Sunday, 1 August 2010

Black Tot Day - 31/07/1970

My 'run ashore' yesterday started long before I arrived at the Corner House Inn, Easton, Portland, as I boarded the bus to find a rock concert in full swing, well not quite, and I don't think Dave Gilmour was particularly perturbed by the guy in the pictures playing. Not for the first time was I mistaken for blues legend Peter Green, founder of the seminal band Fleetwood Mac, and as has happened in the past there is little chance of convincing people otherwise once their mind is made up. However, joining in on vocals, and a change of axeman (the lad with the shaved head) we sang our way through Shine On You Crazy Diamond, Wish You Were Here and Time, the lyrics of which have probably influenced me more than any others.
Don't Miss the Starting Gun

(Mason, Waters, Wright, Gilmour)

Ticking away the moments that make up a dull day
You fritter and waste the hours in an offhand way.
Kicking around on a piece of ground in your home town
Waiting for someone or something to show you the way.

Tired of lying in the sunshine staying home to watch the rain.
You are young and life is long and there is time to kill today.
And then one day you find ten years have got behind you.
No one told you when to run, you missed the starting gun.

So you run and you run to catch up with the sun but it's sinking
Racing around to come up behind you again.
The sun is the same in a relative way but you're older,
Shorter of breath and one day closer to death.

Every year is getting shorter never seem to find the time.
Plans that either come to naught or half a page of scribbled lines
Hanging on in quiet desperation is the English way
The time is gone, the song is over,
Thought I'd something more to say.

This part of the Post is dedicated to Ginge & Val Prince and Robbie ex Chief TASI who unfortunately couldn't make it yesterday. I had a 'sipper' for each of you!

Serving rum to a sailor from a tub inscribed 'THE KING GOD BLESS HIM'

Up Spirits

The myths, legends, dits (sailor's stories) and general romance of the Royal Naval Rum Ration are endless and certainly too long for this Blog, but with it came a new language, passed down through the ages, sense of community and comradeship which one day I intend to write in full. I only went in the 'rattle' (trouble) once as a result of drinking Pusser's (everything RN belongs to Pusser) Bubbly (rum). I can still hear the words of ex-shipmate Dixie Dean echoing across Chatham Dockyard as we met for the first time in several years, with his right hand raised high above his head, fist clenched with outboard fingers stretched (what is described today by the Heavy metal Fraternity as The Devil's Horns) representing a measure of rum and shouting "Bagsy, come round (visit my ship at 'tot time') I'm on the Abdial". Such an invitation, steeped in tradition and ceremony, inevitably led to an intoxicated state as the hospitality shown to any visitor meant each 'G member' (a Rating or Senior Rate, Petty Officer or Chief Petty Officer, over the age of 20 who had opted to 'draw' a tot) would after following the correct protocol offer some of his 'grog' to the guest.

Naval Rum

Rum's association with piracy began with English privateers trading on the valuable commodity. As some of the privateers became pirates and buccaneers, their fondness for rum remained, the association between the two only being strengthened by literary works such as Robert Louis Stevenson's Treasure Island.

The association of rum with the Royal Navy began in 1655 when the British fleet captured the island of Jamaica. With the availability of domestically produced rum, the British changed the daily ration of liquor given to seamen from French brandy to rum. While the ration was originally given neat, or mixed with lime juice, the practice of watering down the rum began around 1740. To help minimize the effect of the alcohol on his sailors, Admiral Edward Vernon directed that the rum ration be watered down before being issued, a mixture which became known as grog. While it is widely believed that the term grog was coined at this time in honor of the grogram cloak Admiral Vernon wore in rough weather, the term has been demonstrated to predate his famous orders, with probable origins in the West Indies, perhaps of African etymology. The Royal Navy continued to give its sailors a daily rum ration, known as a "tot," until the practice was abolished after July 31, 1970. Today the rum ration (tot) is still issued on special occasions by H.M. Queen Elizabeth II order "Splice the mainbrace"! Such recent occasions have been Royal marriages/Birthdays, special anniversaries. Splice the main brace (splicers) in the days of the daily ration meant double rations that day.

A story involving naval rum is that following his victory at the Battle of Trafalgar, Horatio Nelson's body was preserved in a cask of rum to allow transport back to England. Upon arrival, however, the cask was opened and found to be empty of rum. The pickled body was removed and, upon inspection, it was discovered that the sailors had drilled a hole in the bottom of the cask and drunk all the rum, in the process drinking Nelson's blood. Thus, this tale serves as a basis for the term Nelson's Blood being used to describe rum. It also serves as the basis for the term "Tapping the Admiral" being used to describe drinking the daily rum ration. The details of the story are disputed, as many historians claim the cask contained French brandy whilst others claim instead the term originated from a toast to Admiral Nelson. Variations of the story, involving different notable corpses, have been in circulation for many years.

Arriving at the Corner House Inn to celebrate 40 years of the 'passing' of the tot.

Each mess-deck table, at the appointed hour, would look similar to this (minus the flag) with the Rum Fanny centrally placed, tumblers at hand and a measure to issue each man with the right amount, with a small exception! Of course there was no price to pay onboard, but this was a fine charity event in aid of Help the Hero's and the Royal National Lifeboat Institute.

The 'Rum Rats' (a man who is particularly fond of his, and any others he can get, tot) muster. Dennis Matthews, 'Tansy' Lee & Roger Fulbrook await the call to 'scupper their bubs' (drink their rum, a scupper being a drain onboard ship). I can report that Roger went home legless, and spent part of the afternoon passing his prossthesis between his shipmates, RN high jinx at their very best.

Shipmate John Keegan and his wife Jenny (right)

Jim Holt & Arthur Copus. The last time I saw Jim must have been 2 decades ago, but he remembered the moment perfectly. Having both been members of the Chief Petty Officers Mess at the Portland shore-base HMS Osprey, I had called in for a lunchtime pint and met up with Jim and his wife. He reminded me that I had, that morning, caught what was then a fairly scarce moth called a Portland Ribbon Wave, they had both remembered its name as well - impressive.

As for Arthur, I had never met him before but it was indeed a pleasure, was the last First Lieutenant of HMS Osprey.

I am the proud owner of these lead sailors forming the 'Last Colour Guard' at the closing ceremony of HMS Osprey, a gift from the Stockley family on my 50th birthday, I'm sure Arthur will remember this with pride.

Jan (the Viking) Farley who I have known for 39 years and until his wife mentioned it yesterday had no idea his name was Kieth.

Many 'orders' onboard ship are passed by both Bosun's Call (whistle) and Bugle, yesterday a Chief Petty Officer Gunnery Instructor from the local Cadet Force called 'hands of messes for rum' - we all heard that OK!

Landlord Jeff Chitty became Bubbly (rum) Bosun for the day, ably assisted by Ticker Off (seeing each man gets his measure) Andy Porter. In time honoured tradition, each man 'drawing' his tot would, as the tumbler were offered, say to the Bosun "have a whet" (no more than a sip of the nectar) the glass would then be passed to the recipient. In turn he would hand it to the Ticker Off making the same offer, after which he would allow any 'guest in the mess' the amount he would decide. This could be a 'sipper', as described above as a 'whet', a 'gulper' a small mouthful, 'half a tot' self explanatory or 'sandy bottoms' with the words "see it off". The exception to the full measure, as described above, comes as the Bosun first fills a tumbler, then the measure decanting the glassful into the measure but being sure to have 2 fingers inside the measure allowing more ullage to return to the 'rum fanny'. There would already have been a small degree of spillage when the rum was collected from the barrel, show above, and together this left over amount would be known as (Kings) or 'Queens'. Legally, this rum belongs to the Monarch and should by rights be 'ditched', but your average Matelot (particularly rum rat) hates waste and would argue that Her Majesty wouldn't want it anyway. So, this would be put into another tumbler and passed around the G Members who remain around the table until it is gone.

While G stands for Grog the alternative is T equalling Teetotal, attracting a small financial payment, and as the reader can probably imagine there weren't many of these. Rum is collateral for a number of favours, with in the early days you could get your dhobying (washing cloths), ironing or even get someone to stand you watch so you could go ashore. In addition there are UA's who are too young to draw and RA's, men who when the situation allows live at home and forfeit their tot.

Seniority hold great sway in any mess, and as 'Senior Man Present John Jeffery's was given the honour of being the first to draw his tot.

In General Service (surface ships, establishments etc) and the Fleet Air Arm the regulation 2 part water, one part rum was the norm, however in 'Boats' (Submarines) the mix was one & one, probably by way of compensation for not being able to Bath and Dhoby for weeks on end. I was sure to wear my 'Dolphins' (the insignia broach of the service) just in case.

It was fantastic to see Terry & Isobel Wye as he was an old school friend of mine. Terry took time to look around in 'civvy street' before joining the RN 5 years after me. I did advise that he would never stick it out, and how right I was, he only managed to put in 33 years!!

The biggest surprise of all was when former 'Club Swinger' (Physical Training Instructor) Chief Petty Officer and British Empire Medal holder Gary Oaks turn up. Gary and I served together in 1964 when he was simple known to me as SIR! and a lot of water under the bridge since that was the last time we met.

Jeff then ran an auction for 2 excellent prizes, this a watercolour of an uncertain warship,

and this a bottle of Walter Hicks Navy Rum. Both fetched around £60 and in typical Mess Mate fashion Roger Fulbrook opened the rum sharing it with the Crew.

There were some tears when the tot was finally stopped on 31/07/1970, 40 years to the day of this gathering. Lady Astor had tried to stop it many years earlier, a staunch absainist, accusing Sir Winston Churchill of being drunk in Parliament. His reply was reputed to be "yes madam, I am drunk and you are ugly but I'll be sober in the morning". I'm sure everyone has their own memories of that day, but for me it was a tot onboardHM Submarine Porpoise, on which I was the Scratcher (Bosun) fefiting in a drydock in Portsmouth Harbour. On completion most of the crew took a fast boat ride to HMS Dolphin the Submarine Base in Gosport and joined the lads on the Finwhal for that final dram, smashing our glasses on the ballast tanks as a final salute. The Lament above was issued a couple of days later.
Right clicking on the image will magnify it.

As if to cap the whole event, I returned to the Corner House at noon today to thank all concerned with a box of chocolates and a disc containing all of the photographs. There I met yet another of my long lost mates Roger (Bungy) Williams former Master at Arms (the Chief of Police as far as the Navy is concerned.
Thanks to Jackie Potts (Bar Staff) plus Jeff & Heather Chitty
and all those who came and gave!
PS - Good Potmess

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