Rum ration

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The rum ration (also called tot) was a daily amount of rum given to sailors on Royal Navy ships. It was abolished in 1970 after concerns that regular intakes of alcohol would lead to unsteady hands when working machinery.

A sailor onboard HMS York measures out tots of rum for the ship's company, in preparation for the Royal Navy tradition 'Splice the Mainbrace'.


The rum ration traditionally consisted of 70 millilitres of rum given out to every sailor at midday.[1] It was sometimes supplemented with splice the mainbrace. The rum ration was served from one particular barrel, also known as the "Rum Barrel" which was often ornately decorated and sometimes was made of oak, reinforced with brass bands, with brass letters saying, "The Queen. God Bless her.[2]

Sailors when boarding their ship were asked if they were members of the Temperance movement. If they said they were, it was noted in the ship's records and they were given three pence a day instead of the rum ration, although very few sailors took this option. Instead they gave away their ration in exchange for favours.[3] 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, "Stand fast the Holy Ghost". Each mess had a 'Rum Bosun' who would collect the rum from the officer responsible for measuring the right number of tots for each mess. The officers didn't get a rum ration. 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.[4] Sailors under 20 were not permitted a rum ration.[5]


Men of the Royal Norfolk Regiment receive their rum ration before going out on patrol in France, 26 January 1940

The rum ration was originally beer with a daily ration of one gallon. This official allowance continued till after the Napoleonic Wars. When beer was not available, it could be substituted by a pint of wine or half a pint of spirits, which depended on what was locally available. In later years, the political influence of the West Indian planters led to rum being given the preference over arrack and other spirits. 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.) 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).[6][7][8] The ration was also split into two servings, one between 10 am and noon and the other between 4 and 6 pm. In 1756 Navy regulations required adding small quantities of lemon or lime juice to the ration, to prevent scurvy.[1][9] The rum itself was often procured from distillers in Jamaica, Trinidad & Tobago and the British Virgin Islands.[5] Rations were cut in half in 1823 and again in half, to the traditional amount, in 1850.

The rum tub of HMS Cavalier

The abolition of the rum ration had been discussed in Parliament in 1850 and again in 1881 however nothing came of it.[10] In 1970, Admiral Peter Hill-Norton abolished the rum ration as he felt it could have led to sailors failing a breathalyser test and being less capable to manage complex machinery.[11] This decision to end the rum ration was taken 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.[12] The last rum ration was on 31 July 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 the staging of a mock funeral in a training camp.[1] In place of the rum ration, sailors were given three 2/3 pint cans of beer a day (two pints) and improved recreational facilities.[13] While the rum ration was abolished, the order to splice the mainbrace remained as the command for it could only be given by the Monarch and is still used to recognise good service.[14]

In other navies[edit]

Other navies in the world also removed the rum ration. The United States Navy was the first to abolish the rum ration, removing it in 1862.[15] While the Royal Australian Navy never issued the rum ration, their sailors were entitled to the rum ration when they were on Royal Navy ships.[16] The Royal Canadian Navy abolished the rum ration in 1972.[13] The last navy issuing the rum ration regularly, the Royal New Zealand Navy abolished the rum ration in 1990.[17]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b c Colls, Tom (2010-07-30). "What did they do with the drunken sailor?". BBC News. Retrieved 2012-07-03. 
  2. ^ "The Royal Yacht Britannia". Scottish City Guide. Retrieved 2012-07-03. 
  3. ^ Gibowicz, Charles (2007). Mess Night Traditions. AuthorHouse. p. 72. ISBN 1425984487. 
  4. ^ Rob Peake (2010-07-29). "Ceremony to mark ending of rum tot at HMS Victory". Yachting Monthly. Retrieved 2012-07-03. 
  5. ^ a b "Last days of the drunken sailor". Caribbean Beat. 2010-07-31. Retrieved 2012-07-06. 
  6. ^ Macdonald, J. Feeding Nelson's Navy. Chatham Publishing. 2004
  7. ^ Navy Victually Board Regulations and Instructions, 14th edition, 1806. quoted Macdonald
  8. ^ Rodger, N. The Wooden World: an anatomy of the Georgian navy. William Collins. 1986
  9. ^ Wayne Curtis. And a Bottle of Rum: A History of the New World in Ten Cocktails. pp. 57–58. 
  10. ^ "NAVY (SOBRIETY).—RESOLUTION. (Hansard, 13 August 1881)". Hansard. 1881-08-13. Retrieved 2012-07-04. 
  11. ^ Dan van der Vat (2004-05-20). "Obituary: Admiral of the Fleet Lord Hill-Norton". London: The Guardian. Retrieved 2012-07-03. 
  12. ^ "Rum Ration (Hansard, 19 January 1970)". Hansard. 1970-01-19. Retrieved 2012-07-04. 
  13. ^ a b Williams, Ian (2006). Rum: A Social and Sociable History of the Real Spirit of 1776. Nation Books. p. 242. ISBN 1560258918. 
  14. ^ "Sailors splice the mainbrace to toast Queen". This is Somerset. 2012-06-29. Retrieved 2012-07-03. 
  15. ^ "Alcohol in the Navy". United States Naval Historical Center. Retrieved 2012-07-04. 
  16. ^ Williams, Ian (2006). Rum: A Social and Sociable History of the Real Spirit of 1776. Nation Books. p. 243. ISBN 1560258918. 
  17. ^ "Frigate guests get shot at sailors' rum ritual". New Zealand Herald. 2000-01-26. Retrieved 2012-07-03.