Diet and Nutrition

The Poor Law amendment was passed in the 1830’s in an attempt to cut the costs of looking after the poor and disabled, and to encourage them to work to support themselves.  Many of its values were deemed unconstitutional and immoral, so in 1834, the New Poor Law was passed in an effort to help solve problems with cruelty in workhouses by regulating things such as diet. However, these problems were not immediately solved, and in fact, continued for much longer.

The Victorian Web shows a chart listing what people were given for each meal at 6 different workhouses. The information is not completely accurate, however, because workhouses often tried to stretch how long the food could last, and it was not uncommon for food to be withheld from people. The chart indicates that at multiple workhouses, entire meals could be withheld. In fact, two of them indicate that dinner was not even on the schedule during certain days of the week. The portions in the meals were planned by the ounce, usually in very small amounts. Men were given more food than women, and the amounts for children and the ill were determined by location. There was a lot of bread, cheese, and potatoes included in the meals, but no indication of any other vegetables or fruit, and meat was not given every day. The diets for the elderly and children were sometimes different than everyone else, including more meat and milk. Below is an example of a food chart


Linked below is another example of a weekly food chart found on the London Pulse website.

MOH Report from Bethnal Green 1937

This chart is an example of what a child’s diet might have looked like. This image is from


After an increase in deaths because of scurvy and edema in the Dungarvan workhouse, the medical officer, T. Christian, recommended that the workhouses increase milk in people’s diets. However, the budgets for food were very limited and the only milk that they could often acquire was deemed unsafe for consumption. In the same workhouse, Indian-meal (meal ground from corn) was often used as a replacement for oatmeal and potatoes. The same happened in many other workhouses. This caused a lot of health problems, because people were not getting the proper nutrients and it was also known to cause dysentery. The diets, along with other factors, often caused people to be in weakened states, some of which were already ill upon arriving at the workhouse. In their weakened states, people were more prone to contract other diseases including cholera, small pox, measles, scarlet fever, etc.

Dinnertime at St. Pancras Workhouse, London, 1911. Wikimedia Commons.

Theft was also a problem. People would try to steal food or alcohol. This was not just limited to the people in the workhouses. Theft was also common among the staff including nurses and bakery workers. Inspections of workhouses often revealed rotting or molding food. Storage was a major problem in many locations because the buildings were not made to hold so many people, and subsequently was not suitable to hold enough food to feed them.Prices for food were increasing, and both workhouses and merchants were reluctant to commit to long-term plans for purchasing or supplying food.In some cases, the people in the workhouses tried to rebel, and it was often difficult to control them because of just how many people there were.

Written by Julia Blasdel


Diet and Its Effects

Ian Miller (2013) “Feeding in the Workhouse: The Institution and the Ideological Functions of Food, c.1834-70” Journal of British Studies.

MOH Report from Bethnal Green 1937

Workhouse Food