Ship’s Biscuit

Ship’s biscuit, in one form or another, was the staple food stuff of both the army and Royal Navy from the early 16ththrough to the late 19thcentury, with a heritage reaching back thousands of years to the ancient Egyptians. Its popularity and longevity, to the lament of many a sailor, does not lie in its palatability or pleasant flavour but rather in its apparent imperviousness to corruption.

Before such advancements in food preservation as canning or refrigeration, a vessel could only remain at sea for as long as its provisions could be stored. The development of a cheap, durable food stuff with a good calorific content was essential in enabling shipping to traverse the Atlantic and beyond.

Ship’s Biscuit (often known by its 19thcentury moniker ‘hard tack’) is a simple baked cracker of flour and water (sometimes with a little salt added). The word ‘biscuit’ stems from old French, which in turn comes from the Latin bis coctus or twice cooked. It was made by adding water to flour until a stiff dough was formed. The dough was then divided into rounds, pricked with a stamp and commonly marked with the ‘broad arrow’. The biscuit was then baked at a moderate temperature for around half an hour. It was sometimes allowed to cool and baked up to four times to ensure that all moisture was evaporated from within, which prevents the formation of mould and fungus.

The dough was divided into 4 ounce rounds. This weight is significant because it meant that 4 biscuits could be issued to each man, equating to the standard provision of one pound of bread per man per day, or half that amount for women and children.

So hard was the biscuit that in order to eat it, one would have to soak it in water first. Quite often it was simply broken up and added to stews as a thickener.

Many myths and legends have been propagated from this infamous foodstuff. You will have heard stories of biscuits filled with worms or weevils which had to be bashed out before consumption. Indeed, the British Sign Language symbol for “biscuit” simulates the motion of banging a sea biscuit upon one’s elbow, to shake out any unwanted stowaways. While it is true that it was not always possible to provide the freshest victuals, a seaman was actually well within his rights to lodge a complaint with the admiralty and receive financial compensation upon his return home, should he be forced to suffer sub-standard meals at sea.

The society of King George the Third aspires not only to recreate the look and dress of the late 18thcentury Royal Navy, but some members also seek to recreate the lifestyle. Often partaking in eating period rations (and consuming the libations). The sea biscuit pictured here is now in excess of 2 years old! And still takes its place among the artefacts which the public are most welcome to examine at our living history displays.

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Taking the King’s Shilling; The Recruitment & Composition of the British Regiment of Foot

The average strength of an infantry regiment on the English establishment was 477, consisting of one battalion divided into ten companies, one of which was a grenadier company, and another a light infantry company. When introduced at the end of the previous century, the role of the grenadiers had been to hurl hand grenades at the enemy from close range, a task calling for a strong physique. By 1775 the grenades had disappeared but the grenadiers remained. The Light Infantry had been tried out in North America during the French and indian wars and were introduced throughout the army in 1771. Good marksmen, of light build and active temperament were chosen for this service, providing each regiment with its own corps of skirmishers. The Grenadiers and Light Company together represented the elite of the regiment. A fact which set them apart from their less- gifted comrades in the so-called hat companies which formed the centre of most regiments of foot.

Clearly there was a need for large numbers of relatively young and fit men to fill the swollen ranks of the army’s ninety five regiments of foot. This number would often increase during time of war as local associations would form to raise local companies of volunteers to serve either as a local defence force, or overseas. It is interesting to note that when the British forces under the command of Cornwallis surrendered at Yorktown in October of 1781, among the regiments that laid down their arms and marched into internment were, the 80th Regiment of Foot (Royal Edinburgh Volunteers) and the 76th Regiment of Foot (McDonnell’s Highlanders), both of which were raised in the years 1777 and 1778 to meet the need for recruits. What is further significant is that both of these Scottish regiments could trace their founding to money and recruits paid for by local committees.

Most recruits to these newly raised companies or drafts were young men, frequently teenagers and almost all unmarried, at least at the time of their enlistment.

 The few surviving testimonies we have from those who joined at this time gave express reasons for their recruitment. What is clear is that the surges in recruitment, especially in 1777 and 1778 in particular did so out of an economic need. Whatever its disadvantages, the army would at least promise a relatively secure source of food, shelter and clothing. Though many recruiting parties, particularly those in operation in the South Westwould use economic-lulls to their advantage. It is still believed that country fairs or post-harvest represented the best grounds for recruiting. This is probably on account of 85-95% of Britain’s population working in agricultural industries in the 1770s. 

It is clear then that many actively sought out the various recruiting parties that made their way around the country, attending country fairs and markets throughout the year. The link between agriculture and military recruitment is an established one during this period. This is demonstrated by a series of plays and folk songs that commented on the recruiting parties activities. One of which was used extensively by the 42nd Regiment of Foot:


“It’s in by the barn and it’s out by the byre,
This auld farmer thinks you’ll never tire,
It’s a slavery job, o’low degree,
So ‘list my bonnie laddie and come along wi’ me.”

Of course songs like this represent another facet of military recruitment during the 18th century. Looking through the various compiled lists of those who entered military service at the time it is clear that not all appeared to see army life as an escape from tireless labouring in the fields of Wiltshire and Somerset. The appeal of military glory is often cited as a key proponent behind which individuals were brought into the service of the king. Many recruiting parties would often consist of several musicians from the regiment as well as a veteran sergeant. Their primary function was to capture the imagination of idealistic young men with stories and music that talked of glory and prestige. An example of this pageantry is recorded by Major Boyle Roche in Ireland in August 1775:

“Major Roche, bearing a large Purse of Gold,
Captain Cowley
A great number of recruits
An elegant Band of Music, consisting of French
Horns, Hautboys, Clarionets, and Bassoons,
Playing ‘God Save the King’
A large Brewers Dray with five Barrels of Beer, the
Horse richly caparisoned and ornamented with ribbons,
Two Draymen with cockades, to serve the Beer,
The Recruiting Serjeant,
Drums and Fifes,
Another division of Recruits,
The Recruiting Soldiers,
A prodigious concourse of Spectators.”

An account such as this one is not a too uncommon record of the attempts by various recruiting parties to gather in as many able bodied men as possible. Naturally there were some barriers to those wishing to join. While the recruit was swearing his oath of allegiance to the Crown before a local magistrate, he would have to declare that he was Protestant. The issue of religion in the British Army was amended when Lord Rawdon in 1777 formed a loyalist regiment given the title Volunteers of Ireland, the majority of the units strength was made up of Catholic-Irish settlers from Pennsylvania. The Volunteers of Ireland would later in 1778, be added onto the British military establishment as the 105th Regiment of Foot. In addition to religious conviction a man was expected to stand no shorter than five foot six inches tall and be in possession of at least two teeth. Many recruits are known to have signed three year enlistments, this was the usual minimum service for any soldier in the British army, though in 1779 when the need for recruits became ever more pressing, the government under Lord North, passed an amendment to earlier legislation that began introducing five year enlistments for petty criminals who would rather serve than go to prison.

What is significant to note is that while the war of independence escalated into a global conflict, there was a parallel increase in willing recruits for the army. 1,463 volunteers were mustered in the Southern counties of Britain alone in 1778. The same year that France formally declared their support for the rebel cause.  This is reflected in a national surge in recruitment that led to the formation of twelve new regiments in the same year. The British Army by 1779 stood at 110,000 men, a great deal of this was down to the efforts of the recruiting parties.

While our society may not muster as many numbers as his majesty boasted in 1780, we still continue to use glory, pageantry and an abundance of ale to bring new faces into our close circle of comrades. Military recruitment is often an overlooked aspect of military history and its study has enabled our society members to gain a more human insight into the lives of the men we aim to bring to life.   

 

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Officers

When discussing the officer class in the 18th century, it is important to remember first and foremost that The British officer strives to carry himself as a gentleman. Following the unwritten constitution of etiquette and morality which ruled over social interaction throughout the period. A constitution based on duty, loyalty, courage and the ability to inspire their men in times of great hardship. A far cry from our sometimes Hollywood view of an army driven on under a yoke of brutality and corporal punishment. However, it would be wrong to identify the character of the officer and gentleman as the sole preserve of the aristocracy. Though the likes of Lieutenant Colonel John Graves Simcoe and Lord Charles Cornwallis were educated at Eton, then later Merton College, Oxford and Clare College, Cambridge, this is by no means the average upbringing for the majority of British officers of the time. A recent study looking into the social background of officers serving in the British Army, concluded that during the American Revolution (1775-1783), only seven percent of ordinary infantry officers serving in the line were from the aristocracy, titled or otherwise and another five percent from the baronetage, thereby accounting for just 12 percent of the total. It is fascinating to consider that the 21st century impression of the British officer, as a member of the upper classes, is only really born out of the later regency period. It is then when the percentage climbs to around twenty percent, with a rise to forty seven percent within the guards regiments.

Portrait of John Graves Simcoe portrait from the Historical Narratives of Early Canada

Why is this so important? Well, it highlights something that is greatly overlooked in this period and that is the fluidity of social mobility. Though there is still the practice of purchasing commissions in the army, taken as a whole, if a man possesses the ability and manner for command, then he is quickly sought out for advancement. An example of this would be the rather controversial character of Banastre Tarleton. Tarleton was born into the emerging merchant classes, a social group that had grown extensively during the mid to late eighteenth century. After losing the majority of his inheritance to gambling and the company of the fairer sex, he purchased a commission as a Cornet in the 1st Dragoon Guards. This would be the only commission he would purchase throughout his entire career. He made his way to the rank of Lieutenant Colonel on nothing more than the merit of his service, which at the time was no mean feat.

In peacetime the army maintained a reduced establishment in which promotions and appointments by purchase naturally dominated. However, in times of war, with a greater number of casualties occurring, it was a very different matter. Not only was the commissioning of officers within existing regiments increased, but a whole host of new regiments were raised (in one instance twelve in the same month). This in turn meant that the expansion of the army resulted in an exponentially large demand for officers, and since this demand was not matched by a corresponding increase of the birth-rate of the gentry and the aristocracy, the additional officers had to be drawn from a much wider social base. Hence why the middling and merchant classes began to furnish the army with some of its most talented junior officers. The characters of Hornblower and Sharpe are not altogether works of fiction, they have a grounding in real practices. Therefore, one may argue that the idea of a gentleman in the eighteenth century, is based far more on conduct and attitude, than on birthright. One contemporary described this by saying, “Private gentlemen without the advantage of birth and friends”.

The newly commissioned officer would have his name appear in the London Gazette, a term often referred to as being “gazetted”. What is also remarkable is that alongside the man’s name, it also made note of whether he had been raised in the ranks or was a private gentleman seeking his first commission. It is estimated that nearly ten percent of British officers had spent some time in the ranks or had been senior NCO’s prior to their commission. A notable example of this would be five men from the 100th Regiment of Foot, who were gazetted in 1799. The men had served since the regiments raising in 1794, with occupations ranging from a tailor to a labourer. It is safe to say that these men were not gentlemen by birth, but through commitment and valued service, the status could be obtained.

Age is another interesting factor to consider at this time. Officially a man had to be at the age of sixteen to take up a commission as an ensign in the British army. Though we know now that this often varied. General James Wolfe for example, entered the 12th Regiment of Foot as a commissioned ensign shortly after his fifteenth birthday. In the 21st Century we would be shocked to hear of a child serving in the army, but in the 18th it is not uncommon to begin a career as a drummer as young as 10 years old. That being said, we must also remember that at this time, boys of the same age were being apprenticed up and down the country in all manner of hazardous occupations. The idea of taking up an ensign’s post was in a sense a military apprenticeship.

The officer’s role then in the late eighteenth century is to be the bastion of elegance and efficiency. This is reflected in the numerous guides for junior officers. books including both the lists of required and expected items a junior officer should carry with him during his service with the infantry. They further included guides attaining to the way a company officer should interact with his NCO’s. What they do not mention is that the majority of a junior officer’s training and basic introduction to army life would be overseen by the senior NCO’s in his battalion. From the handling of firelocks to the words of command, the NCO gave the officer class an education in the tough realities of command. This is a practice still used at the Royal Military Academy Sandhurst.

Lt George Dyer Corps of Marines, painted 1780 by James Northcote, national museum of the Royal Navy

Obtaining an accurate portrayal of an officer of any rank, is among the greatest challenges facing any living historian. The marriage of dignity, presence and an appropriate wardrobe to name a few. But what truly anchors it, is the understanding that for the men under an infantry officers command, the officer represents the prestige and pedigree of the regiment. He carries with him not only the burden of command but the weight of maintaining the hereditary reputation of the regiment. It is often remarked, that the men feared their NCO’s, but adored and aspired to emulate their officers, in conduct and manner. The British officer then of the late eighteenth century, is far more than a tyrant in a redcoat. He is a multi-faceted individual, appointed not always by birth, but often through the demonstration of skill and by virtue of the respect of his men and peers.

The Society of King George the Third has always aimed to capture the essence of this persona with the greatest attention to detail. We pride ourselves on the ability to accommodate the sense of belonging and military respect, that would be afforded to an infantry officer during the American War of Independence, with the goal to honour and maintain the memory of the men who undertook these duties, most notably our local Devon hero John Graves Simcoe.

GOD SAVE THE KING

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Dress of the Royal Navy

For several years now the Society of King George the Third has been working to bring to life various aspects of life in the Royal Navy during the period of the French Revolutionary Wars; this of course being the conflicts which would eventually lead into the Napoleonic Wars. To those who know the period well, the 18th century is often characterised by its clothing; from the flamboyancy of the aristocracy to the elegance of the middling classes. 

As with all of the Society’s impressions, accuracy and authenticity were of the upmost importance when trying to capture the image of the common Jack Tar in the 1790s. On closer inspection we found that there was actually far less than one would expect with regards to official uniform for the Royal Navy at this time. It was not until 1748 that the first attempts at establishing a uniform dress for officers was introduced to the service. Traditionally, officers wore clothing according to their own taste, generally red or blue and cut in the current style worn in town that season. It is argued then by many, that the initial conception of the characteristic blue coats, face white with gold lace, were originally inspired by Captain Philip Saumarez in the 1740s. This would become regulation thereafter. 

Now by the 1790s, the elaborate laced frock coats had been dispensed with in return for the adoption of a plainer coat style. Still faced white but with some of the cosmetic details removed (much to the joy of SKG3’s Tailor). The new style of coat became an all purpose uniform for the officers onboard ship to wear for various duties; that said from about 1774 captains and commanders were ordered to convert their universal coats into a more traditional styled full dress uniform, saved for special occasions. 

They would then have a second uniform that would become an underdress; with white unlaced waistcoats and white breeches. What is interesting to note is that SKG3’s impression falls in between two very distinct uniform changes. Officially the society conforms to the 1787 uniform in it’s portrayal, which in essence is the collection of many of the existing fashions and conventions of those in the service. The second is the 1795, which came into effect in June of that year. The major distinction after this period being the suspension of the wearing of white lapels for all ranks above lieutenant. 

This is all well and good, but what about the common man I hear you cry? Well interestingly enough the British Rating as they were known, did not actually have so much as a uniform to speak of. When new landsmen were brought onboard often they came wearing their own personal clothing. As the vast majority were already maritime fellows, much of their dress was not at all different to that of the existing crew. When on voyage for months at a time the only source of material to hand, would come from the ships purser. This is where the blues, reds and whites traditionally associated with the dress of the Royal Navy sailor comes from. By the end of a voyage the crew would come ashore dressed in a similar fashion simply because they had all purchased the same cloth. Hence the adoption of blue wool jackets and canvas breeches or slops. 

In the 1790s red doubled breasted waistcoats appear to have been very popular amongst the ratings in service, as well as slops and skilts. The former being a pair of long breeches that come down to just above the foot. The latter again was a essentially an apron worn on top of a pair of breeches when performing daily tasks, you will note that pair of skilts was painstakingly reproduced by society tailor, Lucas Radford to be worn at our Greenwich event, they can be seen in the accompany photographs. 

The central purpose of naval clothing was to be functional. As opposed to the relative pageantry and excess worn by the British Soldier at this time, the naval rating and even to an extent his superiors, were not what some at the time would refer too as macaronis. However, this distinctive fashion would later become a focal part of the later uniforms of the Royal Navy, from Trafalgar to the present day. As a society we have always prided ourselves in the attention to detail that goes into the construction of our clothing and accoutrements, we are constantly adding to our research and in many ways these blog entries, represent and attempt to record the development of our impressions.

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