What is the history of the ship's biscuit?
There are references to Richard the Lionheart setting out from England in 1190 with his ships suitably stored with ‘biskit of muslin’ (mixed corn made of barley, rye and bean flour). Ships at the time of the Armada in 1588 had a theoretical daily allowance of 1 lb of biscuit but it was Samuel Pepys who first regularised Navy Victualling and worked out the first comprehensive table of rations which included ‘one pound daily of good, clean, sweet, sound, well baked and well conditioned wheaten biscuit (plus a galleon of beer and other victuals).
Biscuits were still an important part of the sailor’s sea diet in Nelson’s time and remained so until bread and canned foods were introduced. Preserved beef in tins was issued officially in 1847 although some tinned items had been used previously for Arctic expeditions. Canned meat was first marketed in 1813. Bread became a Navy issue item in the mid 1850s and was referred to as ‘soft’ bread in the Royal Navy to distinguish it from biscuits which had sometimes been called ‘bread’, the most well-known term for ship’s biscuit being, however, hard tack.
The ingredients were stone ground flour, water and salt which were mixed into a stiff dough and baked in a hot oven for 30 minutes and then left to harden and dry. The Museum has several examples of ship's biscuits in the collection including one dating from 1784.