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Workhouses Were Not So Bad After All

From the “Christmas Edition” of the British Medical Journal:

Christmas 2008: Food and Drink – Please, sir, I want some more

L Smith, dietetic assistant , S J Thornton, senior paediatric dietician, J Reinarz, director, A N Williams, consultant community paediatrician

17 December 2008

Fictional "truth" doesn’t always coincide with fact, find L Smith and colleagues

The plaintive words of the unfortunate boy chosen to plead for his fellow inmates still resonate. They speak of chronic want, injustice, and neglect. But how true are the sentiments underpinning this powerful popular work? A dietetic analysis of Oliver Twist’s workhouse diet, as well as contemporaneous workhouse menus, allows us to answer the question—did Oliver really need more?

Workhouses: pauper palaces or barbarous institutions?

In the past few decades, historians have described workhouses as "pauper palaces." Yet others have highlighted the barbarous injustices perpetrated on inmates, most notably at Andover workhouse, where paupers were reduced to gnawing rotten bones. Terrifying rumours of floggings, starvation, and the separation of families circulated in contemporary society. Dickens was mainly responsible for the dim view of the Victorian workhouse—the Andover guardians were condemned by a select committee nine years after the publication of Oliver Twist, or, the Parish Boy’s Progress (1837-8).

In Oliver Twist, Charles Dickens wrote damningly about the workhouse and the plight of Victorian children. Oliver was born in a workhouse, almost immediately orphaned, and then abandoned. He survived his first nine years at a "baby farm," where eight in 10 children perished. He then entered a workhouse where comforts at best approached the lowest levels that could support existence. Oliver remained there for three months until he was ejected for "ingratitude" after his request for more food.

Dickens describes Oliver’s diet as "three meals of thin gruel a day, with an onion twice a week and half a roll on Sunday." On feast days, the inmates received an extra two and a quarter ounces (60 g) of bread. The dilemma was of "being starved by a gradual process in the house or by a quick one out of it." But how true is this of the average workhouse? …

Did Oliver really need more?

Oliver Twist was written in monthly instalments only three years after the Poor Law Amendment Act 1834. For many reasons, Dickens was strongly against this act, which led to the establishment of many workhouses for the destitute poor. The Poor Law commissioners, who regulated the workhouses, provided evidence that the poor received a better diet in the workhouse than they would have done outside it. Although many scare stories were published about alleged abuses in workhouses in the late 1830s, most did not stand up to scrutiny when supporting evidence was demanded. However, the substantiated abuses were bad enough. In one example in 1840, James Miles, the master of Hoo workhouse in Kent, was alleged to have flogged inmates, including women and children.

The contemporary workhouse diets published by Pereira prove that the diet Dickens described for Oliver Twist was not typical of that given to children in workhouses at the time. The diet described by Dickens would not have supported health and growth in a 9 year old child, but the published workhouse diets would have generally met that need. Given the limited number of food staples used, the workhouse diet was certainly dreary, but it was adequate. Of course, we make this conclusion on the assumption that the inmates received the quantity and quality of food prescribed, but Pereira’s book suggests that this was generally the case.

After looking at the facts, the Poor Law commissioners can be considered to have shown "a benevolent concern for the welfare of the paupers." That said, histories of the Poor Law show that historians should avoid generalisations. By 1803, England had 3765 workhouses, and practice must have varied in different localities. Conditions will have varied according to the size of the Poor Law union, the wealth of the ratepayers, the activities of pressure groups, and other variables. Workhouse discipline relaxed in the last two decades of the 19th century, and conditions contrasted greatly with those described by Dickens and others at the beginning of the Victorian period. Masters could be dismissed, and frequently were—27 (3%) of 882 masters who left their posts between 1860 and 1920 were dismissed, and another 86 (9.7%) were forced to resign, usually after complaints that were serious enough to be investigated.

Dickens would have been aware of all this. Oliver Twist was a deeply personal novel—Dickens’ early life had been hard. He received little formal education and after his father’s imprisonment for debt started work in a blacking warehouse at the age of 12. A recent biography states, "it is possible to see why the New Poor Law provoked in Dickens angry memories of his own deprivation, of his own separation from his family, and his own obsessive comparison of the need for food with the need for love."

Dickens’ novel is a timeless chronicle of the abuse of childhood. Its strength and vigour still reminds us today of those who are disadvantaged and outside of society. However, our dietetic analysis and material from other books written at the time warn us not to be carried away by the force of the writing, but instead always to look at the evidence underpinning it. Dickens reminds us that fictional "truth" does not always coincide with the true facts.

Gee, so government run work poor houses were not so bad after all.

Still, we question the timing of this report.

This article was posted by Steve on Friday, December 19th, 2008. Comments are currently closed.

5 Responses to “Workhouses Were Not So Bad After All”

  1. proreason says:

    If your government gives it to you, by definition, it’s a good thing.

    At the very least, it’s free!!

  2. Helena says:

    “Still, we question the timing of this report.”


    It looks like we are being prepared from all sides.

  3. cjokry says:

    It’s good to know our children’s diets really won’t suffer too much while Obama gets the Greater Depression under way to justify his New New Deal.

    I don’t think the report is intentionally pertinent to today’s happenings, coming out of a the British Medical Journal. It’s just another example of someone who makes stuff up for a living being caught having made some stuff up for reasons half personal, half political. Like Michael Moore.

  4. GuppyNblue says:

    This does seem strange even if you give them benefit of the doubt.

    “A dietetic analysis of Oliver Twist’s workhouse diet, as well as contemporaneous workhouse menus, allows us to answer the question—did Oliver really need more? …”

    Are they kidding? So eating well covers the needs of an orphaned child? They seem to be saying a lot to support just that.

    It’s a little a weird to hear modern liberals defend a Victorian institution. Read H. G. Wells’, The Outline of History. Written at the end of the Victorian age, it made a huge impact on progressive thinkers. The strictly secular and global way of viewing the world. Crediting only evolution for our existence. Now thats a time I would expect liberals to be defending, not some suspiciously picked Victorian era of workhouses.

    But the whole thing is probably just meant to soften us up for change.

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