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Yorkshire Lad: Yo, Ho, Oh! No Bottle Of Rum?

Tom Hellawell says that during his years with the Royal Navy, the Senior Service, the daily supply of Nelson's Blood (rum) was time-honoured and an almost sacred tradition.

There was much wailing and gnashing of teeth on 31 July, 1971. A day of sorrow, when the cursing of the powers that were was much in evidence.

That was the date on which the Royal Navy ceased to issue its rum ration.

Apparently, David Owen M.P. -- whilst filling a minor post under Dennis Healy in the Ministry of Defence -- went aboard a British warship, where he was served a tot of rum by a well-meaning but misguided, naïve officer.

After imbibing, Owen concluded that the rum was far too potent and could impair the functioning of naval personnel in the pursuance of their duties. Thus, the death blow was dealt to the tot.

During my years with the Senior Service, the daily supply of ‘Nelson’s Blood’ was time-honoured and an almost sacred tradition.

Neat rum -- ‘neaters’ was issued to non-commissioned officers. Ratings drew grog, rum and water, usually at a three-to-one ratio, three of water to one of rum.

Unlike neat rum, grog would not ‘keep’. Consequently, recipients were dissuaded from bottling it for future use.

The tot, however, did serve as a valuable asset with which to barter. Great reverence was paid to the daily tot. One had to offer up one’s life almost to obtain ‘sippers’ from another’s ration. Sippers being the wetting of a recipient’s top lip -- no more. What service(s) it took to gain the privilege of ‘gulpers’ is perhaps best left uninvestigated.

Grog issue for ratings usually took place around noon.

‘Up spirits’ was the pipe when one member from each mess -- the rum bos’n -- would muster at the rum barrel and draw the allocation for his mess mates.

Some of the bos’ns were not averse to the practice of issuing short measure. Such a course was to their advantage, since when issue was completed, all rum remaining became the property of the bos’n.

At one period rum measures were made of brass. That enabled the bos’ns to have a penny coin welded onto the inside base of the measure. The result was a penny’s width gain of rum from every serving.

To obviate such procedure, the Admiralty issued plastic measures. The rum bos’ns’ answer to those was to meter out the tots whilst keeping the tips of their thumbs slightly below the liquid’s surface. Result, a thumb tip of free rum.

Mess deck jocularity was almost ever-present.

The pipe ‘Up spirits’ was invariably added to throughout the lower deck with the words ‘Stand fast the Holy Ghost.’

One story tells of Ramsay MacDonald, politician and one-time Prime Minister, who was returning to England from the U.S.A. in November 1937. Already a sick man, it was whilst making that crossing that he died. Later, when the customary pipe sounded for ‘Up spirits’ the call is said to have carried the additional order of ‘Stand fast Ramsay Mac’!

What befell the rating who piped that was never revealed.

The following ‘rum’ events occurred aboard one Royal Naval vessel on which I served.

There was the time when one rum bos’n rushed up to the rum barrel slightly adrift. He yelled out his mess’s number and the number of men who drew, as was the custom. Then he thrust forward a jug which was promptly filled with grog. Too late came the realization that the said jug contained a fair proportion of soft soap!

Another instance was when a not so Jolly Jack Tar who, after drawing, returned to the rum tub, his eyes filled with tears as he dolefully announced, “Please, sir, I fell down the hatch!”

On one more occasion a certain rum bos’n hurtled past the rum tub when a bit late and shouted, “Won’t be a minute,” steamed down to his mess, ditched the cold tea out of the customary container, rocketed back to the tub, sung out his mess and was politely informed that the rum quota had already been issued. The bos’n smiled and said, “Thank you. Old Sam must have drawn for me,” took one step away from the tub, stopped dead in his tracks and the container dropped from his nerveless fingers.

Only then did he realize the ghastly mistake he had made. The ‘cold tea’ he had ditched was his mess’s rum ration!

Perhaps it is pleasing to learn the victims of the above mentioned tragedies were saved by the rum tub’s surplus remains at the end of the issue.

The disposal of surplus grog was a simple matter. When a ship was in harbour or at sea, tip it over the side. On a shore base such excess was poured down a convenient sink or drain.

That blatant waste of good grog was bound to tug at the heartstrings of some ratings, so much so that on the shore base Golden Hind in Sydney, New South Wales, a means of reclamation was conceived.

There the drain down which the leftover grog was poured proved to be of shallow depth. Thus it was an easy matter for the salvage team to place a large tin at the bottom and then wait -- firstly for it to be filled by an unsuspecting rum crew and secondly for the onset of darkness when the prize might be surreptitiously extricated. After which a merry time was to be had by all concerned.

For how long such a practice was carried out I have no idea, but the scheme was eventually rumbled by the authorities.

Naturally, closer attention was then paid to the jettisoning of leftovers, which resulted in the return of heartache for the scheming rum-soaked mariners.

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