What shall we do with a drunken sailor?

Ale and adventure on the high seas.


The alcoholic escapades of sailors throughout history are the stuff of legend. Whether it be naval ratings, seafarers exploring the new world, or marauding pirates, booze was never far away from the hearts and prying hands of sailors. Rum is often seen as the sailor’s poison of choice, with both Jack Tar and Jack Sparrow falling for the charms of the spicy Caribbean spirit. But sailors’ collective fondness and thirst for booze has been a serious problem for the Admiralty. 

The highly unpopular Admiral Vernon, upon seeing first-hand the drunken rabble in his ranks in 1740, did the unthinkable, by ordering a ‘watering down’ of the sailors’ daily rum ration. Such was the cultural impact of this decision that Vernon’s trademark red ‘grogram’ coat spawned a pejorative term for this sadly diluted ‘grog’ and even gave rise to the term ‘groggy’. But things were to get even worse for thirsty mariners; it is said one of the darkest days in the Royal Navy’s history was the infamous ‘Black Tot day’. Seamen donned black armbands and gave ceremonial funeral services to their trusty drinking vessels, as the last daily rum ration was served aboard ships. The date? 31st July, 1970. 

Yo-ho-ho, and a bottle of DIPA

Perhaps surprisingly, beer also has a rich and longstanding history with sailors, predating the implementation of the rum ration. In the taverns of port towns or at sea, beer was a reliable friend to sailors, a justifiably untrusting bunch: drunken men in inns (even inland) were easy pickings for the brutal press gangs that patrolled towns, hungry for fresh recruits during wartime (which, in the 18th and 19th centuries, was basically all the time). Many sailors joined when they were boys, from working class families, for whom the opportunity to learn a trade and see the world was dangerously enticing. Indeed, Britain’s most famous sailor, Nelson, joined the Navy as a boy and, according to his somewhat Putin-esque myth, scrapped with a polar bear in his early teens. 

Life on land was as chaotic as it was at sea, and towns like Portsmouth became infamous during this period. One only has to look at the work by Thomas Rowlandson to see where the priorities of a sailor lay during their short visits to port: the tavern and the brothel. And where there were sailors eager to spend their pay on booze and women, there inevitably followed violence and hooliganism. Port towns in the 18th century were like the Wild West, complete with fighting, gambling and drinking, where pickpockets and con-artists lay in wait for any naïve or intoxicated sailors. Many died destitute, while others drank themselves to death. 

Jolly Jack Tar was revered in songs and in theatre, especially after naval victories.

Beyond the seedy reality, the lovable caricature of the jolly Jack Tar, with his bright red cheeks and beer belly, was revered in songs and in theatre, especially after naval victories. These were patriotic men keeping Britain safe from the French and Dutch menace overseas, and their fondness for a tankard of ale only added to their romantic charm.

Sour seamen

The Royal Navy may have ruled the waves in the 16th century, but they couldn’t keep a decent pint. 

There was no cold chain system back then, unfortunately, and Jack Tar did not take kindly to bad beer, as the Lord High Admiral Charles Howard wrote in 1598: “Nothing doth displease the seamen as to sour beer”.

As the Empire expanded, voyages took longer and ventured in to fluctuating climates, and the issue of beer freshness became more pressing. The Admiralty even tasked the Royal Society – representing the finest minds of the day – to come up with a solution. From freezing the water out of the beer to concentrate it (as with the German eisbock) to actually brewing on board, none of the Navy’s solutions really caught on.

In spite of these ongoing travel issues, beer had remained a staple of the sailors’ diet. Samuel Pepys, famous for his diary but also an astute and important naval administrator, drew up a guideline of daily provisions allotted to a sailor in 1677, kindly giving each man a gallon of beer per day. This wasn’t out of sheer altruism; beer was vital as a water substitute, at a time when cholera was rife and clean drinking water a rare commodity. 

Often these were ‘small’ beers, under 1%, resembling today’s light bitters. The Navy did experiment with different styles however, brewed at large state-owned breweries controlled by The Victualling Board, whose responsibility it was to supply the fleet and crews with supplies and provisions. Fighting scurvy was a daily battle, so spruce beer, with its pine needles rich in vitamin C, was seen as a quick-fix solution. It was a popular beer style in its day, and even Jane Austen brewed a little of it at home. Spirits, requiring less storage space and offering greater longevity, soon seeped in to the ration intake. A gallon of beer per day remained, but was officially supplemented by a pint of wine or half pint of brandy, rum or arrack (an Indian spirit) in 1731. This heady nautical cocktail served the navy through some of its finest moments, lasting past the Napoleonic wars. 

Put a cork in it

The dawn of the steam age, and the new dangers ironclads and then dreadnoughts brought with them, inevitably led the Navy to tighten the screws on its sailors’ drinking habits. Innovations in science and technology meant that in the late 19th century, just a few decades after Nelson’s victory at Trafalgar, the necessity for beer and alcohol in general was greatly diminished. 

During this period, the Royal Navy saw it was losing ground to Germany and the United States in the naval arms race and implemented widespread reform. The days of the perpetually sozzled jolly Jack Tar were numbered. As the day to day running of ships became ever more complex, a quick hit of rum soon became untenable, and was one of the reasons for the eventual banning of the rum ration in 1970. 

Many sailors joined when they were boys, from working class families.

Today, the Royal Navy’s warships are among the most technologically advanced in the world. Modern sailors no longer are given a gallon of beer a day, but nor are ships dry and puritanical either. Wiltshire-based Wadworth brewery recently partnered with the Royal Navy and opened a pub on board the aircraft carrier HMS Queen Elizabeth. The Queens Head even boasts its own exclusive beer, Carrier Ale, a 3.6% pale ale. In 2019, beer remains an important part of naval life, though the context is quite different from 1719, where beer was an essential resource.

Beer still nobly serves its duty as a venerable social lubricant though, quenching thirsts and providing a little respite during long stints at sea. A role that it will continue to serve going forward into the Royal Navy’s next chapter.

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