Wreck of the Week No.30: The Staff of Life

Our Daily Bread

Recently a colleague challenged me to name wrecks with an obscure cargo, thinking that bread would be too difficult to find. Off the top of my head – as we were in a respectable hostelry at the time! – I mentioned a number of local ships I knew of, laden with provisions to take to market, some of which must surely have involved bakery goods as well as groceries and livestock. However, back in the office, I thought I’d better do some digging.

One good example is a wreck that has come down to us only as Owner Owen’s Trow“, belonging to Gloucester, which sank after colliding with a larger vessel in the Severn in 1751, “which greatly damaged her cargo” of “grocery”. Local papers at this time seem generally to refer to Severn trows by owner rather than by any name the vessel may or may not have had.  For an image of what a trow looked like, have a look at the signboard of the Llandoger Trow pub in Bristol.

I suggested also the raw material of wheat, for example the wreck of the Caledonia in 1842, again inbound to Gloucester with wheat from the ‘bread basket of Russia’ at Odessa. Keeping with the pub theme, to this day there is an Odessa Inn at Tewkesbury, which is on the Severn and must refer to this trade.

Well, as they say, an army marches on its stomach. Virtually every time I found a mention of bread or provisions, it was in relation to victualling a campaign or a fleet. We have a number of such records from the Middle Ages, the earliest being in 1296 at Lytham, “with goods and victuals for the castles in North Wales”. This one was followed in 1302 by another victualler feeding Edward I’s army, lost off Hartlepool, while in 1305 another ship was lost off Cumbria, laden with corn and other provisions for “the maintenance of the king’s subjects in the war” in Scotland.

We only have three specific mentions of bread. One was the Rebecca, exporting bread from Stockton-on-Tees for Barbados, lost at Boulmer, Northumberland, in 1691. The Charming Sally was outward-bound to victual the English army at Quiberon Bay in 1760, when she was lost in the Cattewater, just as she was leaving Plymouth. This shows the support for one of the most famous British campaigns of the 18th century, one of those that shaped modern Canadian history.

Likewise the Swift victualler was lost in convoy off Portland, similarly bound for Canada, in 1776, laden with what every sailor needed: rum and bread. “Oh! dreadful sight!” wrote a witness, as she was consumed by fire.

The long distances involved in all three cases shows us that in all likelihood we are probably looking at the famous hard tack or ship’s biscuit. Have a look at one from 1784 here.

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