A View From The Fighting Tops

A Georgian Era history blog

Captain Kydd’s Caraway Biscuits

As keen followers of naval fiction will be all too aware, the eagerly awaited 17th novel in the Thomas Kydd series, “Inferno” written by the brilliant Julian Stockwin was released on 6th October 2016. Although not a great reader of naval fiction, I am a fan of  the audiobooks, so downloaded Inferno a few days after its release.

I’m not going to give away the plot or storyline. If you want to know more, you’ll have to buy or download Julians book.

However, I will say that part of the way through, Kydd returns to his cabin and notices a welcome plate of caraway biscuits on the sideboard.

This got me curious, so I went away and researched. Caraway biscuits are similar to what we in the UK would call “Abernethy” biscuits. There was therefore no difficulty in locating a recipe and I  duly whipped up a batch of 16. The recipe can be found in many places, but I used the following:

  • 8 oz plain flour
  • 3 oz butter or baking margarine
  • 3 0z sugar
  • 1/2 level teaspoon baking powder
  • 1/2 level teaspoon caraway seeds
  • 1 tablespoon milk
  • 1 egg.

The method is as follows:

  • Sift together the flour and baking powder
  • Rub in the fat
  • Add the sugar and the caraway seeds and mix well
  • Add the egg and milk
  • Mix to a soft dough, do not overwork the mixture, add a dusting of flour if it seems a little wet.
  • Roll out to a biscuit thickness
  • Cut out with a fluted cutter approximately 16 biscuits
  • Prick the top of the biscuits all over with a fork
  • Bake at 160-170 degrees fan for about 10 minutes until very lightly golden. Do not let the biscuits over bake, they burn easily.
  • Cool on a rack or plate

The result:




Ships Biscuit

The daily ration for a seaman in Nelsons Royal Navy allowed for 1lb of bread. In port this was generally fresh bread when available, otherwise, afloat this “bread” was ships biscuit, or “hard tack”. Vast quantities of biscuit were baked at the victualling yards on the Thames and at Plymouth. But what was ships biscuit?

Simply put, ships biscuit consisted of two or three ingredients, depending on which sources you read. These are either flour and water, or flour, water and salt.

Given that ships biscuit was designed to be kept for long periods, I am inclined to discount the use of salt. Why? well salt draws moisture and moisture attracts insects. Weevil infestation of ships biscuit was enough of a problem without adding ingredients that would make it worse. I therefore think the original recipe only consisted of flour and water.


Clearly then, if we are to re-create ships biscuits, using the right flour is a must. Modern white (all purpose, or plain) flour is refined and bleached. Flour from the 18th and 19th centuries was not. This poses a problem as to its exact composition. In my experiments, I therefore baked three different types of biscuit with flour used as follows:

  1. 100% of volume British “Strong Brown” flour
  2. 50% plain (all purpose white) and 50% wholemeal (wholewheat) flour
  3. 50% plain (all purpose white) 25% Granary and 25% Rye flour

In all three cases the method followed was the same, its not difficult and isn’t likely to make an appearance on “Great British Bake Off” any time soon:

  1. Put  flour in bowl


2. Add enough water to make a stiff dough


3. Roll out dough


4. Fold the dough


5. Turn over dough and roll out again, repeat steps 4 and 5 until dough is elastic


6. Roll out to about 1/2 inch thickness. Cut a circular biscuit shape with a plain cutter or similar


7. Place biscuit on an ungreased baking sheet (cookie sheet). prick biscuit tops with a fork or cocktail stick


From L-R ” 100 % Strong Brown”, “50/50”, “50/25/25”

8. Bake in a oven at an initial temperature of 325F (160c) for about an hour then a further hour with oven turned down by about 20%.

After an hour the biscuits I baked were slightly risen but still soft in the middle:


From L-R ” 100 % Strong Brown”, “50/50”, “50/25/25”

and in the middle, still too soft:


One further hour and they were much harder and unpleasant, but dry in the middle:



So is this authentic? possibly… but which flour is accurate? my guess is the 50/50 blend being the closest. It makes little difference to the final texture or taste, they’re pretty inedible when cold and would need to be dissolved in a stew of some kind, which is exactly what happened.

Still, an easy way to get calories into fighting men. For the record, a biscuit as baked by me weighed 110g. So clearly a 1lb daily ration would be 4 biscuits if each biscuit was 3 1/2 inches and half an inch thick.

Further more, if this is correct, for a 3 month cruise of a typical man of war (say 800 crew) then 3200 biscuits would be required per day, or 288,000 for a 90 day commission.

Interesting experiment, please leave any comments, I enjoy feedback.


The 12 Month Naval Food Project

After much (again enforced due to work) delay I have decided to return to the blog.

I recently signalled via Twitter that I was about to embark on my own 12 month long social media investigation of Naval and Georgian food, rations and diet. I have a long standing interest in victualling and am a keen cook, so this for me gives me a chance to combine both my historical interest in the Nelsonic Royal Navy and my love of the kitchen.

I don’t come into this entirely unprepared, I am armed with two very good books by Janet Macdonald on the subject- “Feeding Nelsons Navy”  and  “The British Navy’s Victualling Board, 1793-1815-Management Competence and Incompetence”. Janet Macdonald is, I think, somewhat of an expert in this field.

As a collector of antiquarian books on the Royal Navy, I’m also fortunate to own an original 1808 edition of “Regulations and Instructions relating to His Majesty’s Service at Sea” which cost me a good few hundred pounds a few years ago and contains a mort of information on victualling and allowances.

There are a number of false or half truths spoken by people who should know better regarding the state of victualling of the Royal Navy at this time. The main falsehood is that the food was poor. Lets put that to bed straight away. It was not. The Admiralty went out of its way to obtain the very best provisions that they could get. They also attempted to use the best techniques of the time for storage and preparation. If food was poor, it was generally due to corruption further down the procurement chain, for example an unscrupulous Purser or other contractor. Provisions were also regularly inspected for signs of spoilage once onboard.

True, the food was limited. This wasn’t by choice, the victualling allowances were arrived at with consideration to two factors,  the need to provide the correct calorific requirement and ease of preservation for commissions that could last 3 months on home service or longer on foreign service.

So, where to start. Well, for those that haven’t already seen it, the victualling allowance for your typical seaman in Nelsons Navy around that time were as follows:


This is the basic ration allowance for one man. Biscuit relates to ships “hard tack”. In port, this would have been fresh bread. The meat ration would have been fresh in port, and preserved (salted) when at sea.  Supplies of butter and cheese were notorious for not storing well. On foreign stations when certain provisions were in low supply and could not be locally sourced, substitutions were allowed and a particular exchange rate. We will talk about these in a future post.  For example, where peas or oatmeal weren’t available, rice or chickpea (dhal) was often substituted. Often dried fruit was a substitute, as was suet, which allowed the men to make boiled puddings. Tea and chocolate sometimes made an appearance, as did sugar. All Captains did their best to obtain green vegetables, onions,oranges etc when on in port at home or abroad. Wine was sometimes substituted for beer, sometimes there was a weekly vinegar allowance. So the diet was quite fluid and depended quite often on conditions and location of service.

We’ll go into this further in the next post, as I’ve already said. In the next post I will also be baking ships biscuit, so be sure to watch twitter for the announcement…







Phillip Broke, Trincomalee and a strange affair in South America

I’m rubbish at this blogging thing, there’s always something else to do!


HMS Trincomalee, Hartlepool Historic Quay

That aside,I have a task to do. In December, The Friends of HMS Trincomalee, of which I’m one of seven trustees were successful in appointing our first Patron, Lord Eric De Saumarez, who is a direct descendant of Sir James Saumarez, First Baron De Saumarez, one of Nelsons “Band of Brothers” from the Battle of the Nile in 1798 and commander in Chief in the Baltic from 1808-1812.


James Saumarez, 1st Baron De Saumarez


A nephew of the first Lord De Saumarez served as a young  Lieutenant aboard HMS Trincomalee during the ships second commission.

In a strange quirk of fate, I have been reading about Philip Vere Broke, of Shannon vs Chesapeake fame.

shannon ches

The action between Shannon and Chesapeake during The War of 1812

In the course of reading I discovered a tenuous link between Broke, Saumarez, HMS Trincomalee and one of Trincomalees sea officers,Sir Lambton Loraine.


Philip Vere Broke, Captain, HMS Shannon

In 1882, The 4th Baron De Saumarez, (our Patrons great grandfather) married Jane Anne Vere Broke (grand daughter of Philip Vere Broke) becoming Lady De Saumarez.

Following the marriage into the Saumarez family came Shrublands Hall in Suffolk (famous for being the health spa visited by James Bond in “Thunderball”).

So there is one connection. Now a second.

The sister of Lady De Saumarez, Frederica Mary Horatia Vere Broke  (theres a name!) married Sir Lambton Loraine, 11th Baronet of Kirk Harle, in Northumberland.

(c) National Maritime Museum; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation
(c) National Maritime Museum; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation
Lambton Loraine, 11th Baronet of Kirk Harle,Northumberland.

The final connection? Sir Lambton Loraine had served as a Midshipman in Trincomalee during the second commission.

Sir Lambton Loraine later became famous during the Virginius incident in 1873.

Funny how things connect together, isnt it…. I wonder what the conversations between Loraine and young Saumarez would have been like…. at that stage they were unrelated. If only they knew what the future was going to bring.





























A Summer of Loopholes, Conway and Martello Towers

As a second post, I spent the summer researching Loophole and Martello Towers on the South coast of England and in Jersey.Loophole (Conway) towers in Jersey were constructed in the Channel Islands  from around 1778-1779, a time when Britain’s attention was occupied by the rebellious American colonies. In the late 1770s France decided to enter the conflict on the American side (surprise). This left the Channel Islands particularly exposed and so a period of re fortification began, in order to protect coastal areas from landings.

Loophole (Conway in Jersey, after Seymour Conway, the Governor of the island) towers were built close to existing batteries. They were primarily designed to offer protection to existing batteries and to house an officer and about 20 men. The sides of the towers were pierced with loopholes for musketry.Some examples can be seen below:


This first tower is at Platte Rocque on Jersey, close to the spot where a French landing was made in early 1780.  The famous battle of Jersey was then fought, the tower being built later. Talk about closing the stable door after the horse has bolted….


This second tower is one of the first built in the north of the island, at Greve De Lecq. The loopholes are obvious.

This third tower is one of a number which run along the beach at Grouville, close to the Royal Golf Club, where Bergeracs Charlie Hungerford played many of his rounds…. it is now a completed house conversion.


These next photos are of the Kempt and Lewis Towers. These are later “Martello” towers located on the west coast.














A long voyage and welcome return

Four long years ago I set up this blog page as a receptacle for my thoughts and ramblings on all manor of history related topics, though mainly topics with a naval or nautical connection. Work, life and moving house then got in the way and many things fell by the wayside, among them this page. I guess that happens to most people at one point or another.

Now, after a lengthy absence, I’m back and my intention is to pick off from where I left off.

So, a refresher. I’m a full time Technical Sales Manager for a specialist engineering company based in the North-East of England. This means that I travel the UK, visiting clients and potential clients, assessing potential project requirements, quantifying them and costing them then hopefully winning the contract.  My interest is in the Napoleonic era Royal Navy. I collect antiquarian books on the subject and am a charity trustee for the “Friends of HMS Trincomalee”. As a trustee I am proud to say I helped successfully negotiate a Patron for the Friends, who is Lord Eric De Saumarez,  descendant of Admiral Sir James Saumarez. I also have an interest in period cookery and do a lot of swimming.

Most of my holidays are also history related. Last Summer I spent a week in both Jersey and Malta, researching coastal fortifications for a voluntary history lecture. I will post some photos of towers shortly. From time to time you might also see some antique books and other malarky!

See you all soon!