Diet and Victualling
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Nelson and His Navy - Cheese and the Navy

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Our Purser (Josiah Miggins) writes:-

1. Variety of Cheese Purchased by the Navy.

Upon examination of the sources it turns out that the only references which I have to the Navy Purchasing and Issuing a specific variety of cheese (i.e. Suffolk) come from the 1745 edition of the ...’Regulations and Instructions Relating to His Majesty’s Service at Sea’, and ‘The Seaman’s Vade Mecum’ of 1756.

According to the ‘The Wooden World’ ,p85., ...’The Navy had always issued Suffolk Cheese, a thin, hard and durable variety, but practically inedible. There were frequent complaints against it, and in 1758 the decision was taken to switch to Cheshire and Gloucester Cheese, even though they were considerably more expensive and probably did not keep so well.’

All of my later sources simply refer to ‘Cheese’ without specifying variety.

It may be significant that the two early sources also instruct that Cheshire Cheese be issued at two thirds the weight of Suffolk, whereas none of the later sources mention any such provision.

It will also be of some significance when we come to consider size and weight that Cheese was not manufactured or processed by the Victualling Board in it’s own facilities, but Bought In, from the producers, via Jobbers and Factors. In 1756 the Victualling Board paid 2d per Lb, in 1815 3d per Lb.

2. Cheese Production.

In the eighteenth and most of the nineteenth centuries Cheese production remained a ‘cottage industry’. The first Cheese Factory was opened in 1870 in Derby.

All Cheese production in our period is small scale, farm dairy based and seasonal. The nature of a cheese being determined by the quality of grazing in it’s area of production, it’s name referring to the type rather than it’s strict geographical origin. (Thus Cheshire was produced also in Staffs, Derbys, Leics and Wales.) Whilst there were traditional sizes and shapes for cheeses there does seem to have been quite a variation in both size and shape of the cheeses produced, determined by the size and shape of the cheese press cobbled together on each Farm.

Virtually all areas produced three types of Cheese; a full cream cheese, fat and moist, of the type we are familiar with today. This is the expensive cheese, sold to the well-to-do, and only moderately durable. The second is ‘Flet’, made with the skimmed milk remaining after the removal of cream for butter making. Flets are almost always a harder, denser, more durable cheese. Cheaper than the full cream cheeses and generally eaten by the poor. The third type are the soft cheeses made with the left overs and bye-products of Butter and Cheese making. These ‘green’ cheeses have next to no shelf life and are generally eaten only on, or about the Farm of origin.

By far the greatest bulk of Cheese on the market in the late eighteenth Century was the Cheshire variety followed by the Somerset Variety (Cheddar). (Whilst all areas produced cheese, only those areas capable of producing a surplus would feature on the open Market.)

3. A description of the Varieties.

a) Suffolk. A ‘Flet’ Cheese made from skimmed Cow’s milk. (Not to be confused with Essex, a ewe’s milk cheese.) All the cream went to make vast quantities of Butter for the adjacent London Market. Also called ‘Suffolk Bang’, and mentioned by Pepys who complained that his Servants wouldn’t eat it. There was a well known 18th Century saying to the effect that ...’Hunger could break through anything except Suffolk Cheese.’ ‘Mocks the weak effort of the bending blade, Or in the hog-trough rests in perfect spite, Too big to swallow, and too hard to bite.’

b) Cheshire. We find no reference to a ‘Flet’ Cheshire being widely produced, but the full cream variety does turn out relatively dry and crumbly, and slightly salty, so perhaps had reasonable keeping qualities for a full cream cheese. In addition the two thirds allowance for Cheshire suggests that when Cheshire was issued then it was the full cream variety ( Being a full cream cheese it is fattier and therefore less dense than a flet cheese. A given volume approximating to around two thirds the weight of a flet.) By the 1790’s the price of Cheshire had risen to between 5d and 7d per Lb., well beyond the Victualling Board price, even with the two thirds adjustment. However, by 1815 the price had fallen back to 3d per Lb, well within the price parameter.

c) Gloucester . Probably Single Gloucester, a ‘Flet’ Cheese similar to Suffolk. The keeping qualities described and price paid suggest that this is the case. ( At Banton Fair in 1783 Single Gloucester commanded 3d per Lb., Double Gloucester was 4d per Lb.). Generally reckoned to be not quite as hard as Suffolk.

4. Size and Shape.

Whilst there were traditionally accepted standards, in practice the hand made cheese of this period could be almost any shape or size and vary from Farm to Farm. Examples of both circular and square or Rectangular Cheeses are recorded with weights of up to 100 Lb.

The norm, however appears to be based on the Mediaeval measure of Cheese, The Lead of 56 Lb. For full cream cheese: 6 cheeses to the Lead, or 9.3Lb each. For which we find corroboration when Purser Thomas of the Victory buys in a total of 189 Dutch Cheeses on 26th Oct. 1796, weighing, in total 1804.5 Lbs. For Suffolk, and presumably other Flet Cheeses, 4 cheeses to the Lead, or 14 Lb each. Again, because of the difference in density, these two standard weights should yield cheeses of approximately the same volume, or to put it another way, they can both be made in the same press.
As for shape, Cheshire is described as being ...‘as wide is it is high’, whilst Suffolk is described as being shaped like a Cartwheel and Gloucester as being ...’Wide and Thin’

Based on the volume and density of the Cheddar in my Fridge, I estimate that a 9.3 Lb Cheshire Cheese might be 7” Diameter and 7” High. On the same basis a 6” high cheese would be 7.5” diameter and a 4” high cheese 9” diameter.

It follows from the above that Cheese Racks onboard ship are likely to be higher than they are wide since with relatively heavy items like these it will be necessary to leave enough space above to insert a hand and arm. Thus, allowing for the size variation above, a rack of say 9” wide by 11” high would seem to be the minimum. Although I imagine that they may have been made quite a bit bigger to accommodate the aforementioned variation. For example: on 13th April 1797 Purser Thomas purchased 4 Cheshire Cheeses for the Wardroom @ an average of 18.25 Lbs each, which would make them 8.5” wide by 8.5” high

1. Shipboard Life and Organisation. Ed. Lavery. NRS.
2. The Seaman’s Vade Mecum, Mountaine
3. A New Universal Dictionary of the Marine, Falconer
4. The Sailor’s Wordbook, Smythe
5. The Wooden World, Rodger
6. Food in England, D. Hartley
7. Cheese, J.G. Davis
8. The Story of Cheese Making in Britain, V. Cheke
9. Food and Drink in Britain, C. Anne Wilson
10. The Great British Cheese Book, P. Rance

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