British Sailors and Prohibition: the experience of going “dry” in the USA during the Empire Cruise

“A Sad Hobby”, Ashore and Afloat, XXV, 2, February 1901

“A Sad Hobby”, Ashore and Afloat, XXV, 2, February 1901

Despite the cleansing of the sailor image during the late Victorian era, many contemporaries viewed sailors’ predilection for drink as a worrying problem.[1] In particular, Agnes Weston used the image of a drunken sailor riding a barrel to make her case for the temperance movement, although this portrayal was condemned by sailors.[2] Yet, the image of sailors’ licentiousness endures; as Christopher McKee stated, the popular image of Jack Tar is of the ‘globe-wandering adventurer… with a prodigious appetite for alcohol and sex’.[3] Certainly, sailor diaries are full of comments regarding the availability of alcohol and, as LSBA Reynolds wrote in his diary, ‘a sailor’s “jolly fine time” usually means free beer!’[4] Although not universal, it is evident that many sailors did enjoy a drink or two. In light of this stereotypical image, this article considers the experience of British sailors who took part in the Empire Cruise of the Special Service Squadron (including HMS Hood) which traversed the globe between 1923 and 1924 to show the flag.[5] In particular it examines briefly the diaries of several sailors who took part in the cruise and their experience of American Prohibition.

The Empire Cruise got the reputation of being something of a “joyride” and has been referred to as an ‘orgy of festivities’ by Paul Kennedy.[6] Certainly the squadron enjoyed an enthusiastic reception in many ports where various forms of entertainment were laid on and sailors often noted the plentiful supply of beer, and the fact that it was free![7] For instance Arthur Russell, a sailor aboard HMS Repulse, stated after visiting a club opened specially for them at Port Swettenham: ‘here the men can obtain beer and refreshments also cigarettes, free of charge’.[8] Another sailor, Frederick Bushell, wrote following their sojourn in Australia: ‘I think most of the ship’s company are feeling the effects of the late nights and “bonza” times we’ve been having’.[9]

ProhibitionHowever, the squadron’s visit to Honolulu on its way to Canada brought sailors face to face with the United States of America’s policy of Prohibition.  Although the Royal Navy did not have to comply with this aboard its own ships, Wilfred Woolman from HMS Hood wrote that during their stay: ‘out of courtesy to the United States no alcoholic liquor of any description was to be issued’.[10] Sailors such as Frederick Bushell were quick to record this in their diaries and Bushell stated that ‘Honolulu is as “dry” as a desert’.[11] An officer, C.R. Benstead remarked that ‘a shadow has fallen across Hawaii; officially the people are dry’.[12] As will be demonstrated below the emphasis was on “officially”.


“Beer”, V.C. Scott O’Connor, The Empire Cruise, (London: Riddle, Smith & Duffus, 1925), 78.

Given that a “run ashore” provided a break from the strict discipline of shipboard life and allowed for an opportunity to enjoy a few drinks with friends, added to this the tradition of the rum ration, it is understandable that sailors might have been unhappy with this forced prohibition. Yet few sailors appear to have been overly negative, instead they seem to have taken it in their stride. For instance Woolman wrote: ‘We very quickly discovered on landing here what Prohibition really means. Alcoholic liquor cannot be obtained in public bars yet everyone has a secret supply somewhere’.[13] Bushell suggests that sailors happily followed the example of the Americans and made use of the illicit trade. After going to a club with some friends, he cheerfully wrote: ‘broke the law as did purchase and consume on the premises some brown fluid containing .001% alcohol’.[14] Benstead casually remarked that: ‘the ships of the Special Service Squadron were the only dry places in Honolulu’.[15] Interestingly, however, Bushell did take the opportunity of their visit to try ‘milkshakes’, although what he thought of the experience is not recorded.[16]

Sailors’ cheerful acceptance of the situation is similarly demonstrated by Woolman who reported a story he had heard of a drunken man who bumped into a tree and then took his hat off to it stating: ‘by Jove, if I’d known Prohibition was going to be like this, I’d have voted for it’.[17] The tone of the official biographer of the cruise, V.C. Scott O’Connor, similarly points to sailors simply taking it in their stride.[18] O’Connor cited a humorous diagram entitled ‘Preparation for Prohibition’ which appeared on a noticeboard aboard HMS Hood.[19] However, this was drawn by an officer and thus should be treated with caution in being representative of the lower deck. It remains difficult to tell how much grumbling went on in private and was not recorded, however it is strange that none of the sailors considered here specifically commented. Interestingly, even the published lower-deck diary of William Stone does not provide further comment except a cheery remark that making the squadron dry ‘probably stopped locals coming aboard and drinking us dry’.[20]

Nevertheless, one wonders how sailors would have reacted to the situation on a prolonged visit if there had been no means of acquiring alcohol at all. Bushell hinted at this somewhat by stating: ‘I can’t imagine prohibition in England’.[21] In particular, Woolman was rather damning and thought that it did little except encourage the growth of crime and turn people, who otherwise would not, to drink.[22] Therefore, sailors’ acceptance of Prohibition perhaps lends some slight credence to another sailor stereotype: that of the laid-back uncomplaining seaman who just got on with it. Although it is likely that sailors did grumble behind the scenes, the evidence suggests that they accepted the situation as a brief inconvenience and did just get on with things. In addition, many sailors used shore leave to experience new cultures and explore the “exotic”. The thrill of the experience, the relatively short duration of their stay, and the availability of alcohol ashore (if you knew where to look) arguably alleviated the situation.


[1] For further information on re-casting sailors as respectable masculine heroes of the Empire see the excellent study by Mary A. Conley, From Jack Tar to Union Jack: representing naval manhood in the British Empire, 1870-1918, (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2009), 88.

[2] “A Sad Hobby”, Ashore and Afloat, XXV, 2, February 1901. Conley, From Jack Tar, 88.

[3] And one that I have commented on in other articles for PTUC. See for further information. Christopher McKee, Sober Men and True: sailor lives in the Royal Navy, 1900-1945, (London: Harvard University Press, 2002), 1.

[4] McKee, Sober Men, 170-175; RNM 2104/59/1: Diary of LSBA Reynolds.

[5] For further information on “showing the flag” see Jon Wise, The Role of the Royal Navy in South America, 1920-1970, (London: Bloomsbury, 2014); Ralph Harrington, “‘The Mighty Hood’: Navy, Empire, War at Sea and the British National Imagination, 1920-60”, Journal of Contemporary History, 38, 2, 2003, 175; Bruce Taylor, The End of Glory: War and Peace in HMS Hood, 1916-1941, (Barnsley: Seaforth, 2012).

[6] Paul Kennedy, The Rise and Fall of British Naval Mastery, (Basingstoke: Macmillan, 1983), 279. See also Harrington, “‘The Mighty Hood’”.

[7] Although the visit to Hobart, Tasmania was a notable exception.

[8] RNM1988/259/1: Diary of Arthur Russell.

[9] RNM 2004/55/1: Diary of Frederick Bushell.

[10] RNM 1999/31: Diary of Wilfred Woolman. It is also unlikely that the Admirals would have enforced this if there was a threat to discipline.

[11] RNM 2004/55/1: Diary of Frederick Bushell.

[12] C.R. Benstead, Round the World with the Battle Cruisers, (London: Hazell, Watson & Viney, 1926), 190.

[13] RNM 1999/31: Diary of Wilfred Woolman.

[14] RNM 2004/55/1: Diary of Frederick Bushell.

[15] Benstead, Round, 190.

[16] RNM 2004/55/1: Diary of Frederick Bushell.

[17] RNM 1999/31: Diary of Wilfred Woolman.

[18] Published in 1925 as The Empire Cruise.

[19] V.C. Scott O’Connor, The Empire Cruise, (London: Riddle, Smith & Dufus, 1925), 233.

[20] William Stone, Hero of the Fleet, (Edinburgh: Mainstream Publishing, 2009), 94.

[21] RNM 2004/55/1: Diary of Frederick Bushell.

[22] RNM 1999/31: Diary of Wilfred Woolman.

, , , , , , , ,

Comments are closed.

Discover more from Port Towns and Urban Cultures

Subscribe now to keep reading and get access to the full archive.

Continue reading