The Black Tot rum call remains a mystery…

Originally posted 29 August 2012

Another Black Tot Day has gone by, the commemoration of the last rum ration served aboard a British naval vessel on July 31, 1970. This picture shows the last serving aboard the HMS Phoebe.

BlacktotdayMost details of that day, and the thousands of days preceding it on which that ration was served, are clear, but one detail is conspicuous by its absence. Multiple period sources refer to the sailors almost Pavlovian response to the sound of the bosun’s pipe tweeting “Up Spirits,” the call to issue rum rations, but nobody agrees what tune was played. I contacted the Royal Naval Museum in Portsmouth and the National Museum of the Royal Navy in Greenwich and neither could offer a conclusive answer. The Greenwich museum was kind enough to ask a number of old veterans, but they couldn’t agree what tune was played. Music and naval scholars suggested that any of several standard pipe tunes might have been played, but the mass of literature that mentions a specific call named “Up Spirits” makes it clear that one tune was associated with the rum ration no matter what ship a sailor might be on. There is one place that claims an unbroken tradition – the ceremony is still reenacted by old veterans at the Corner House Pub in Easton, near Portland in Dorset, but as far as I can tell nobody has never filmed it. I pleaded with a local who I contacted through the Town Council’s website to record it for posterity, but he explained that he was technologically challenged and couldn’t figure out how to work the camera in his cellphone. The pub where this ceremony is held has no email, though the same councilor volunteered to drop a note through the door asking somebody to film it and upload the video. That provided no response, so the tune and ritual seems to have once again gone unrecorded.

If you’d like to see the whole ceremony, there are several examples on the Pathe Productions website – this company shot thousands of newsreels from the silent era onward, and is digitizing their collection. Unfortunately every instance of the rum ration that I have seen on their site so far is either silent or has an announcer talking over the entire ceremony. The earliest, and my favorite, is this 1916 silent of rum being issued during World War One. If anyone out there finds any period film with sound, I would be obliged for the link – I’d be delighted to solve this question once and for all.