Have you ever heard the phrase, “Ship-shape and Bristol fashion?”
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SS Great Britain in Bristol by Matt From London, on Flickr
It dates to the early 1840s, though it describes a situation that had gone on for centuries. Bristol is a port town in Southwest England where the difference between high tide and low tide was over 40 feet. Consider that a late 18th century ship-of-the-line had a draught (size measured from waterline to the bottom of the keel) of around 24 feet, and the result was that, at low tide, ships in the harbor would rest on their narrow keel, then tilt to one side or the other.
The net effect was that anything not locked up, nailed down or tied securely on a ship in Bristol harbor would fall over and slide to whichever side the ship was tilted toward. Thus, Bristol fashion meant everything was secured in its place. (Note that it’s unlikely that actual sailors in Bristol used this phrase, as it only entered usage in the mid-19th century, after steps had been taken to mitigate this problem.)
(Just go with it, I’m going somewhere with this.)
Ship biscuit on display at the maritime museum in Kronborg castle, Elsinore, Denmark, identified as being from as early as 1852. By Paul A. Cziko, on Wikimedia Commons.
This problem eventually led to Liverpool becoming a rival port at the end of the 18th century, as ship captains preferred not to have their cargo dumped out by a ship suddenly aground. In order to compete, in the early 19th century, construction of a series of locks and a floating harbor began to permit some control over the tide. The new harbor opened in 1809, but there were problems down the road as ships became larger.
In 1843, the SS Great Britain was constructed in the Bristol shipyards. It was the largest ship in the water, at that time, a fact that was brought into stark relief in July of that year, when the attempt to tow the ship to the River Thames where an engine would be installed failed because the hull was too wide to fit through the locks. It took until December 1844 to complete the modifications to the harbor to allow the ship to be moved and fitted with an engine, and the SS Great Britain didn’t set sail on its maiden voyage until July 26, 1845.
So why tell you this story? Well, it’s about bread and sailing.
Most Americans are generically familiar with stories about hard tack from learning about the U.S. Civil War–that it tasted like approximately nothing, that it was so hard that soldiers would have to break it with a rifle butt or soak it in coffee, and that insect infestation was a problem.
All of that was true for the hard tack they consumed in the Royal Navy, except that the sea air often softened the biscuits once they were removed from storage, both for better (for their teeth) and worse (for the mold and maggot implications). But there weren’t particularly good alternatives. As we all know, yeast like warm environments, which aren’t exactly in abundance on boats crossing the Atlantic.
Recognizing the applications at sea, Jones marketed his product using testimonials from ship captains and the like in an attempt to get contracts to supply the Royal Navy. A notice for the new flour appeared in the June 6, 1846 edition of the London Daily News:
By Royal letters patent, for the United Kingdom and the Colonies, France, Holland, and Belgium–Patronised by the Lords of the Admiralty, the Medical Profession, &c. — Jones’s Patent Flour, from which a more nutritious and wholesome Bread may be produced, by the addition of cold water only, than that made with Yeast. Adapted for weak Digestions, Invalids, &c., and invaluable for Families in the Country, Sea-Stores, Yachting, &c. Henry Jones, Patentee, Broadmead, Bristol.
This flour, the result of a long course of experimental trials, will be found to possess the following important advantages: — By the mere addition of cold water it can, in two or three minutes, be converted into dough, ready for the oven, rendering it peculiarly valuable for making Fresh Bread at sea, or any other place destitute of fermenting matter; the bread produced is not only of superior flavor and color to that made with yeast, but has been found from the absence of fermentation, to be more nutritive and salutary to invalids, dyspeptics, and others suffering from disordered digestion (see testimonials).
For use in the Colonies (whether of high or low temperature) it must be very valuable, difference of climate not affecting its operation. It will be seen by reference to the testimonials, that the patronage of government has been obtained, a quantity having been prepared by the Patentee for the use of the Royal Navy.
Copy of a Letter from the Board of Admiralty, London.
Admiralty, July 3, 1845.
Sir–with reference to your letter of the 27th ultimo, relative to your “Patent Flour,” from the use of which nautical men may have fresh bread daily during long voyages–I have to acquaint you that their lordships have tried the flour made into bread, which they find to be perfectly good, and wish to know whether your patent can be applied to the flour manufactured in the victualing establishments?–I am, Sir, your obedient Servant, William Leyburn, for Comptroller of Victualling.
To Mr. H. Jones, Broadmead, Bristol.
Bristol, June 7, 1845.
Sir–I have experimented upon your “Patent Flour,” prepared with the view of superseding the necessity of using yeast or leaven in the process of baking, and have no hesitation in certifying that I think it a very valuable invention, enabling any one who possesses the flour, with an oven and a little water, to obtain a good and light loaf, easy of digestion, and not so prone to spoil as that made from ordinary flour and fermenting materials. I am, Sir, yours respectfully, Wm. Herapath, analytical chemist.
Mr. Jones, Broadmead.
Copy of a letter from Captin Hosken, of the “Great Britain” steam ship.–Bristol, Nov. 25th, 1845.
Sir,–Having tried the flour you sent me on board the Great Britain Steam Ship during her last voyage, I have great pleasure in stating that it made the best bread I have ever seen at the table of the Great Western or Great Britain, and I shall be glad to hear you succeed in bringing it into general use at sea, particularly for long voyages, for which it is doubtless well adapted.–I am, Sir, your obedient Servant, James Hosken.
To Mr. H. Jones, Broadmead, Bristol.
Licenses under this important patent continue to be granted, and will be found worthy the prompt attention of persons proceeding to any of the British colonies, ship store dealers, bakers, &c. Circulars, with terms of license, &c., will be forwarded upon application.
Which brings us back to the SS Great Britain. In September 1846, about four months after this advertisement ran, she ran aground in Ireland due to navigational error. After being refloated, used to transfer Australian immigrants, and running aground again in the 1880s, she was eventually turned into a museum in 1970 and returned to Bristol.
Henry Jones fared better, becoming very rich on his invention. After Florence Nightingale championed the product, the Royal Navy ultimately approved its use around 1849, and it was used in the Crimean War.
We discussed self-rising flour in the post for beer bread from San Antonio, Texas.
From the box of L.R. from Winston-Salem, North Carolina.
1-1/2 cups self-rising flour
1 (8 oz.) container of sour cream
Work up into dough. Flour waxed paper and roll dough out on waxed paper.
Cut into biscuits and bake at 400 deg. till done (15-20 minutes).