Cromwell’s Independent Traders and Commonwealth Custard Creams

I’ve been trying to find out about Greenwich during Cromwell’s time. I mean, I know that he took over the place and tried to sell it, without much real luck. I know that he and his cronies stripped the old palace of Placentia of all its trimmings and generally bashed it about so much that by the time the Restoration took place it was only fit to be pulled down. But I’ve been having difficulty finding much detail.Perhaps most of the records got lost in the Restoration…

Mostly it seems to have been run over by roundheads, kicking out ‘malignant and disaffected persons’ (read “the king’s hangers-on and servants”)and swiping as much stuff as possible to flog off. They bundled it all up into a yellow Reliant Regal van, and took themselves off to Peckham for the nearest boot sale.

The Kings’s paintings were the first for the chop (after himself, of course…) and the whole of Europe bowled up for the party. Cardinal Mazarin was at the front of the queue, in his sheepskin car coat and slip-on shoes, eager to get his paws on some knocked-off furniture for his Paris gaff. His shopping list included some nice secondhand beds, a couple of carpets and a hanging or two for his walls.

Queen Christina of Sweden was more interested in the jewellery stall. She fancied some jewels and medals, though once she was there, she couldn’t resist a few paintings either. She’d had to elbow the King of Spain out of the way, clearly the type that starts trying to handle the goods before they’re even out of the boot of the hatchback.

“Honest” Archduke Leopold was into buying in bulk and made an offer for a job lot, before getting a white van to cart them off to Belgium and Germany. It’s not clear how some of the paintings ended up in Wilton House in Wiltshire, but I’d put money on the van driver being slipped a few groats…

I’m not sure who would have wanted to be seen by Mr Cromwell buying a giant marble statue of the ex-king, but someone did. Other sculptures of The Headless One had been bundled up into a big cardboard box by accident and sold by mistake. One, which had stood in Covent Garden, was later the subject of an inquiry, where it turned out that the individual, who could only have been called Trotter, who had bought it “to melt down,” had really buried it, to sell later when times got better. “This time in ten years we’ll be milyonnaires…” In the meanwhile he made a tidy sum selling trashy souvenirs supposedly made out of the molten king…

But back to the palace. The innards had been well and truly dispersed, but they didn’t know what to do with the bricks and mortar. Some people suggested that’s exactly what they should be used as – second-hand building materials. The Lord Protector looks as though he had his eye on the place for himself, though, and although they trashed it, they didn’t actually pull it down, temporarily using it for storage instead.

Every so often I find little allusions, always in a single sentence, that the palace was turned into a biscuit factory.

A Biscuit Factory? You can’t just leave it at that. What kind of biscuits? Pink Wafers? Digestive? Rich Tea? Iced Gems, perhaps, to stand for the lost jewels of Placentia?

I’m voting for Jammie Dodgers. After all, Greenwich was one of the last strongholds of Charles I before they cut off his head. Maybe the face-shaped biscuits represent the old king, and the jam his oozing gore. I daresay the flowing locks and the goatee got lost in the baking process during the Victorian times.

The truth is, as boringly-usual, much more prosaic. Ship’s Biscuit, of course, which as every schoolkid knows, made up the protein part of a sailor’s diet in the form of maggots and weevils, the forerunner of today’s Garibaldi. During the Armada, everyone got a pound of biscuits and a gallon of beer a day to live on. I’m surprised that on that diet Sir Francis Drake could actually bowl straight…

Here’s a recipe for Ships Biscuit, though apparently none of the flour you can get now is nearly as rank as the original stuff would have been:


1lb Flour, the roughest you can find. Grind your own out of roots or something.
1/4 oz salt. The nice gritty variety.
Water to bind. Preferably stagnant
Weevils (optional) A generous handful per sailor.


Mix all ingredients together to form a paste and roll into a thick slab. Cut out biscuits. Stars are a nice shape. Bake in a hot oven for half an hour then leave to get really hard.

Best before: 10 years after being cooked.
Use By: no special time.

According to the Royal Naval Museum the MOD still buys ships biscuits to pop in operational packs (lunch boxes to you and me) but doesn’t give them out ‘for general messing.’ Phew.

So. The question for today. If Greenwich had a National Biscuit, what would it be?

Comments are closed.