The Tradition and Importance of The Tot.
To the RN Lower-deck that I knew, the withdrawal of the daily Rum Ration, The Tot, must have been like the death of a lover. How, in 1970, a do-gooder managed to engineer the withdrawal without murder is astounding, as you will realise if you read The Chief’s Rum Water. The history of the Tot from 1687 was a pint of 100% proof Jamaican Rum, daily, modified in 1870 by an Admiral called Grogram, hence the word Grog, and cut off in 1970 – 300 years of alcoholic bliss. The Pussers Rum website gives a broad history of the Tot, and when I say I have been searching for the real thing for 60 years, you will understand it made a deep impression.
Rum was more than a stimulant, originally a soporific to deaden the hardships of life at sea, it became a tool, currency, a source of internecine warfare and theft, a persuader, a drug and totally ritualistic. It was unbelievable what a Tot would buy. A man would wash and dry a hammock, a mattress cover, and two heavy blankest for a tot. He would take a photo of a mate’s child and paint an incredible watercolour portrait. Take a bottle with three tots in it to the Shipyard and you’d be surprised what it would buy. See It All Started With A Fish Box, to be posted.
It was a status symbol. Men on courses, in barracks, on big ships qualified only for the diluted version – grog. Neat rum was issued on small ships because the conditions were that much tougher, and therefore it became a macho symbol – highly valued. The procedure of dealing out rum was a farce, intended to ensure the rations were carefully monitored and there would be no double dealing. The Supply Rating produced the rum from store, allegedly accurately measured against the register, with absentees deducted. The officer of the Watch approved it, it should have been drunk before him, a logistical impossibility, it then went to the Messes and there, there really were checks in place; as you drew your tot, every available eye was on you to see you didn’t have a crafty method for beating the system. Friendship with the Supply Tiffy was a route to obtaining what was termed ‘Gash’, spare rum – totally illegal – and the Tiffy’s further perks. Our cook went to Edinburgh one boiler clean for the regulation four day lay over. He came back hardly able to stand and, with the help of his friend, the Supply Tiffy, I never saw him sober again. He was a one-man-band, responsible only for keeping his mates happy by cooking the food, something he could do in his sleep, his condition never rose above the Lower Deck. We were a family and close.
On VJ Day it was my duty to serve the rum for the Chiefs’ and Petty Officers Mess. I was an instructor at the Signal School, just married, living in the Town. We were to get the afternoon off in celebration, and I had promised to take my wife to Portsmouth. It was at this point that the honoured rituals of Rum stepped in. For friendship, a payment, a celebration, one was offered to ‘sip’, ‘gulp’ or ‘bottoms up’ from a man’s glass when he drew his rum. These measurements were instinctive, accepted and carefully monitored, abuse was reported immediately throughout the Mess and a reputation instantly destroyed.
VJ Day was a celebration. I stood at the rum table, a huge billycan full of 100% rum in front of me, a pint of beer beside me, carefully ensuring that every measure I took had its ritualistic full meniscus before I tipped it into the man’s glass without spilling a single drop – it is an acquired skill. The man, being a Messmate, offered me sippers – little more than the wetting of the lips. Initially I accepted, but once the beer, the fumes from the billy, my own tot and the sippers started to take effect I slowed to a totter and managed to remain coherent for the rest of the morning. However at lunch, in our flat in the Town, I fell asleep – she never did see Portsmouth, but I hear about it from time to time – 60+ years on.