The Unexpected History of Ship’s Biscuits
Monday, May 4th, 2020
The Unexpected History of Ship’s Biscuits
By Jeff Nicholls
Fancy a biccy?
Imagine hauling ropes and going aloft up the mast, some 150 feet above the waves. You haven’t eaten for hours. You most likely feel tired, weak and much in need of sustenance and nutrition. It’s ok – you’re in the Royal Navy – crack open the biscuit barrel! Yes, you’ve guessed it – that’s the first of our nautical wow-facts right there in sentence four. That’s where they were stored on-board ship – in a barrel, just like everything else. Ship’s biscuits had a variety of names throughout their timeline. Prior to 1800, biscuits were also known as ‘bread’ and in Tudor times biscuits were commonly known as hardtack. In this feature, we take a closer look at the humble ship’s biscuit and possibly learn something new and unexpected!
Nautical Bake Off
Okay! Bakers to the ready! Don your 18th century apron, you’re about to make an authentic 1805 ship’s biscuit.
Firstly, you’ll need to make a stiff dough.
Open your sack of stone ground wholemeal flour known as ‘bisket meal’. This flour was made from wheat grown on the Isle of Wight. Course flour won’t be the only course contents in the bag. It is likely to include fine gravel and any old stuff from the mill floor thrown in – unscrupulous millers maximised their profits by stretching out their ingredients. Flour ‘adulteration’ by wily contractors was not uncommon at any time. Before modern and regulated manufacturing methods, biscuit ingredients were unlike today’s fine grade. Milling results were unpredictable though, believe it not, Royal Navy provisions were still of a higher grade than ordinary folk could buy.
Next, add water and some salt and work into a hard dough. Leave your dough to prove for 30 minutes. Then roll out to a centimetre thickness. Pierce the dough to make a series of holes. You could use a circular tool with nails in it. This device is called a ‘docker’ (of course it is). We’ll come back to the holes later.
Bake in your oven at 220 C for half an hour and await your ‘Hollywood Handshake’.
This, in fact, is a naval biscuit recipe from 1805. Just prior to the big naval run-in with the French at Trafalgar, Nelson’s men would have gone to battle on these biscuits. To equip and supply an ever growing navy took planning: it was increasingly engaged in war and venturing further and further expanding the Empire. To get to this level of organisation, we have to thank Samuel Pepys. In 1667, Pepys put processes in place that would see the birth of large scale, organised naval victualling. Here’s your next naval wow fact. He was the first person to regulate navy victualling and work out the first comprehensive table of daily crew rations relating to nutrition.
Taking the biscuit
It’s very easy to overlook the importance of the humble biscuit. Even when we look back to Tudor times, the Admiralty has always recognised the need for a supply of food that would stay preserved for a long period of time. Ships of the Armada were supplied with 1lb of ‘biskit’ plus a gallon of beer per day for each member of the crew. Ship’s on long voyages to the South Seas or East Indies needed a long term supply of food fuel for their crews. The biscuit was part of that dietary fuel solution.
It was a dry food that could be easily produced and stored and it remained edible for a period of time, ranging from 6 days to 6 months at sea. In 1805, the English Channel Squadron ships were victualled for 4 months’ supply and ship’s bound for the East Indies were supplied for 8 months. The biscuits also needed to survive a range of climatic conditions from hot, humid climes of the tropics to cold, damp conditions of polar seas.
To meet the demand, the navy needed to ramp up its victualling capability. Strategic victualling yards were established at key naval docks. These were Royal William Yard, Plymouth; Royal Victoria Yard, Deptford; Royal Clarence Yard at Portsmouth; and HM Victualling Yard, Malta for supply to ship’s at Gibraltar and the Mediterranean Fleet.
So, having got strategic bakeries in place, Master Bakers then got to work in perfecting their biscuit baking technique. Have you ever asked yourself why biscuits have holes in them? These perforations are in fact a baking trick. Early Master Bakers realised that if you poked holes in the biscuit dough, moisture was allowed to evenly evaporate in the oven without it cracking to pieces. It gets better… stand by for your next nautical wow-fact. Each biscuit made after 1805 had a ring pattern embossed with 34 perforations in the dough – this number equating to the total number of British ship’s engaged at the battle of Trafalgar! Now, how’s that for a biscuit ‘show stopper’?
Mark my words
Ship’s biscuits had markings according to where and in what period of time they were produced. A biscuit aficionado would be able to easily identify a ship’s biscuit by two identifying marks. Firstly, you need to look for the victualling yard letter. It would either be a ‘W’, ‘V’, ‘C’ or an ‘M’. These letters are just like a hall mark that you find on jewellery – it tells you where it was made. ‘W’ is for Royal William Yard, Plymouth; ‘V’ is for Royal Victoria Yard, Deptford; ‘C’ is for Royal Clarence Yard, Portsmouth; and ‘M’ for HM Victualling Yard, Malta. The other mark, is the known as the ‘King’s’ mark. It’s a broad arrow called a ‘Pheon’. These are common markings found on anything supplied or produced by order of the government. Biscuits could also be dated from their shape. Biscuits were made by hand until 1829 when steam powered production machinery was introduced. Towards the mid 1800s, production techniques advanced to match demand. Biscuits were cut by steam machinery into the new mass production shape – the hexagon. This shape was not for decorative reasons. The hexagon shape allowed for the least waste when cut, unlike circles which have waste areas in between.
In 1805, biscuits were stored in canvass biscuit bags made by prisoners which were kept inside barrels and stowed in the ship’s bread store. Ship’s food stowages were not well ventilated and seldom saw daylight which contributed to infestation and mould. On one occasion in 1741, starving men that became shipwrecked on a far away and remote coast of Chile thought their luck was in when they came across a biscuit bag washed up on the beach. It contained over a 1lb of biscuit crumbs. They poured it from the bag and mixed it with water and some wild plants and made a soup. During the night, they were all violently ill and thought that they were going to die. At first, they thought it was the wild plants that they had added, but they soon found out that the bag wasn’t a biscuit bag after all. It was a tobacco bag that the ship’s galley had used to sweep up the remnants of the bread store. The potent remnants of tobacco had caused the poisoning.
As you can well imagine, food storage and food hygiene levels in the days of sail were far from today’s regulated food standards. Complaints from below decks were commonplace. So it is little wonder that the most well-known complaint associated with ship’s biscuits is their association with weevils. Believe it or not, weevils have more than one connection to ship’s biscuits. The name ‘weevil’ was attached to the site of Royal Clarence Yard long before it became a victualling yard. There was actually a grand house called Weevil House which stood on the site. When the property was acquired by the Navy, many of its outbuildings became incorporated into the new biscuit bakery. Anyway, back to the six legged version. Sailors often ‘rapped’ their biscuit on the table to shake out any unwanted living creatures. The larvae or fully fledged insect would fall out of the biscuit. Captain Cook employed a method of re-baking biscuits on board to get rid of these unwanted pests but it wasn’t always possible at sea. One old seaman method was to lay a dead fish over the biscuit and the maggots would migrate into the fish which would then be thrown over the side. It would take a range of ‘de-weevilling’ experiments throughout the latter part of the 19th century to yield improvements in quality of biscuits. Weevil problems gradually reduced with the introduction of the tin-lined wooden case and eventual sealed metal container – commonly known today as the biscuit tin!
You’d be mistaken if you thought the ship’s biscuit died out with days of sail, though, due to advances in food technology, front line requirement for biscuits in daily crew rations was removed from 1907 and replaced with soft bread which could be now baked on board. They are, however, still found today if you know where to look for them. They are often the reserve staple in the absence of soft bread provision for the armed services and will be found in Operational Ration Packs. Another location is used in emergency situations. Hopefully you’ll never have need for one, but if you ever find yourself on-board a ships lifeboat, look for the emergency food ration pack. Inside each pack is a green foil wrapped packet containing a supply of ship’s biscuits – complete with holes! Is it time for a cuppa?…
Listen to our podcast on Trafalgar here!
Technical referencing is sourced from a collection of notes and documents kept at the Topsham Museum in Devon belonging to the late Robert D Ridding who was Director of Supplies & Transport (Naval) at the Ministry of Defence in London. The Department was responsible for the maintenance, distribution and administration of all forms of stores to the Royal Navy. Papers include:
Ship’s Biscuits – Historical notes and recipes, Robert Ridding, 1979.
Ship’s Biscuits – Basis of Pattern and Reproduction, Robert Ridding (date unknown).
The Wreck of the Wager and subsequent adventures of her crew, the narrative of the Hon. John Byron, 1752.
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