Rum, Weedy and Bilgewater

 When it comes to the drinking of spirits, the crewmen in the Prawning Fleet are most particular about what they will and won't allow to pass their lips: it has to be Rum. And there's a very good reason for that: we don't drink the Brandy because that's what the Masters drinks and it would be disrespectful for the crewmen to do the same – we knows our place and sticks to it. Likewise Whisky, we wouldn't feel right drinking that stuff: Whisky is a braggarts' drink to our way of thinking. Then you got Gin, which is a spirit that has forgotten its humble beginnings. It was all well and good in the past, when it was cheap, but we don't trust it now it's gone all lah-de-dah: dressing itself up with slices of lime, tonic water and bloody ice cubes! But Rum is a gift to the crewmen in the Prawning Fleet from King Neptune himself – he had it sent to us from an island thousands of miles away, making sure the sea stayed kindly for the ships bringing it over to Poole.

     This was hundreds of years ago and those old Prawnmen from the past was the first in this country to ever get the taste of it – Neptune made sure of that. Nowadays we don't get to taste it very often on account of it being expensive compared to Scrumpy – but that just means we enjoy the Rum even more when we do get it. And it has to be dark Rum: your Prawnman don't reckon on anything else being worthy of the name. Except, of course, when it comes to Weedy. Y'see, on the rare occasions when a crewman comes into possession of a whole bottle of Rum of his own it is only the first half that he will drink neat – and that rationed to a tot or two a night. Once that halfway mark is reached, fully aware that the next bottle may be many months away, the Rum is topped up with water. This half and half mixture is known as grog and is still regarded as an acceptable drink. Upon the halfway mark being reached a second time it is topped up once again – this then makes it half-grog. With most of the flavour now diluted out we reckons that its name only serves to remind us of what it used to be. If the half-grog reaches the halfway mark with no new bottle on the horizon, each subsequent top up renders the contents of the bottle to Weedy – a poor substitute for Rum but better than nothing.

     For special occasions we got Bilgewater – which is one of our traditions that you won't find anywhere else in the world. They do say it happened like this: there was a ship that came into Poole, way back in history, skippered by old Captain Lawe. They reckon he was lucky to make port, having had a terrible time of it with the weather on the long trip from the Caribbean. Now then, what with the storms chucking his little brig around the Atlantic like a cork, some of his cargo got spoiled – including a barrel of Rum. The barrel must've been a duff one because it let some of the Rum leak out and what was left got contaminated with seawater: not only that, but a cask of gunpowder had taken a soaking and its contents had seeped into the cargo hold – so some of that ended up in the Rum too. After Captain Lawe had got the barrel signed off as sea spoilage it was put to one side on the quay to be disposed of.

     Only it didn't get disposed of – at least not in the way it normally would've: that barrel of rum got spotted by the crewmen in the Prawning Fleet who, not knowing it was spoiled, decided amongst themselves that this unguarded barrel was an act of Providence. And not being the sort of folk who'd want to show any disrespect to Providence, they thought they'd better take it away and put it to good use. Such as drinking it. Knowing that other folk didn't always understand the workings of Providence in the same way as they did themselves, it was agreed that it should be done straight away, before anybody noticed what they were up to.

As it turned out, Captain Lawe did catch them in the act of showing Providence due respect: he suddenly appeared on the deck of his ship just as they were lifting the barrel onto a dog-cart. But far from stopping them, he just laughed:

     “Help yourself boys,” he told them cheerfully, “though you will find it was an ill wind which blew that barrel in to turn your guts out. It's no more use than bilge water!”

     But that was where the captain was wrong: upon getting the barrel into one of the huts at Fisherman's Dock and tapping it, the Prawnmen discovered that they quite like Rum when it was mixed with seawater and gunpowder. After downing a fair drop apiece they decided to name the drink 'Bilgewater' in honour of Providence and Captain Lawe.

     We still drinks it to this day: when we feel our luck is running proud and we wants to raise a cup on the strength of it, upon meeting friends old or new, or just because the time feels right – somebody is sure to call for a jug of Bilgewater. But I will end on a word of caution: if you ever find yourself enjoying a few jars in the company of the Poole Prawnmen, it may well end up in an invite to share a jug of Bilgewater with them. This is a sign that they like you a lot, so try not to flinch.

◄ A Tradition Saved

The Prawnmen And The Press Gangs ►


Profile image

Patricia and Stefan Wilde

Sun 20th Jan 2013 17:35

We drink bilgewater daily.
Its called Asda tea.xx

Another one for the top drawer Ledge.xx

Profile image

John Coopey

Sun 20th Jan 2013 17:35

You're a cracking storyteller LdlB.
My only gripe is that you don't add an audio. You'd be mustard in performance.
By the way, my mate tells me of the protocol adopted by sailors when the rum ration was still going. He used to be in the RN at the time of the Cod War and says there was a language understood by all when it came to sharing, so you just took the right size nip when invited.

Profile image

Yvonne Brunton

Sun 20th Jan 2013 12:28

Question - does it 'blow yer 'ead off?'
I loved this especially the part about Providence - so cleverly worded.XX

If you wish to post a comment you must login.

This site uses cookies. By continuing to browse, you are agreeing to our use of cookies.

Find out more Hide this message