Known as ‘Black Tot Day’, the 31st July 1970 marked the end of the daily rum issue in the Royal Navy, ending hundreds of years of tradition. As we remember this day 50 years on, it is worth taking the opportunity to share a few memories of this event from those who were involved in one way or another.
The Navy was embracing modernity, and ships in the Fleet were becoming highly technological items in the Defence inventory. Advancements in missile and computer technology were necessary to continue countering the threat posed by the Eastern Bloc of Soviet nations, and the Royal Navy had recently taken over the nations’ strategic nuclear deterrence. My thanks to Chris Donnithorne for providing this recollection of the day from his career in the service;On the day in question, I was the duty officer in Resolution [our first Polaris boat] undergoing her first refit in Rosyth Dockyard. It had long been considered inappropriate for the key people involved in the nuclear refuelling to have a tot before their shift. It therefore fell to me to issue them with their tot shortly after 0200 on the following day.
I am also extremely grateful to NRS Councillor Lawrie Phillips for sharing the excerpts from his book ‘The Royal Navy Day to Day’, which provides some context of the reasons for discontinuing the rum ration. This includes a quote written by a former captain of Ark Royal, recalling entering an electrical compartment to be greeted by the strong smell of rum from an artificer poking a screwdriver in to piece of equipment labelled ‘DANGER – 3000 volts’. There is also another extract which bears a resemblance to the above personal memory from Chris Donnithorne regarding the final issue of rum;
The Tot may have ended on 31 July but the guided missile destroyer Fife, Captain W.D.S. Scott RN, probably enjoyed the last one. The ship, on a round-the-world deployment, issued her final Tot on passage eastwards from Kobe to Hawaii. She crossed the International Date Line before entering Pearl Harbour where the clock went back 24 hours to 31 July. Another spirits issue was then authorised and much appreciated.
Lt Cdr Phillips was a very new member of the RN Public Relations team in the MOD at the time, and wrote the following press release dated 17 December 1969 announcing that the rum ration would be discontinued on 1st August 1970;MINISTRY OF DEFENCE PRESS RELEASE
December 17th, 1969
ROYAL NAVY DAILY RUM ISSUE TO BE DISCONTINUED
After more than two hundred years the issue of duty-free rum to ratings of the Royal Navy is to be discontinued on August 1st 1970. In its place the following compensatory arrangements have been made.
Chief petty officers, petty officers, and Royal Marine senior NCOs in ships are to be allowed to buy duty-free spirits in their messes. Junior ratings and Royal Marine equivalents in ships may buy up to three cans of beer each day but they will not be allowed to purchase spirits.
In addition a lump sum of £2.7 million, provided in compensation for the abolition of the rum issue, will be paid into a fund for charitable purposes for the benefit of ratings and Royal Marine other ranks, serving and ex-service, and their dependents. The fund will be known as The Sailors’ Fund and ratings are to play a major part in its administration.
The Admiralty Board has decided that it is necessary in the interest of health, safety and efficiency in the Fleet to abolish the rum issue. The decision has not been taken on grounds of economy. The issue of rum is not compatible with the high standards required in ships using complex and delicate equipment. In future, those ratings below petty officer will get no spirits on board. Chief petty officers and petty officers will be allowed to buy commercial spirits in their bars on board ships in quantities which will provide an average daily amount equal to 1/8th pint per man (equivalent to three single measures ashore).
Ratings over the age of 20 are at present eligible to receive one eighth of an Imperial pint of 95.5 degrees proof rum a day, those below the rank of petty officer having their allowance diluted with two parts of water. An eligible rating not wishing to draw his rum issue receives three pence per day in lieu.