The Biscuit – The History of a Very British Indulgence

by Lizzie Collingham – a big thank you for an inspiring and very enjoyable book …

If somebody had given me this book to read at school – ( obviously not even written then!) – I would have fallen in love with history. Corn Laws didn’t do it for me. But at this later stage in life, I’m giving ‘The Biscuit’ my personal ‘book of the year’ award for a riveting account of why biscuits played a major part in encouraging world trade. And how their delicious success continues apace today. They really do ‘take the biscuit’!

You might think that the subject is pretty mundane – a cup of tea, usually accompanied by a ginger nut or digestive biscuit, preferably dunked in the cup for extra indulgence. And drunk (mostly every day) by the masses. But there is much more to it than that.

ginger nuts

Lizzie Collingham’s research is mouth wateringly more-ish. Starting off with the word biscuit coming from the French, ‘ bi-cuit’ (twice cooked), the origins of the first biscuits were from dried bread, used by travellers of all kinds, sailors and also the army, as it did not go mouldy en route. She also tells us that it was in the medieval Islamic world that sugar was added, eventually leading to the Empire’s global trading in biscuits which developed what is today a staple for entire nations, specifically the British.

I especially enjoyed the chapter on Huntley and Palmer’s biscuit tins with their colourful patterns etched onto the metal, making the biscuit tin into something of an icon. Packed full of biscuits, they were shipped all over the planet. Some people even put the empty tins on the mantelpiece as a decorative feature! I remember, as children, we filled the empty tin with the wooden animals which came with our Noah’s Ark in the toy cupboard.

These ‘large square tins’ (although they were to expand into all sorts of shapes and sizes) had much more fascinating uses.

In Uganda, bibles and other books were made to measure expressly to fit into these tins to save them from being destroyed by ants or similar creatures who ‘ate’ and destroyed books in the tropics.

In the Sudan a sword was found with bands of metal covering the scabbard, the name of Huntley and Palmer proudly displayed.

In Trinidad they were used as musical instruments and dustbin lids. In Bolivia a young mining engineer used an empty tin successfully to carry £1,000 across a dangerous mountain pass and fast flowing river to distribute his mens’ wages.

When Queen Victoria’s son-in-law died of malaria in Africa, the body had to be preserved in order to be taken back to Britain for burial. A coffin was constructed out of biscuit tins and filled with rum.

The writer, Thomas Hardy, apparently had his heart excised from his body to be buried in Dorset by the side of his first wife, Emma. The surgeon, having extracted the heart from the corpse, found he had nothing to transport it in. Someone came up with an empty biscuit tin.


In the First World War porridge was made over a fire using biscuit tins and they were also used as washbasins and, unpleasantly, even latrines. Soldiers used them as seats in the trenches. Temporary army camps made use of them filled with sand together with mealy bags to build most of the huts. During the Second World War the tins were used in an innovative (explosive) way to make tea or ‘char’. Obviously, given so many empty tins, the biscuits were very popular!

The author includes recipes for all kinds of biscuits – plain, iced and jam filled, followed by chocolate coated ones. The choice grew with the profits made. At first biscuits were the prerogative of the upper classes but with industrialisation biscuit factories brought the prices down to all and sundry.

something a bit more luxurious …

Biscuits are a bridge between bread and cake – they last longer and with the addition of sugar have definitely carved out a tasty and nostalgic niche – comfort food, which we all desire from time to time.

Do read this book if I have whetted your appetite and find out lots more about the evolution of the biscuit across the world – and of social history, packaged in an original and unforgettable way – preferably taken in with a cup of tea to make a good match with a ‘ginger nut’, a ‘digestive’ … or even something more luxurious. The choice is endless, a welcome indulgence, wrapped into our daily lives.

“A stellar observer of the day-to-day and the mundane, a social historian of extraordinary talent” (New York Times Book Review’).

The book also has illustrations – some of which are in colour.

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