drink was quickly christened “grog”.

After its heyday in the Napoleonic Wars, the ration was gradually reduced as the 19th century progressed, being reduced to a quarter of a pint in 1824.

It was suggested in 1850 that the ration be stopped completely but the ration was merely halved once again and the second serving stopped.

The officer’s ration was stopped in 1881 and that for warrant officers in 1918.

In April 1969 the Admiralty Board issued a response to a question from MP Christopher Mayhew, saying: “The Admiralty Board concludes that the rum issue is no longer compatible with the high standards of efficiency required now that the individual’s tasks in ships are concerned with complex, and often delicate, machinery and systems on the correct functioning of which people’s lives may depend”.

A debate, subsequently referred to as the “Great Rum Debate”, was held on 28 January 1970 and after a debate of an hour and a quarter, it was decided that the rum ration should be stopped.

On 31 July of that year, at the traditional six bells in the forenoon watch (11am) the last pipe of “up spirits” was called on Royal Navy vessels around the world.

Sailors wore black armbands, tots were “buried at sea” and at HMS Collingwood, one of the navy’s raining camps in Hampshire, a mock funeral complete with a shrouded coffin was held.

Portsmouth post office issued a special stamp with the legend: “Last Issue of Rum in the Royal Navy July 31, 1970”.

“Black Tot Day” followed in other Commonwealth navies – with the exception of the Royal Australian Navy which discontinued its ration in 1921 – the Royal Canadian Navy stopped on 31 March 1972 and, rather belatedly, the Royal New Zealand Navy on 27 February 1990.

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