An article published last week in the BMJ (British Medical Journal) is creating quite a stir in Victorianist circles. In it, dietitians conduct a nutritional analysis of workhouse diets in use throughout England in 1836 and find that although the food provided was dreary, it would have been adequate to support the health of inmates.
The popular belief that the opposite was true -- that the diets barely sustained life -- was fostered in large part by Charles Dickens' vivid depiction of workhouse life in Oliver Twist, published in 1838. In that novel, little Oliver gets by on three meals of gruel a day, an onion twice a week, and half a roll on Sunday. On feast days he's given an extra two ounces of bread. (Shown above: a scene from Roman Polanski's 2005 film Oliver Twist.)
Such a diet would have resulted in multiple nutritional deficiency diseases, including anemia, scurvy, rickets, and beriberi.
After studying a unique contemporary source, Jonathan Pereira’s Treatise on Food and Diet with Observations on the Dietetical Regimen, the researchers conclude that the diet described in Oliver Twist was not typical of that given to children in workhouses at the time and note that inmates usually received a ration that included bread, cooked meat, potatoes, rice pudding or suet, and cheese in addition to gruel, soup, or broth.
Historian Peter Higginbotham comes to a similar conclusion in The Workhouse Cookbook, published last August. (Read The Independent's review here.) Higginbotham discovered that at various times in the history of the workhouse, the fare included beer, chocolate, and cheesecake.
In fact, Oliver Twist is a polemic written in response to the passage of the Poor Law Amendment Act of 1834, which Dickens opposed. He seems to have exaggerated for dramatic effect.
(Shown at left: Oliver "asks for more" gruel in one of George Cruikshank's 24 illustrations for the first edition of Oliver Twist; click for a much larger image.)
The BMJ website includes an excellent video featuring interviews with the researchers and a group of modern-day schoolchildren who try the Oliver Twist diet, with mixed results.
The Dickens Project (University of California)
The Workhouse (Peter Higginbotham)
Gertrude Himmelfarb, “The Dickensian Poor” in The Culture of Poverty (1983)
Sheila Smith, The Other Nation: The Poor in English Novels of the 1840s and 1850s (1980)