Grog and British Sailors

British sailors lining up for their grog ration. Photo from the U.S. National Archives.

The size of the pails in these young men’s hands is what originally drew me to this photograph. I knew grog involved rum, so I was much intrigued. I mean, just how much rum can a sailor drink? Okay, maybe that’s a dumb question. I decided to investigate.  

Rum first appeared in the buckets of sailors in the seventeenth century after England conquered Jamaica in 1655.  The men preferred it to beer or brandy, but too many got sick or stupid when they drank it straight, so their officers started mixing it with water.

Admiral Edward “Grog” Vernon (1684-1757). Photo from Wiki Commons.

In 1740, Admiral Edward Vernon codified a particular rum/water mix for his squadron, which became the official way of doing things in the Royal Navy after 1756.  Essentially, four parts water and one part rum, seasoned with whatever extras like sugar and lime juice the men could afford, became grog.  Why “grog”?  That was Vernon’s nickname–“Old Grog”–after the grogram cloth he preferred in his coats.  Okay, but what is “grogram”?  It’s a French word originally spelled gros gram, meaning “coarse texture.”  And that’s how grog got its name.  Interestingly, George Washington’s half-brother, Lawrence, who served under Vernon around this time, honored the esteemed admiral by naming the Washington-family estate of Mt. Vernon after him.

As for the barrel that held the grog aboard ship, it’s actually called a mixing tub.  They were made of oak and the Royal Navy had specific sizes for different classes of ships.  The ship in this photo is the HMS King George V, one of newest battleships, which saw service from 1911 to 1926.  I can tell that by the name of the ship embossed on the “pork pie” hats of several of the sailors, most clearly the two men behind the tall, hatless chap standing there rather shamelessly with two buckets. The battleships were the big dogs, so this was a big tub, weighing about 100 lbs and holding 40 gallons of grog.

There was a ritualized way to dilute and dispense the grog.  See the tapped rum keg in the photo above, laying on its side next to the tub?  The keg was filled from the ship’s rum stock an hour before lunch, then hauled above deck to be dispensed.  Petty officers received their “tots” first, two ounces of pure rum.  The remaining rum was mixed in the tub with a fixed amount of water (it varied from era to era, probably one part rum to three parts water at this time), then ladled out to the ship’s cooks to give to the rest of the crew.  That’s why the men in the picture above have buckets: each one is a cook or other representative providing for several others.

Other ingredients like lemon or lime juice, sugar, cinnamon, or honey often found its way into the tubs.  Ships in tropical waters often spiced their grog with juice from other fruit like oranges, grapefruit, and pineapple.

 Alas, the Royal Navy poured its last tot of rum on July 31, 1970, known to history as “Black Tot Day.” It was an end to an era that spanned more than three centuries. There would be no more “groggy” sailors on British ships, at least not while on duty.

Works Cited

“Grog.” Wikipedia.

“Grog and Mixing Tubs.” The Pirate’s Lair.

“Rum Ration.” Wikipedia.

Categories: people, things

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