FACTS AND FIGURES – Ships’ Biscuit

by Old Plymouth Society
Published March 2012

Whilst visiting one of our members, Len Stephens, I was fascinated by a paper he showed me, so much so that I have made it into an article for the newsletter!

The humble ships biscuit!
The ships biscuit or hard tack dates back to Tudor times when a 1 pound (just under half a kilo) weight of biscuit per man each day appeared in the ration scales for Seamen in 1545.

It was sometimes referred to as bread in the Victualling Scales and Dietary.

The biscuits were made by contract bakers during the 16 and 17 centuries.

Samuel Pepys, in his Victualling contract of 31 December 1677 set out the daily allowance per biscuit per man as: 1lb of good, clean, sweet, sound, well boiled with a horse cloth, well baked, well conditioned wheaten biscuit.

Flour mills and bakeries were set up and controlled by the Victualling Commissioners in London in Queen Annes reign. A bakehouse was also built in Plymouth during this period because of complaints about the contract baked biscuit!

The Mills and Bakery built in Royal William Yard in 1833 had to be capable of converting 1000sacks each containing 270lbs of wheat flour into biscuits each week. There were 2 bakeries. Each had 6 large ovens, mechanical rollers, cutters and other machinery in order to mix the flour and water and knead the dough. There were similar bakeries at Deptford, Gosport and Malta. Each bakery had its own Biscuit Stamp which was used to stamp the biscuit before baking. The Plymouth stamp had the arrow, as did the other bakeries, with the letter W denoting William Yard.

The Master Bakers duties in 1844 with regard to making ships biscuits were defined as follows:

Take particular care that the dough be properly mixed by the mixing machine and subsequently well kneaded by the breaking rollers and that none be left in the evening after the last suite of biscuit is made, in order to avoid any loss to the Public from it becoming sour.

Take care that the biscuits are made thin, properly baked and of such a size as not to be less than 5 to a pound and that the ovens are well filled so that each suite when drawn there from shall weigh at least 100lbs.

The Master Baker is to keep a book in the Form No 68 in which he is to enter an account of the quantities of flour, biscuit meal and middlings which may be received at the Bakehouse, of the total quantity of the biscuits baked daily as well as the quantity baked in each oven and the loss in the process of baking, and of the total quantity of biscuits delivered to the Storekeeper.

Biscuits are to be removed to the Drying Lofts for sufficient time before being packed into bags of 112lbs and 56 lbs.

In 1905 the instructions included the size and weight of biscuits. The hexagonal biscuits had to of a size as to weigh, when baked, not less than 5 to the pound and square biscuits should be not less than 7 to the pound.

The Bakery was closed down in 1905 and biscuits were then manufactured under contract. This was a new type of biscuit, much softer and the Seamens ration was reduced to half a pound each day. 

In 1939 the Manual of Victualling stated that the basic size and shape of the biscuit was immaterial, it could be square or rectangular. The biscuit was of a pale brown colour, sweet, nutty flavoured, crisp and easily broken.

Watch this space  next time I will tell you all about the rum!

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