Bath Olivers:   Regency Diet Biscuits?

Regency characters visiting Bath to take the waters may want to accompany their panacea of choice with a few Bath Olivers, in order to ameliorate the not-so-pleasant taste of the water. Those who have embarked on a slimming regimen during our favorite decade may wish to substitute Bath Olivers for some of their usual servings of bread. However, these crackers were so tasty that there were many people during the Regency who ate them simply because they enjoyed them. By the Regency, though these biscuits were made in Bath, they had become so popular across Great Britain, that they could be had in most cities and towns.

Bath Olivers through the Regency . . .

In Regency England, a Bath Oliver would most certainly have been called a biscuit. Therefore, before proceeding to the tale of their invention and wide circulation, it is important to clarify that term. The word biscuit comes from the Latin, panis biscotus, meaning "twice-baked bread." In Britain, during the Regency, and even today, the term biscuit is understood to mean a plethora of baked goods, made with flour, which are usually not leavened and are generally small, thin, crisp, dry and flat. However, in the United States, such baked goods are typically known as either crackers (savory) or cookies (sweet). In most of America, a biscuit is a soft, thick, moist bread, like a roll or muffin. In Britain, these larger, softer, leavened bread items are more often called scones or buns.

In fact, it is believed by some that the Bath Oliver had its origins in the Bath Bun, a large, rich sweet roll, often filled with candied fruits. In the mid-eighteenth century, a famous physician from Cornwall, practising in Bath, Doctor William Oliver, grew concerned that many of his patients who routinely consumed those sweet Bath Buns were suffering from increasing weight and its accompanying ailments. Some sources claim that Dr. Oliver had invented the Bath Bun himself, but there seems to be no documentary evidence to support this. However, in the hope of providing a healthier substitute for his patients, sometime around 1750, Dr. Oliver invented a special biscuit which he believed would aid digestion and help to relieve rheumatism, without adding additional weight.

Dr. Oliver specialized in the care of patients with digestion issues, whether due to illness or merely excessive over-indulgence. His practice primarily served the more affluent residents of the city, many of whom suffered from gout and other ailments related to over-indulgence. He regularly prescribed his special biscuits to his patients, many of whom found some relief, usually when combining a couple of these tasty biscuits with a glass of water from the Bath Pump Room. Dr. Oliver’s reputation increased and he became a very wealthy man, with a large house in Queen Square. Unfortunately, as he neared the end of his life, Dr. Oliver became concerned that the recipe for his special biscuits would be lost. His wealth had enabled his own children to attain a high social status. His daughters had married well and his sons had established themselves in careers suited to gentlemen. None of them wanted to enter into trade and continue baking their father’s famous biscuits. But not long before his passing, in 1764, Dr. Oliver hit upon a solution to the problem. His coachman, a Mr. Atkins, whose first name is lost to history, was a very enterprising man who was keen to establish his own business. Dr. Oliver confided his special biscuit recipe to Mr. Atkins, as well as giving him ten sacks of the highest quality wheat flour and £100 in cash.

Within a few months after Dr. Oliver’s passing, Mr. Atkins had set himself up in a shop at No. 13 Green Street, in Bath. There, he baked and sold the biscuits for which Dr. Oliver had given him the recipe, and the resources to start his own business. In honor of his benefactor, and probably to ensure himself regular customers, Mr. Atkins named his biscuits for the late Doctor Oliver. He even had a large oval sign made which displayed a bust of the late Dr. Oliver, in profile, and hung it outside his shop. It was not long before these popular and famous biscuits became widely known as Bath Olivers. There was such a high demand for these elegant and tasty biscuits that very soon, Mr. Atkins had amassed a large fortune of his own. He and his staff continued to manufacture Bath Olivers at his Green Street shop through the end of the century. Sometime before the turn of the nineteenth century, Mr. Atkins decided to retire and he sold his shop, along with his special recipe and baking processes, to a Mr. Norris, whose first name also eludes us. Despite the change in ownership, the original Bath Olivers continued to be available from the Green Street shop, in Bath, right through the Regency. In fact, by then, they were in such high demand that Mr. Norris and his staff were also packing and shipping them all across Britain.

One of the main reasons that Bath Olivers were easy on the digestive system, and tasted so good, was that Dr. Oliver had demanded they must be made only with the finest wheat flour, with no additives. At that time, a number of things were routinely added to wheat flour, by wholesalers or bakers, to increase its volume and lower its cost, including alum, chalk and even fine white sand. The other ingredients used in Dr. Oliver’s biscuits are believed to have been fresh milk, butter and yeast. Many food historians are of the opinion that Bath Olivers may be the first English biscuits made with yeast, as most previous biscuits were made only with flour, water, a bit of butter and maybe an egg. The butter would have given the biscuits a flaky texture while the use of yeast would have imparted a delicious taste to the biscuit dough. However, it would also have increased the time required to make the biscuits and probably also necessitated the special treatment given to the individual biscuits as they were prepared for the oven.

Dough which contains even a small amount of yeast will produce moisture and gases when exposed to heat. These will distort the shape of the biscuit if allowed to build up within the biscuit and not released. Therefore, Bath Olivers had a pattern of tiny holes pricked into their surface before they went into the oven. This would allow the steam and gas generated by the heat to escape and keep the biscuits flat as they baked. This process came to be known as docking and Bath Olivers may well be the first English biscuits to have been treated in this fashion. In addition to docking, prior to baking, Mr. Atkins had begun the tradition of pressing a small line profile of Dr. Oliver into the center of each biscuit, the same profile which appeared on the sign outside his shop. This impressed profile of Dr. Oliver clearly marked each biscuit as a genuine Bath Oliver. Due to these extra steps in the baking process, all of which were accomplished by hand, as well as the high quality of the ingredients used, Bath Olivers were more costly than the majority of biscuits made at that time. Nevertheless, they were still in high demand for their delicious taste and the ease with which they could be tolerated by even the most delicate digestive system, as well as for the fact that they were still considered a diet food by many.

It is well known that when Lord Byron was on a dieting binge, he subsisted on potatoes drenched with vinegar or on biscuits and soda water. It is entirely possible that at least some of the biscuits he consumed were Bath Olivers, a brand which had already developed a reputation for helping people reduce their weight. Those dealing with delicate digestive systems also enjoyed Bath Olivers, since these biscuits, which were made of high quality ingredients, were not only delicious, they were known to be gentle on even the most sensitive digestive tract. Well before the Regency began, packages of Bath Olivers were shipped to customers all over the country from the shop in Green Street. Initially, they seemed to have been sent as small parcels to specific customers of Mr. Norris’s shop. But, more than likely, by the Regency, they were also shipped in bulk to other vendors and were then available in London and other larger cities at specialty food shops like Fortnum and Mason.

Probably because they were known to be an aid to digestion, even before the turn of the nineteenth century, many aristocratic and upper-class homes began serving Bath Olivers with the dessert course following dinner. Since dessert at this time often included cheese, it became a common custom in England to eat slices of cheese at dessert along with Bath Oliver biscuits. The delicate flavor of Bath Olivers is said to be especially nice with blue Stilton cheese, though it will pair well with a sharp cheddar, too. The French and Italians, who preferred to eat cheese with soft bread, were appalled at the English preference for eating cheese with crisp biscuits. In fact, this penchant for cheese and biscuits came to be regarded by many on the Continent as yet one more example of the lack of true epicurean understanding in Britain. During the Regency, it seems that many upper-class English ladies enjoyed a Bath Oliver or two with a cup of tea or a glass of sherry.

Bath Olivers were quite popular with may people in England by the Regency, even those who had never been to Bath. Though they were slightly more expensive than the few other types of biscuits available at that time, even members of the middle class might splurge on a packet of Bath Olivers from time to time. Some people ate them while they were dieting, others ate them as an aid to digestion, but most people ate them simply because they enjoyed the taste and texture of these elegant biscuits. They were generally considered the best biscuit to go with cheese by most people in England. Probably sometime after the Regency, Mr. Norris sold his Bath Oliver shop and recipe to a baker whose last name was Carter. Mr. Carter continued to make and sell Bath Olivers from the Green Street shop in Bath for many years. Eventually, after at least two other changes of ownership, the Bath Oliver recipe and the bakery came into the possession of James Fortt, in the second half of the nineteenth century. Fortt introduced the use of machines in the making of the biscuits, though it is believed he made no changes in the recipe. The demand for these very English biscuits continued to increase as mechanization made it possible to lower the cost. Eventually, Fortt had to build a much larger factory on Manvers Street. In 1962, Huntley & Palmer acquired the rights to manufacture Bath Olivers, and moved production out of Bath, to Reading. Huntley & Palmer were later acquired by the American company, Nabisco, which moved production to Liverpool in the late seventies. In the mid-eighties, Nabisco decided to cease production of Bath Olivers altogether, since they contained some ingredients that are not used for most modern biscuits. Perhaps even more compelling to corporate decision-makers, Bath Olivers required about fifteen minutes in the oven, while most other biscuits could be baked in only two or three minutes. That decision turned out to be a terrible mistake, as there was a great public outcry when the biscuits disappeared from store shelves. In less than a year, Bath Olivers were back in production. Since then, United Biscuits has taken over production of Bath Olivers. Fortunately for Regency authors and period aficionados alike, Bath Olivers are still made today, using essentially the same recipe which Dr. Oliver developed and passed on to his coachman.

Dear Regency Authors, might a few Bath Olivers provide a tasty treat to some of your characters in an upcoming Regency romance? Mayhap the heroine, serving as companion to a querulous and dyspeptic old lady living in Bath, is sent out to the Green Street shop to secure a packet of Bath Olivers for her mistress. Could it be that she first encounters the hero in that same shop while waiting for her order to be packaged? Then again, might a recently engaged French chef threaten to give his notice when he discovers that his English employers enjoy eating cheese with biscuits?! How might that contretemps be resolved? Since Bath Olivers were thin, crisp and dry, they would not spoil over time like soft breads. Therefore, they would make an ideal special treat for a soldier about to join his regiment to fight against Napoleon. Perhaps the heroine secretly slips them into her fiancé’s gear, accompanied by a note from her to help lift his spirits when he is far away. Are there other ways in which Bath Olivers might be used to embellish a tale of romance in the Regency?

About Kathryn Kane

Historian with a particular interest the English Regency era.   An avid reader of novels set in that time, holding strong opinions on the historical accuracy to be found in said novels.
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