Tasting the Victorian Workhouse – Peter Hobson

The nineteenth century saw a great increase in the population of London due to rapid urbanisation stimulated by the industrial revolution. This influx of skilled and unskilled workers caused a shortage of jobs throughout London. In an attempt to reduce the dependency of the poor jobless on parish relied, in 1834 the Poor Law Amendment Act was passed. This act divided up parishes and grouped their people into unions who were tasked with providing accommodation for the poor, and they were governed by boards known as the Poor Law Guardians[1].

The establishment of work houses throughout London was undertaken with the goal to discourage as many people as possible from claiming poor relief. Workhouses were infamous for their poor conditions provided only a basic diet [2]. Workhouses were run by commissioners with fearsome reputations for controlling every aspect of inmates’ lives from what time they woke in the morning to the staples of their basic diet. By 1846 only 199,000 paupers were maintained in workhouses and only 82,000 were considered to be able-bodied[3] and able to work. The majority of the poor were unable to access these houses due to them being funded by local ratepayers who were open to corruption and manipulation to try and save money within their local parishes.

The buildings themselves were described as desolate prison-like structures that led to the desperation of those who worked and lived in them. The work endured within these houses was backbreaking hard labour that started at 5am and usually finished around 6pm in the evening, with only a break to eat lunch[4]. Meals in the workhouse were equally dull and predictable due to the necessity for quantity over quality, the lack of ingredients and culinary skill, and this meant that the food had low nutritional value. Marjorie Bloy has suggested that this malnutrition meant that a majority of the workers were on a slow starvation diet and this combined with the back breaking work caused a verity of health issues.

Men at dinner in St Marylebone Workhouse, London, c.1900. Photograph published in Living London edited by George Sims (Cassell, 1901)

The image here is of St. Marylebone Workhouse in London. The men are seated in row after row, under the close observation of the staff who are positioned in white in the middle left of the image. They are all dressed in the same clothing issued by the workhouse. These uniforms were intended to crush ideas of individuality and matched the bleakness of the building and those who dwell within. Most of the men are facing down towards the floor with looks of hopelessness and despair, the grim reality of calling this place home is apparent in these looks, giving us an insight into harsh  living conditions. There is an obvious absence of women in this image, due to the strict policy of gender separation within Victorian workhouse; families were broken up with men, women, and children being sent to different areas of the workhouse and this was the most resented rule within the institution.

This Image of Marylebone Workhouse also illustrates the pressure the workhouse was under in order to feed the vast number of workers that lived in these residences. It is difficult to feed more than two-hundred people daily whilst still meeting all the dietary requirements needed to maintain a healthy workforce. The food that was on offer within the workhouse was intentionally dull and boring to try and reduce the numbers that still flocked to gain admittance to this already overcrowded institution.

Workhouses created an oat based ‘gruel’ in order to supply the quantity of food needed to support their ever-growing workforce. The image of workhouse gruel was made famous by Charles Dickens in his novel Oliver Twist in 1838 and gruel is still associated with being one of the most hated tastes of the Victorian era. The tabe below shows the standard meals workers received; a majority of the meal consisted of bread as a form of carbohydrate accompanied by gruel, soup or 1 ounce of cheese. However, the diet of the poor was not much better outside the workhouse, with an average family having around 12 shillings a week to spend on food. After after important purchases like bread, there was little or none left to spend on a varied and balanced diet.


In 1836 the Poor Law Commission created a set of standardised diets that local Poor Law Unions could select. The aim of this initiative was to provide better diets, which would provide the poor with the nutrition that they needed whilst still being financially viable[5]. This information was transferred onto a table such as the one above so workhouse could calculate the diets required, with any amendments or variations having to be agreed upon by the Commissioners.

From 1856 specific diets for children aged two to five and from five to nine were developed. However, although aspects of their diets were healthy, meals were still created with the cheapest of ingredients, with expensive items such as milk being diluted with water.[6].

Although the conditions were bleak and the food was a culinary crime, workhouses could be better than the struggle of living on the streets of Victorian London. Increasing criminal activity, or the perception of it, in the east end of London made the streets feel unsafe and food supplies were limited. Many poor people in Victorian London resorted to stealing just to provide food for their families and parents frequently skipped meals to provide food for their children. At least the workhouse provided some shelter for the homeless and gave them access to three meals a day, even if they were very basic. Thus they could sometimes be the better option to provide for some families, even at the risk of segregation from their loved ones.

Pete Hobson


[1] Murray, Peter, Poverty and Welfare 1815-1950 (London: Hodder Murray, 2006), pp. 32-33

[2] Kellow, Chesney, The Victorian Underworld (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1972), pp. 143-145

[3] May, Trevor, An Economic and Social History of Britain 1760–1970 (Longman, 1987), pp. 27-56

[4] Himmelfarb, Gertrude, The Idea of Poverty: England in the Early Industrial Age, (London: Faber, 1984), pp. 376-377

[5] Higginbotham, Peter, Workhouses of the North, (Tempus, 2006)

[6] Higginbotham, Peter, the Workhouse Cookbook, (Tempus, 2008)

Table: Mayhew, Henry, London Labour and London Poor (Vol 1, 1851)