Workhouse Fare Back to the Main Historical Society page
Back to the Barwicker Contents page

Workhouse Fare

Barwicker No 4

December 1986

In "Oliver Twist", Charles Dickens described how the Board of Guardians approached the problem of feeding the inmates of a workhouse.

"They established the rule, that all poor people should r.av e the alternative (for they would compel nobody, not they), of being starved by a gradual process in the house, or by a quick one out of it. With this view, they contracted with the water-works to lay on an unlimited supply of water; and with the corn-factor to supply periodically small quantities of oatmeal; and issued three meals of thin gruel a day, with an onion twice a week, and half a roll on Sundays."

This was written in l837, a year or two after the introduction of the New Poor Law, in which the workhouse played a vital role as a deterrent for those contemplating application for poor relief.

In this area, townships had already reformed their poor relief policy by forming the Barwick-in-Elmet Gilbert Incorporation in 1822. This grew to a total of 42 townships by 1832 and they all sent their paupers to the workhouse, on what is now Rakehill Road. The first account book of the Incorporation still exists in the archives of the Yorkshire Archaeological Society, and it covers the period 1822-48. The monthly accounts are divided into provisions, that is food and fuel, and general expenses for the upkeep of the workhouse, salaries, etc.

The provisions account for the four weeks ending October 5, 1832, a typical month, comprises the following items:

3 packs of seconds at 37/0d. per pack £5.ll.0
Grocers note £1.8.0
1 stone of oatmeal 2.3.
2 dozen of coals £1.6.0
Milk and butter £1.19.4
Butcher Scriven for 1301b. of beef at 3½d. per lb. £.17.9.11
Butcher Walton for 1301b. of beef at 3½d. per lb.£.17.9.11
Butcher Holrms for 61ilb. of beef at 3½d. per lb. 17.9.
4 strikes of malt at 4/4d. per strike 17.4.

There were 27 paupers in the workhouse that month, with a total of 103 person-weeks at 3/0d. per head per week. The above provisions include the rations of the Master and Mistress, t he additional 8 weeks making 111 person-weeks in total. The cost of the provisions for each month was borne by the townships with paupers in the workhouse during that month.

How well does the Dickens picture fit the diet at our workhouse? The small quantity of oatmeal is there, but how much more! Each pauper ate, on average, almost 31b. of beef per week, scarcely a starvation diet. The large quantity of flour (seconds) suggests plenty of bread, dumplings, etc. The bills for groceries, milk and butter suggest a sufficiency at least. Malt means beer (the workhouse had a brew-house) and the records s how that all was conserved by the Master.

Reading through the accounts over the years reveals other sources of food. The workhouse had a garden where vegetables were grown and small sums were expended periodically for seeds. In 1827, the garden was extended and 2 dozen berry trees at 4/-. and 2 plum trees at 2/6d. were planted. Fruit pie in season appears on the dietary reported by the Master at a parliamentary inquiry in 1845.

The workhouse kept a pig, purchased for about 25/-, which was fattened and then killed by the butcher, at a cost of 1/6d. So pork and bacon were on the menu. Tea and sugar were purchased for sick paupers and, from 1837 onwards, these were separately costed at 5/- to 25/- per month, a not inconsiderable amount.

In 1845, a parliamentary select committee investigated the Gilbert Unions, and David Pickles, the master of the Barwick workhouse, gave evidence. He listed the dietary of the inmates as follows:

Breakfast Milk, porridge and ½ lb. of bread.
Dinner Sunday Suet pudding and treacle sauce
Monday Boiled meat and potatoes.
Tuesday Broth and potatoes, and 1/2lb. of bread.
Wednesday as Sunday
Thursday as Monday
Friday as Tuesday
Saturday Beer, gruel and light dumplings, or fruit pie in season.
Supper Milk and ½ lb. of bread.

Beer was given "when asked for at reasonable times ". Tea and coffee could be given instead of milk, if judged proper by the doctor. The Master stated that "the rule is to give each person as much as they require to eat", but qualified this by saying "they do not get more than half a pound of bread at breakfast and half a pound for supper".

In 1848, the workhouse adopted a dietary suggested by the Poor Law Board in London, "with the exception that tea or coffee and sugar be allowed to the infirm paupers at the direction of the Guardians for supper as well as at breakfast".

The contrast between the picture suggested above and that drawn by Dickens could not be greater, and the Master could state that the paupers ate better at Barwick than in the New Poor Law workhouses. "Food, glorious food", sang the workhouse boys in Lionel Bart's "Oliver". Had they been in the Barwick workhouse, perhaps they would not have had such an obsession, and perhaps Oliver Twist would not have had to ask for more.

Arthur Bantoft

Back to the top
Back to the Main Historical Society page
Back to the Barwicker Contents page