The Workhouse Diet

Darlingscott Road, Shipston on Stour. 1920s
IMAGE LOCATION: (Warwickshire County Record Office)
Reference: PH, 352/158/78, img: 2455
This image is subject to copyright restrictions. Please see our copyright statement for further details.

The 1827 ‘Dietary’ for inmates of the workhouse in the Shipston Union survives in the care of Warwickshire County Record Office.1 This was a directive from the Poor Law Commissioners for England and Wales and therefore must have applied to all the other workhouses in Warwickshire. Two copies of the order were to be printed and hung up in ‘the most public place’ in each workhouse and we are grateful to the Rev. Charles Crump, then Rector of Halford and Guardian of the Poor, for preserving this chilling document for posterity.


Able-bodied men were allowed 8 oz of bread and 1 1/2 pints of gruel (a thin porridge); women had the gruel but only 6 oz of bread (which I reckon to be three slices).


Three days a week (Sunday, Wednesday and Friday) men had 5 oz of meat plus 12 oz of potatoes or other vegetables; women got the same vegetables but only 4 oz of meat. On Monday and Thursday men had 1 1/2 pints of soup or broth and 5 oz of bread whilst women got the same soup but only 4 oz of bread (2 slices). On Tuesday men got 12 oz of suet pudding plus 6 oz of vegetables; women got the same vegetables but only 10 oz of suet pudding. On Saturday it sounds as though cook got the day off because men had 8 oz of bread and 2 oz of cheese whilst women got only 5 oz of bread and 1 1/2 oz of cheese.


This was the same every day: men got 6 oz of bread plus 1 1/2 oz of cheese (about enough to fill one sandwich) whilst women got the same amount of cheese plus 5 oz of bread.  A note added that women could have 1/2 oz of butter instead of cheese for supper; was this to prevent nightmares? And why did it not apply to men?

Long-term diet?

This diet was intended to be cheap but adequate. It may have been cheap, but was clearly inadequate to sustain a healthy life: it’s completely devoid of fresh fruit and short on vegetables so that the inmates must have become deficient in vitamins and minerals. The diet appears to provide sufficient calories, but was short on protein. Adults in the workhouse were usually forced to undertake physically-demanding work (for example breaking stones for the men and laundry work for the women).

It’s difficult to believe they would have been in a fit state to work hard on this diet. Perhaps the worst aspect must have been the depressing monotony of the diet, based largely on bread and gruel. In fairness to the Commissioners, however, this diet may well have reflected that of poor people at that time, many of whom were often living on the verge of starvation.

Those aged 60 and over could have 8 oz of sugar, 8 oz of butter and 1 oz of tea (per week) instead of gruel for breakfast and cheese for supper. Children under the age of nine  were to be dieted ‘at discretion’ (though judging by Oliver Twist  this would not have been generous). Children over the age of nine received the women’s diet. The sick were to be dieted ‘as directed by the Medical Officer’.

Shipston-on-Stour Poor Law Union

In 1850 this union contained 37 parishes, including some no longer in Warwickshire.2 The workhouse in Shipston was located off Darlingscote Road (where Brickfield Lane is now). The workhouse  included a chapel and a school and closed in the mid 20th century. Later on it became Shipston on Stour Institution, then Shipston House and has now been demolished. There’s a splendid photo of Francis Pannett, master of this workhouse, lounging by his summerhouse and pool in 1884 with his family dressed in fine Victorian clothes. This makes an interesting comparison with the very basic life of the inmates one can deduce from the dietary described above.

Does anyone have a photo or memories of these buildings – we’d love to hear from you if so.  

The dietary of tramps during World War One

In 1917 local papers reported more stringent regulations from the County Vagrancy Committee for the diet offered to tramps in the workhouse. The Food Controller had prepared a list of alternatives that might be substituted for bread, flour, meat and sugar, and directed that these should be used to feed the casual poor.4

Does anyone know what substitutes might have been used?


1 Dietary for Able-Bodied Men and Women, Shipston Union, 1827, Warwickshire County Record Office reference DR 362/60.

2 White’s History Gazetteer & Directory of Warwickshire, Sheffield, 1850, p. 742.

3 Pannett Family, Warwickshire County Record Office reference PH 422/30 in ‘Shipston on Stour from old Photographs’ by V. Griffin, 1986.

4 Rugby Advertiser, 17 March 1917.

More from Workhouses