July 31st, 1970 — a day that lives in infamy as Black Tot day. It was on this day that British navy sailors received their final daily rum ration, something dear since its 1731 establishment. These days, every July 31st is an annual occasion for enthusiasts and marketers to tell the remarkable story of British navy rum. Or as a friend jokingly put it, “Rum’s Cinco de Mayo.”
However, the British admiralty didn’t suddenly halt the daily issuance on a whim that final day of July, 1970. In fact, ending it was under discussion for nearly a century. Many attempts to end it were beat back, but as the 1960s drew to an end, a critical mass of support within the admiralty’s upper ranks had formed.
So it was that on December 17, 1969, under the direction of First Sea Lord Sir Michael Le Fanu, the navy sent out a signal (a sort of interoffice memo of the time) declaring the ration would be abolished from August 1st, 1970 onward, some seven months in the future. This large window of time was to allow the navy to work out all the small details, including those of morale. The daily issue of rum (or money in its stead) was considered part of the sailor’s compensation.
I was extremely fortunate to receive a photocopy of the original Ministry of Defence (MOD) signal from Dec. 17, 1969, which appears here in original form for the first time. While the text of it appears in James Pack’s Nelson’s Blood, The Story of Naval Rum, it’s much more compelling to read in its original form, the same way British sailors saw it that fateful day.
The main body of the signal reads:
The Admiralty Board have reviewed the daily issue of rum in the light of the conditions and needs of the modern Navy.
2. Rum is a particular naval privilege of very long standing and one which is cherished and enjoyed. The board has given full weight to this fact. It has, on the other hand, concluded that a daily issue of rum is no longer compatible with the high standards of efficiency required now that the tasks in ships are concerned with complex, and often delicate machinery and systems, on the correct functioning of which people’s lives may depend.
3. The Board decided that this conclusion is over-riding and that in the interests of safety and efficiency in the Fleet the rum issue should be abolished provided that suitable compensating advantages could be arranged for the benefit of the Fleet. Grog money at 3d a day, broadly represents the cost of the present issue to the Crown. It would not pay for a daily beer issue. Nor does it represent a significant daily payment to individuals.
4. By way of financial compensation a lump sum of £2.7 million will be paid into a new fund for the purpose of providing social and recreational facilities for the welfare of ratings and RM other ranks. The fund, which will be known as the sailors’ Fund, will have a substantial income. This will be used for charitable purposes to benefit past and present naval ratings and Royal Marines other ranks and their dependents. Ratings will take a major part in the administration of the fund.
5. In addition CPOs, PCs and SNCOs will be permitted to buy duty-free spirits in their messes up to a normal maximum of 1/8th pint per man per day in HM Ships abroad and in Category 1 and 2 ships at home. In Category 3 ships purchase will be permitted at duty paid prices. Junior ratings (and RM equivalents) will be allowed to purchase up to a maximum of three cans of beer per man per day: They will not be allowed to purchase spirits. The new rules for the purchase of alcoholic drinks will provide facilities that are reasonable in the exacting circumstances of Naval service and work.
6. Accordingly, the daily rum issue and grog money will be abolished from Saturday, 1st August 1970. Detailed instructions for the setting up and running of the Sailors’ Fund, for the sale of spirits in Senior Ratings’ messes, for the sale of beer to junior ratings and for the disposal of existing stocks of rum will be issued shortly by DCI(RN).
Now, there are two things of particular note here:
- Senior ratings, including senior non-commissioned officers were still allowed to purchase a tot’s worth of spirits per day. Presumably, they didn’t need to dilute it with two parts of water.
- Lower ranking sailors could purchase up to three cans of beer per day.
In short, it wasn’t as if the British navy went completely dry on August 1st.
Naturally, some British Parliament members weren’t in agreement with the admiralty’s decision, and a raucous debate followed on Jan. 28th, 1970. It reads in part:
Nonetheless, the decision that had been made in December of 1969 stuck. The last rum ration was served on July 31st, 1970 on ships and naval bases around the British Empire.