Feature Christmas 2008: Food and Drink

Please, sir, I want some more

BMJ 2008; 337 doi: http://dx.doi.org/10.1136/bmj.a2722 (Published 18 December 2008) Cite this as: BMJ 2008;337:a2722
  1. L Smith, dietetic assistant ,
  2. S J Thornton, senior paediatric dietician,
  3. J Reinarz, director,
  4. A N Williams, consultant community paediatrician
  1. 1Department of Dietetics, Northampton General Hospital, Northampton. NN1 5BD
  2. 2Centre for the History of Medicine, Medical School Birmingham, Birmingham B15 2TT
  3. 3Virtual Academic Unit, CDC, Northampton General Hospital, Northampton NN1 5BD
  1. Correspondence to: A N Williams anw{at}doctors.org.uk

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?

Today's children try out the Oliver Twist diet in a 10 minute video, which also includes interviews with this paper's authors.

Workhouses: pauper palaces or barbarous institutions?

In the past few decades, historians have described workhouses as “pauper palaces.”[1] 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).[2]

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.[3] 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.”[4] But how true is this of the average workhouse?

Oliver Twist’s diet—“the Dickens’ diet”

Three meals of gruel a day, an onion twice a week and half a roll on Sunday. On feast days an extra two and a quarter ounces (60 g) of bread.

Surviving menus and other material concerning early 19th century workhouse diets provide some answers. Jonathan Pereira’s Treatise on Food and Diet with Observations on the Dietetical Regimen (1843) describes the “workhouse dietaries” which were adopted for use in poorhouses throughout England in 1836 (figure)[F1].[4]

From these six dietaries the local board of guardians of the poor selected the diet “most suitable to the circumstances” of each establishment.[5] Pereira emphasises that they “have been proved to be sufficient in quantity and perfectly unexceptionable as to the nature of the provisions specified in each.”[5]

In addition, great care was taken when preparing the workhouse meals. “Great dispatch is necessary in the serving. Two persons, one to cut the other to weigh, will on the average, have to serve 14 rations in two minutes. So much to be done, and, from necessity, in so short a period of time, requires some skill, and not a little practice on the part of the Carver and Weigher, to keep within a moderate loss.”[5] This quotation alone challenges suggestions that the food would have been rendered inedible by unskilled cooks working with unsuitable equipment.[3]

Dietetic analysis

Although historians have suggested that modern dietitians might approve of workhouse diets, especially the coarse workhouse bread, no nutritional analysis of these diets has been conducted.[3] We therefore assessed Oliver’s diet and the diets described by Pereira using the Dietplan6 computer program.

We calculated Oliver’s intake as 3 pints (1.76 l) of gruel a day. For our analysis we used a recipe for water gruel taken from a 17th century English cookery text.[5] Unlike the gruel described by Dickens, the gruel described in Pereira’s workhouse diets is substantial, not thin (each pint contained 1.25 oz of the best Berwick oatmeal).[5] Dietetic analysis shows that the diet described by Dickens would not have sustained health and growth but would have resulted in multiple nutritional deficiency diseases, such as anaemia, scurvy, rickets and beriberi.

Pereira’s diets would have sustained growth in a 9 year old child unless he or she was exceptionally active (table)[T1]. We used the reference nutrient intake (the amount that meets the needs of 97.5% of the population)[6] to compare nutritional requirement with provision, although this method overestimates the requirement for most people. However, these charts are based on a 9 year old boy living today, not one who has been chronically undernourished for years and is shorter and lighter than a 21st century Western child of his age. Although in theory the emaciated Oliver would need more energy to provide catch-up growth, he would need less energy than a child today because basal metabolic rate is linked to body weight. However, the confounding factor is physical activity; present day children are less active than their predecessors, and emaciated children do not have enough energy to be very physically active.

Comparison of Oliver Twist’s diet and contemporary published workhouse diets

View this table:

A file containing the full dietetic analysis and a table from Pereira’s book detailing the considerable amounts of meat (beef and mutton) delivered to individual London workhouses is available on bmj.com.

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.[7] 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.[3]

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.”[8] That said, histories of the Poor Law show that historians should avoid generalisations.[8] By 1803, England had 3765 workhouses,[3] 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.[8]

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.”[9]

Dickens’ novel is a timeless chronicle of the abuse of childhood.[10] 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.

Notes

Cite this as: BMJ 2008;337:a2722

Footnotes

  • Thanks to Sue Longworth and Jennifer Butterfield, volunteers at the Northampton General Hospital Archive, the Postgraduate Library at the Cripps Medical Centre for their assistance; Christine de Quervain, David Moscrop, Noreen Clydesdale, Eleanor Thomas, Rajiv Shah, Win Zaw for scanning the material for this paper and creating the supplementary file; and Steve King for his comments.

  • Competing interests: None declared.

  • Provenance and peer review: Not commissioned; externally peer reviewed.

References