The Pusser’s tradition began in 1540 when Henry VIII established Great Britain’s Royal Navy. To control costs and protect the ship’s supplies, he appointed an officer with the title PURSER, on board each ship. This officer was responsible and accountable for all ship’s stores, including the purchase and distribution of victualling items, goods for the bosun’s maintenance locker and the outfitting of the ship’s crew with clothing and the gear necessary for the fighting of the ship.
In due course, the men came to refer to the Purser as the Pusser, and all goods issued by him were preceded by the possessive noun PUSSER’S. Thus a pair of pants, a jacket, or beer, or a biscuit, were referred to as Pusser’s pants, a Pusser’s jacket, or Pusser’s beer, or a Pusser’s biscuit! Thus the Pusser’s tradition was born!
The sailors that manned the Royal Navy’s warships in those hard, long days, were far from affluent; most owning nothing more than what was on their back. So the quality of what was issued to most of them by the Pusser exceeded substantially what they themselves might have been able to procure. Thus over the years and centuries that followed, Pussers took on the secondary meaning of quality. To say to a shipmate that something was ”Pussers” was the same as saying, “It’s the best”!
Until about 1655, Great Britain’s Royal Navy issued every man on board ship a daily one-gallon ration of beer. Unfortunately, after several months at sea, the beer soured. Thus in 1655, the daily beer ration was replaced with rum, a special blend of five Caribbean rums concocted by the Navy’s victualling yards. Since this unique rum was under the control of and issued by the Purser, it was aptly named “Pusser’s Rum”. The daily allotment, referred to as “the tot”, was a generous one pint a day per man at what turned out to be about 115 proof – when years later the Sykes Hydrometer was invented, and the proof could be measured.
This Pusser’s Rum tradition continued for more than three centuries until stopped by the First Sea Lord, Admiral of the Fleet Sir Michael Le Fanu on July 31st, 1970 – known and celebrated today as “Black Tot Day”. In 1979, with the Admiralty’s blessing Charles Tobias, resurrected the navy’s rum as a commercial brand after securing rights to its name, the original blending formula, and the right to use the Royal Navy’s White Ensign on a label. Since 1979, a large share of the profit has inurred to the benefit of the Royal Navy Sailor’s Fund, and numerous other charities. Thus 477 years of documented and colorful Pusser’s tradition was rescued from the scrap heap of history. Today Pusser’s merchandise and Pusser’s Rum have carried forward the Pusser’s tradition for almost 50 years since its original demise in 1970, and almost 500 years since it all began under the reign of Henry VIII in 1540.
Lord Nelson – of “Nelson’s Blood” fame – on the deck of HMS VICTORY shortly before he was mortally wounded at the Battle of Trafalgar, October 21st, 1805.
Postcard sent on July 31st, 1970 – Announcing the last day of issue of Navy Rum
On the Origin of “Grog” and Vernon’s Orders
Over the centuries, the amount of rum changed from time to time. Prior to 1740, Pusser’s Rum was issued to the men neat, that is without water. They received 1/2-pint twice daily! Admiral Vernon, the hero of Portobello and the Commander-in-Chief, West Indies Station was very much concerned with what he called the swinish vice of drunkenness which he believed was caused by the men drinking their daily allowance of rum neat, that is without water. He believed that if the same amount of rum was mixed with water, and then consumed that it would reduce drunkenness and discipline problems for which the punishment could be brutal. Thus he issued his infamous Order to Captains No. 349 on August 21, 1740. His order stated that the daily allowance of rum “beevery day mixed with the proportion of a quart of water to a half pint of rum, to be mixed in a scuttled butt kept for that purpose, and to be done upon the deck, and in the presence of the Lieutenant of the Watch who is to take particular care to see that the men are not defrauded in having their full allowance of rum… and let those that are good husband men receive extra lime juice and sugar that it be made more palatable to them.”
The sailors, or “Jack Tars” had affectionately nicknamed Admiral Vernon “Old Grog” from the “grogram” cloak he often wore on the quarter deck. The watered rum gave great offence to the men, and soon they began referring to it contemptuously as “Grog” from the name they’d already provided Admiral Vernon. Thus, true Grog is Pusser’s Rum and water with lime juice and sugar!
Admiral Vernon, who created Grog, & His orders
The “scuttled butt” in Vernon’s Order eventually became the “Grog Tub” from which the daily Grog was issued. Petty Officers received their Pusser’s Rum ‘neat’ directly from the Spirit Room at 1100 hours daily when the bos’n piped “Up Spirits!” to herald the event. The issue of Grog to the rest of the sailors followed one hour later.
Changes in the Issue
The ration – or tot – was later increased to two parts water and one part rum, and in 1756, the daily ration of Pusser’s Rum was increased to one pint per day, per man. Finally, just before the tot ritual ended in 1970, it was reduced to one-eighth pint. Over the more than 300 years that Pusser’s Rum was issued on board ships of the Royal Navy, a whole litany of special terminology grew up around it. (see Pusser’s Folklore). Pusser’s Rum became a form of currency, a way to pay off old debts or to reward a shipmate for a favor. Even card games were played for rum. Pusser’s Rum had a value that was defined by such terms as “a wet”, “sipper”, “gulper” and “sandy bottoms”, all used to define the amount.
The Pusser’s Breed – Frank Reynolds
Stalwart men, like Frank Reynolds kept the vital sea lanes open during the Battle of the Atlantic of World War II. The highlight of each man’s day was the issue of their daily tot of Pusser’s Rum. When the Royal Navy finally abolished the rum issue, many of the old salts took early retirement and never returned.
The Pusser’s Rum tradition is still alive. In 1979, Charles Tobias–entrepreneur, global sailor, raconteur–sought to resurrect thePusser’s Rum tradition. He obtained the rights and all the blending information from the Admiralty, and formed Pusser’s Ltd. on Tortola in the British Virgin Islands and began bottling and selling this storied spirit in 1980 to the public for the first time. (Prior to then, it was restricted to the Royal Navy). British Navy Pusser’s Rum is the same Admiralty blend of five West Indian rums as issued on board British warships, and it is with the Admiralty’s blessing and approval that Pusser’s is now available to the consumer.
The Royal Navy Sailor’s Fund, a naval charity more commonly called the “Tot Fund” receives a substantial donation from the sale of each bottle of British Navy Pusser’s Rum. Aside from the fund’s original bequest, the Pusser’s contribution has become the fund’s largest source of income.
Admiral Tait, Second Sea Lord, receiving a check for the Sailor’s Fund from Pusser’s founder, Charles Tobias back in 1980, The Grog Tub, (center), and The Queen Mother mixes a tub of Grog (Pusser’s Rum and water) at the commissioning ceremony of a British warship