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The workhouse diet

It has often been said that the diet of those in the workhouse was no better than that of the lowest paid labourer, but at least those in the workhouse had it cooked and provided for them.

The food supplied inside the workhouse was regulated according to a strict official diet and three meals a day were provided.

Breakfast was usually one and a half pints of gruel and five to six ounces of bread. On Sundays and Wednesdays dinner consisted of five ounces of cooked meat and one pound of potatoes, on Mondays, Thursdays and Saturdays half a pound of potatoes and half a pint of soup and on the remaining two days there was only suet or rice pudding.

Supper was five to six ounces of bread and either one and a half ounces of cheese or one pint of broth. The elderly and the young were usually allowed some tea, sugar and butter in addition to the normal diet, perhaps to keep their strength up and ward off illness.

The main ingredient of the workhouse diet was bread, and many workhouses had their own bakeries on site to produce the large amounts required and to cut costs. At breakfast time gruel or porridge - both made from watered-down oatmeal - was served with the bread. The sick and the children would often have a broth that was made from water that had been used to boil the meat for dinner with a few added vegetables.

Sometimes on special occasions the inmates were given a treat. On the Coronation Day of Queen Victoria in 1838, the inmates at Hereford Workhouse were fed roast beef and plum pudding at the expense of the Guardians. Local alehouses had also donated beer for the residents. This was not a common occurrence.

Meals were eaten in silence in the communal dining room, with everyone sitting in rows facing the same way so that interaction was further prohibited.

Most workhouse dining rooms had scales so the inmates could weigh their food if they thought that they were not getting the prescribed amount. If an inmate complained the reaction was most probably very similar to the scene in Oliver Twist where Oliver asks for more. The Records for the Guardians of Hereford Union does make note of complaints made by inmates concerning the food.

On 30th July 1836 John Hopkins Esq. made a complaint on evidence of the Relieving Officer for District 3, where two paupers had complained about the quality of the bread. Mr. Hills (the baker) was cautioned. However not all complaints were so successful.

On 23rd August 1837, there is a record that Alderman Davies brought a complaint (on behalf of an inmate) against the baker relating to the bread being mouldy and unwholesome. The Board investigated and found the complaint unfounded, saying that the pauper had put bread by until it became mouldy.

(Records of the Board of Guardians of Hereford Union, Hereford Record Office, K42/215)

The standard, the quantity and the sometimes unhealthy conditions that the food was prepared in often led to sickness within the workhouse, such as diarrhoea. In 1845, inmates at Andover in Hampshire were caught fighting one another for decaying scraps of meat on bones that they were meant to be crushing.

The dietary provisions in Bromyard Workhouse were: 
Breakfast - 3lbs 8oz of bread and 10.5 pints of gruel to last the week, women 14oz less bread.

Dinner  - on two days they would have 8oz bacon, 2lbs of potatoes, for another two days 3 pints of soup, 1lb 6oz of bread and for the remaining three days 1lb 5oz of bread and 6oz of cheese.

Supper - for the week there was 2lbs1oz of bread and 10.5 oz of cheese. The women had the same food as the men, just less of it.

Old persons may have been given 1oz of tea, 5oz of butter and 7oz of sugar a week instead of their gruel for breakfast.

(Hereford Record Office, C95/B/5/vi)

Often children in the workhouse would be given a separate diet. In Hereford Workhouse in January 1838, children aged 5-9 were given 8oz bread, 4oz of meat and 1oz of cheese per day. Children aged 1-5; 7oz of bread, 3oz of meat and 1oz of cheese and children under 1 had 6oz of bread supplemented with milk.

(Records of the Board of Guardians of Hereford Union, Hereford Record Office, K42/215)

[Original author: Miranda Greene, 2003]