- L Smith, dietetic assistant ,
- S J Thornton, senior paediatric dietician,
- J Reinarz, director,
- A N Williams, consultant community paediatrician
- 1Department of Dietetics, Northampton General Hospital, Northampton. NN1 5BD
- 2Centre for the History of Medicine, Medical School Birmingham, Birmingham B15 2TT
- 3Virtual Academic Unit, CDC, Northampton General Hospital, Northampton NN1 5BD
- Correspondence to: A N Williams
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. …