Ship biscuits

These hardy crackers were the main staple for sailors on a long voyage – it's believed around the time of the Spanish Armada the daily allowance on board a Royal Navy ship was one pound of biscuits and a gallon of beer. Guy Lochhead tells us more about this stalwart biscuit...

These historical crackers have served as a vital food for centuries aboard boats, among armies and far-flung communities across the world. When stored well, they last indefinitely.

Their usage in the military and at sea led to all sorts of mythologising – most famously in maritime novels as “weevily biscuits”, with sailors opting to eat in the dark to avoid seeing the maggots. Historians have debunked this idea, at least since the early 19th century, when sailors began storing their biscuits in airtight wine barrels.

In 1812, Captain Basil Hall described tasting the results: “the biscuit smelled as fresh and new as if it had been taken from the oven only the day before. Even its flavour and crispness were preserved so entire, that I thought we should never have done cranching it.”

Here’s a traditional recipe, eschewing any of the butter and milk that modern versions use. Although the additional ingredients taste great, they are perishable, and we want our biscuits to last hundreds of years. 


500g flour (historically, medium coarse stone-ground wholemeal)
2 tsp salt water


Preheat oven to 190°C. Combine flour and salt in a bowl and add water until it makes a stiff dough. Roll this out thickly then cut into squares (Navy-style) or circles (Army-style), and pierce holes in them to make them easier to break up later (‘docking’). Place on a baking tray in the oven for half an hour then remove and leave to cool fully on a wire rack before eating.

Guy Lochhead is a primary school teacher living in Bristol. He is currently gathering sources via the British Whybrary, putting on gory am-dram classical tragedies and starting Bristol's first co-op gym.