British Navy Rum Ration Hijinks

Stories about the British Navy’s daily rum ration inevitably include imagery of sailors lined up at the grog tub, emblazoned with “God Save the Queen” – or “King”, if you go back far enough. It suggests that sailors were anxiously awaiting their mix of rum and water (“grog”), eager to consume it straightaway.

However, sailors being sailors, it didn’t always work that way. Schemes for shenanigans ran rampant throughout the enlisted men. Two broad categories of misdirected behavior were shortchanging other sailors, and batching up rations for bacchanalian debacles.

An 1850 account in the April 1st, 1850 Caledonian Mercury, entitled “The Navy Rum” provides a primer on these hijinks. It also illustrates a bit of the early history of the ration up till that point in time. For example, it’s rarely mentioned that for 119 of the first 121 years of the daily ration, rum was issued twice daily, rather than once.

Immediately prior to 1850, the ration was 1/8th of a pint (2 ounces), twice per day. When diluted with 3 parts water (the standard at the time), each issuance was 8 ounces of total liquid.

In 1850, the evening issuance was abolished, halving the quantity of rum sailors received. However, their pay was adjusted upward.

A bit of context for what follows: Grog was consumed in messes, essentially groups of similarly ranked men who ate together. The images you see of sailors lined up at grog tubs, holding large metal pails are individuals from a mess collecting all of their mess’s ration at once. Upon returning to the mess, it was doled out to the individual sailors.

But sometimes not.

It was common for sailors to effectively batch up their daily ration, and then consume it all in one fell swoop: “…fact each man in the mess sacrifices his grog for nine evenings out of ten, in order to get ten times his allowance on the fortunate night when his own turn comes round.”

In a mess with fifteen people observing this batching system, the lucky sailor received a gallon’s worth of grog, including about a liter of 54 percent ABV rum. What could possibly go wrong? At least his 15 other messmates were presumably sober that day.

One other bit of historical context to help make sense of the article: The large meal of the day, known as “dinner” was actually consumed around noontime.

For readability, I’ve broken the articles text into paragraphs, but not made any other changes.

The Navy Rum (1850)

Whether from accident, or from consideration towards our West India colonies, or from any circumstances not preserved by tradition, rum has been for generations considered an indispensable part of an Englishman’s maintenance, whether afloat or ashore. The first thing learnt by a soldier or seamen was to drink rum. He was enlisted upon rum, worked upon rum, rewarded by rum, and punished by a stoppage of rum.

Our information goes no higher than the degenerate days of peace, and we can only state that in 1821 half a pint was the measure of spirits which was issued for the daily comfort of each seaman. This allowance was then, upon inquiry instituted, diminished by one-half, but the effect of the regulation was frustrated by a singular accident. Two years later the imperial measure was brought into use, and the substitution of this new standard for the old wine measure previously in use. and which had been referred to in the above-mentioned calculations, again raised the daily allowance of spirits to something like its former quantity.

This, therefore, is the present standard —viz., one gill, or a quarter of a pint, per man, imperial measure, which, when mixed with three equal parts of water, and a little lime or lemon juice, becomes grog. The method of serving it out is from a large tub, in quantities sufficient for a mess—that is to say, for 12, 15, 20 men, or more, according as the messes in the ships are large or small. One of the mess comes to the tub for the entire allowance of himself and his companions, which he carries off in a vessel called “the monkey.” There are two deliveries a day—one at noon, for dinner; and the other in the evening. In what way these regulations operate upon the sobriety and discipline of a ship’s company will very soon be seen.

The allowance of grog is said to be rather too much, except for well-seasoned heads, even if fairly consumed; but the system seldom has so reasonable a trial. At dinner time the practice is tolerably unobjectionable. Each man drinks his portion with his rations, and there was a common concurrence of evidence to the effect that drunkenness at this period of the day, and from this service of grog, was very rare.

But the plans of the evening are altogether different. The “monkey” is carried off in due form, but its contents, instead of being distributed among the members of the mess, become the property of a single man. The cook of the mess, as the phrase goes, “takes the monkey”—that is to say, he disposes, at his own discretion, of the grog of 15 or 20 men. In some cases he drinks the whole himself, but usually he summons a “chum’’ to partake of his prize. The men take the cook’s place for so many days together, turn about; so that in point of fact each man in the mess sacrifices his grog for nine evenings out of ten, in order to get ten times his allowance on the fortunate night when his own turn comes round.

Nor is this quite all, for even at dinner the cook gets a little consideration. The measure in which the allowances are served out from the “monkey” is usually made somewhat less capacious than it should be, by inserting a piece of leather at the bottom, or some similar expedient, and the “plush,” or surplus, thus realized, being about one extra allowance, is likewise the perquisite of the cook.

Bearing in mind that half a gill, or one eighth of a pint, is the measure at each service, and that this is mixed with three times its quantity of water, the reader will discover that the worthy officeer intrusted with the mess cuisine for the week gets at dinner time one pint, and at supper time, say, three quarts of remarkably sound rum and water. If the mess consists of 20 men, the evening “ monkey” would contain ten pints grog, over the whole of which the cook is lord absolute, and it is seldom that he invites more than one friend to share his festivity. A witness deposed to his having himself seen the allowance of 24 men consumed at a sitting by one of these happy pair. No wonder that “the cooks are generally the worst example of drunkenness.”

In considering the question of a reduction, it will not have escaped the notice of the reader that the inquiry is, in fact, conclusively satisfied by statements like these. If nine out of every ten seamen do actually subsist for nine days out of ten upon something less than half a pint of grog, it is clear that they can do so permanently, unless the excess of the tenth day be admitted to contribute to their bodily health and well doing—an argument which will hardly be urged.

Various expedients have been tried to check the practices referred to. Sometimes the men have been required to drink their grog at the tub’s side— a system, for obvious reasons, extremely unpopular. Sometimes they have been induced to commute the allowance for a money payment, but the “savings price”—that is. the actual value saved to Government by the relinquishment of a single measure of spirits— is so small, that it answers the man’s purpose better, if he be thriftily inclined, to dispose of his allowance below deck, which results in the very evils complained of.

The step, therefore, which has been now recommended by the committee is a reduction of one-half in the quantity of grog served out—that is to say, an allowance of half a gill of spirits, or half a pint of grog, per diem, instead of double that quantity. This is ‘to be’ issued at a single serving, viz. at dinner, so that the evening grog will be entirely discontinued.

In lieu of the allowance to be thus withdrawn, a very liberal compensation is proposed. The “savings price” is not to be taken as the basis of the calculation, but 3s. 6d. per calendar month is to be added to the pay of all warrant officers, working petty officers, able and ordinary seamen, and non-commissioned officers and privates of the marines. The expense of this money-compensation will be about £65,000 whereas the contract value of the spirits saved will be only about £10,000, but the committee justly consider that the country will readily provide the difference “in the attainment of the great objects this plan has in view, namely, the efficiency of the fleet, the diminution of crime and its consequences, and the comfort and happiness of all on board.”

– Caledonian Mercury, April 1, 1850