Did you, like me, gain your impressions about workhouses from Oliver Twist by Charles Dickens, especially when it comes to food? How accurate do you think he was?
In The Times, 27 April 1813, there was an advertisement for a workhouse contract that give some clues to diet. The Overseers of the Poor of the Parish of Lambeth called for tenders for the following articles:
Butcher’s Meat, consisting of clods, thick flanks, briskets and leg of mutton pieces, of the best ox beef, cut in a workmanlike manner, only that all the bones shall be cut out, and not weighed in, as near as can be equal quantities of each, with every stone of beef one pound of neck or breast of mutton, if required, and three stone of beef kidney suet every week, and in every week 32lb. of any sort of meat as shall be ordered for the master’s table, altogether at per stone, and as many legs and shins of beef as shall be ordered, at per stone for them; the best single Gloucester Cheese, best Irish Butler, best Carolina-Rice, and moist Sugar, at per ewt.; household and second Flour, Scotch Barley and Oatmeal …
It appears the diet of the poor in the Lambeth Workhouse consisted of the cheapest cuts of mutton and ox beef (clod is the shoulder—I had to look it up), beef kidney suet, cheese, beer, rice, barley, oatmeal and flour and, surprisingly, sugar. This diet would have been supplemented with fresh items such as vegetables and milk.
The Telegraph has an article (17 Dec 2008) on Oliver Twist’s diet as described by Charles Dickens with researchers and nutritionists discussing its accuracy and nutritional value. The verdict was that Oliver’s diet would have been inadequate for a 9-year-old boy but that his diet was not typical of that time based on published diets. There were regulations that dictated people’s daily allowance and this would depend on their gender, age, health and whether they were working or not. I do wonder, though, who checked to make sure the regulations were followed?
Bread, eaten at every meal, made up a large part of the diet. They had breakfast (eg, tea, bread and gruel or porridge), dinner (eg, soup or meat and potatoes or pudding; bread and cheese) and supper (eg, bread and cheese, broth). They drank tea, milk and beer rather than water—in those days water could be very bad for you!
Generally gruel and porridge were made with oatmeal; the pudding at dinner was savory as it was made with suet and meat; broth was the water used to boil the meat with vegetables added; the soup was similar to the broth but thickened with rice or oatmeal. Do you think it sounds tasty? I think it would very much depend on the quality of the cook!
You will note that in The Times advertisement it says ‘and in every week 32lb. of any sort of meat as shall be ordered for the master’s table’. According to Wikipedia the master and matron received six times the amount of food given to a pauper. No surprises there!
And, finally, some more from Oliver Twist (chapter 2, paragraph 1) about baby Oliver:
… the parish authorities magnanimously and humanely resolved, that Oliver should be … despatched to a branch-workhouse some three miles off, where twenty or thirty other juvenile offenders against the poor-laws rolled about the floor all day, without the inconvenience of too much food …