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Workhouse Diet 1850 - 1900

Desperate Haven - The Famine in Dungarvan

15. Workhouse Diet 1850 - 1900

No Spice, Little Variety 1850 - 1858 
Weekly Rations Allowed To Workhouse Officers 1858

The entries in the Minute Book of 1852 relating to diet are very brief and are mostly concerned with the accepting or rejecting of various supplier's tenders. The cost of cereal crops was again spiralling out of control, the price of most of them having increased by around 25% over the course of the previous year. Mr. Benjamin Purser was still the main supplier of cereal foodstuffs to the Union. It is interesting to note that a quantity of wholemeal supplied by him was Egyptian in origin. The visiting committee reported on the 31st of July of this year their satisfaction with the performance of the Matron with regard to caring for the infants. Through feeding the infants four times daily 'a decided improvement in their appearance' had occurred.

One of the more notable developments over the course of 1852 was the regularity with which small quantities of lemons were purchased. Lemons were first introduced into the Workhouse diet in October of 1850 but it was not until 1852 that lemons were purchased on a weekly basis. The fruit was very important in the treatment of the potentially fatal disease scurvy, caused by a deficiency of vitamin C in the diet. From the very small quantities purchased it is obvious that the fruit did not constitute part of the ordinary pauper's diet. It seems likely it was only introduced into a particular pauper's diet when they manifested signs of the disease.

Supplies of wine and porter to the house also became a regular occurrence throughout the year. These would not have been part of the ordinary pauper's diet but the porter in particular was used to reward inmates who undertook jobs that would have been regarded as hazardous, for instance disposing of corpses and working with the sick.
Four different types of cereal were now being purchased by the Workhouse. Spices and seasonings such as arrowroot and pepper also feature among the purchases. All of this seems to indicate that the Board were at last starting to get to grips with the problems of feeding the paupers in the Workhouse. Several reasons may be advanced as to why this might be.

Firstly (and most importantly) by the end of 1852 the numbers of pauper inmates had fallen from the high of 4,000 in June of 1849 to a more manageable figure of 1,000. This is partly explained by an improvement in conditions outside the Workhouse and by the fact that the area served by the Dungarvan Union was reduced in size in 1851. The logistics of feeding a lesser number were much simpler. Less space was required for food storage, fewer utensils required for the preparation and consumption of food and a reduction in the number of auxiliary Workhouses meant that the distribution of food was more easily supervised. All of this meant a reduction in wastage with a consequent financial saving to the Board.

The part finance, or lack of it, played in the Workhouse diet cannot be overstated. No decision on food was ever taken by the Board without an exact costing being produced. In many cases Workhouse diet was dictated more by economic criteria than the nutritional needs of the inmates. This was especially true during the early years of the Famine until 1851. Another reason for the improved standards within the Workhouse would have been the parts played by the Poor Law Commission and the visiting committee. The quality of advice given by the Poor Law Commission on diet improved over time. While the Commission made mistakes, such as recommending Indian-meal as a potato substitute, they also offered much better advice on preventing the spread of dysentery and scurvy. The Commission regularly monitored the Workhouse diet and issued instructions for changes in it as they saw fit.

The visiting committee achieved a lot of good with their reports which primarily seem to be on the topic of the quality of the bread and soup within the Workhouse. This committee uncovered many abuses in the Workhouse, most notably the aforementioned sale of bread. While it would be incorrect to say the Famine had run its course by 1853 the Workhouse was at last starting to meet the challenge posed by it.
February of 1853 saw the Board act on a suggestion made by the visiting committee, namely that after the loaves of bread had been cut into rations the crumbs should be collected and used. The Master weighed the results of the experiment and found that on the first three days he collected between 6 lbs. and 10 lbs. of crumbs each day. If nothing else this demonstrates the care the Board was taking to avoid waste.
The rations of the aged and infirm of both sexes were improved in March on the recommendation of the Medical Officer. Each sick inmate now received 1 lb. of white bread and 1 pint of fresh milk daily. This was served in two meals of ½ lb. of bread and ½ pint of milk and in addition the evening meal was accompanied by a pint of Workhouse soup.

The Poor Law Commission also suggested that children to the age of fifteen should receive milk on a daily basis. This idea was rejected by the Board of Guardians as they 'saw no cause to alter the dietary at present in existence.' By this time the Workhouse had a new acting Medical Officer, a Doctor John Conner. Doctor Conner wrote to the Poor Law Commission stating that the Board were incorrect in their assessment of the diet of the under fifteen's needing no alteration. Accordingly the Commission wrote to the Board ordering them to supply milk daily to the children. This the Board reluctantly agreed to do. Doctor Conner had a very good influence on the Workhouse diet, along with obtaining milk for children and bread and milk for the infirm he also ensured (in conjunction with the Master) that the ten nurses who tended the sick received tea, sugar, white bread and fresh milk daily.

These positive reforms did not last for very long. Sometime in the Summer of 1853 Dr. Conner was replaced by Dr. Battersby. The Board decided to revert to a diet involving Indian-meal stirabout at around this time. While Indian-meal was only one of a number of cereals used in the stirabout this was clearly a retrograde step for the Board to take. This measure was taken presumably on financial grounds. Over the Winter months much of Dr. Conner's good work was undone by the Board of Guardians. White bread was discontinued except to paupers in hospital and the cocoa ration the boys had been receiving for supper for approximately a year was also stopped.

In December of 1853 the Board attempted to use peas as a substitute for oatmeal in the soup. Unfortunately the results of this experiment were not good and the Master took it upon himself to add half the normal amount of oatmeal to the mix without the Board's permission. The experiment was discontinued and oatmeal reintroduced into the diet. Spring of 1854 saw more economising on the part of the Guardians, it was proposed that boiling milk be substituted in lieu of sweet milk for all healthy inmates. The Poor Law Commissioners did not allow this to come into effect however, as they felt it would have a negative effect on the paupers diet. This did not deter the Board of Guardians and in a series of letters over the next two months they argued their case. Finally the Commissioners relented on the provision of assurances by the Guardians that the quantity of skimmed milk would exceed the quantity of sweet milk it substituted. After consultation with the Lismore Union the Guardians decided to substitute for 1 pint of sweet milk with 2½ pints of skimmed milk. The cream skimmed off the milk was then used in the preparation of the stirabout.  The problem with this recommendation is that the skimmed milk was a lot less nutritious than the sweet milk it replaced. As the Summer of 1854 progressed the proportion of skimmed milk served in place of sweet milk shrank to '3 naggins of pure boiled milk in lieu of 2 naggins of sweet milk.'  Peas were re-introduced into the soup as a substitute for barley meal (1 ounce of peas replaced 2 ounces of oatmeal in each pint.).

Upon receipt of a letter from the Master of the Waterford Workhouse, the recipe for bread in the Workhouse was adopted by the Dungarvan Union. The ingredients for the new loaf were combined in the ratio of 20 stone of second grade flour to 7 stone of Indian-meal. In tests carried out by the Master it was found that 27 stone (2nd. flour/Indian-meal) cost £2.16.10, and 27 stone of existing wholemeal bread cost £2.17.4. As the wholemeal proved 6 pence dearer per 27 stone the new recipe was adopted.
Letters from the Poor Law Commissioners read at the Board meeting of the 29 July 1854 indicated their approval of the Board's alterations in the Workhouse diet. With regard to the substitution of peas for oatmeal in the soup however, they wished to be reassured that, 'a sufficient quantity of vegetables is used in preparing soup, as directed by article 13 of the Workhouse rules.' On the 5 August the Dungarvan Board responded to this query by stating 'vegetables in sufficient quantity are given in the soup.'
Given this correspondence between the Board and the Commissioners the contents of a report on the Dungarvan Union by Mr. Hamilton (a Poor Law Inspector) make interesting reading. On 7 October he reported 'vegetables are not used in the soup excepting a very small portion of leeks. It is stated to me by the Master that there are no other vegetables fit for use. If so I can only say the model farm is one that it is not desirable to imitate.'

In reply the agriculturalist stated he had 'supplied vegetables for the soup of inmates such as leeks, white turnips and herbs of different kinds with the exception of a few days when the crop of white turnip had been consumed. The carrots and parsnips having arrived at maturity he is supplying them, with as much onions as required.' If this was the case he was indeed unfortunate that the Inspectors arrival coincided with the end of the turnip crop.    
This case is important for a couple of reasons. Firstly it illustrates that recipes which were recorded in the Minute Books of the Union were often not strictly adhered to. Secondly it partly shows the nature of the relationships between the local Union and the Commissioners.

A sudden rise of 3 pence per gallon on the contract price of skimmed milk in October of 1854 led to a resumption in the use of sweet milk, as it was now cheaper than its skimmed milk substitute. It was decided to allow each class of inmate half a pint per day. It is interesting to note that the price of sweet milk in the Winter of 1854/55 was 6 pence per gallon, half the price it was fetching in the Winter of 1847, when it was being sold in the Dungarvan market at one shilling per gallon.
In December of 1854 the following entry occurred in the Minute Book under the heading of special business 'that two thirds of Workhouse ground be planted with potatoes and the remaining one third under usual vegetables for soup.'

In April 1855, the Board of Guardians decided to purchase a half ton of oatmeal from a retail dealer in Clonmel rather than from the Dungarvan retail dealer, as it was cheaper.
On 11 October 1855 there was a slight change in the diet of the children. The children of the sixth class, namely, 2-5 year olds, received 1 lb. of white bread and ½ pint of sweet milk daily. It was also ordered that the school girls in the 4th class receive 1 pint of cocoa for supper, same as the boys. On 31 July the allowance of the boys of the 4th class was increased from 5 oz. to 7 oz. of Indian-meal for breakfast. This was due to the fact that the boys were working on the farm, owing to a shortage of labour.
In March 1856 the Medical Officer suggested the increase of the daily allowance of bread to the infirm classes, from 1 lb. to 1½ lbs. This suggestion was approved by the Board.

The Board also approved the proposal of Messrs. Acres and Co., Lismore, for the supply of Indian-meal to the house, at £8.16.0 per ton. Mr. Patrick Walsh, Mapstown, agreed to supply sweet milk at 5¾d. per  gallon, and sour milk at 2½d. However, the supply of milk was unreliable. There were many delays in supply which caused great disruptions at this time. As a result, the Master was ordered, in October, to purchase milk wherever he could procure it.

In February 1858 Mr. Patrick Roynayne proposed a change in the scale of rations of the Workhouse officers. These new rations would correspond to the existing rations of the officers of some of the surrounding Unions similarly circumstanced namely Youghal, Lismore, or Carrick-on-Suir. His proposal was approved on 25 February. On 4 November 1858, tea rations were allowed to the fever hospital nurse and laundress in lieu of milk. This was at their own request. In August 1858 the Board decided to purchase the bread by contract from outside the house, rather than bake their own bread. The Master reported that the bought bread was only slightly dearer than the house bread (only by two fifths of a penny), but that it was of a higher quality.

Diet 1859 - 1865 
Diet Of 5th And 6th Class Children 1863

In April 1859 the Board of Guardians wished to examine the possibility of changing the diet of the inmates. With this view in mind, they directed the Master to make inquiries in Dungarvan regarding the cost and supply of bones and of the coarser parts of meat, for soup making. He was also to report on the additional expense involved by substituting ½ oat meal combined with Indian-meal, for breakfast, and also of supplying an additional 2 oz. of bread to classes 1 (men), 2 (women), and 4 (boys and girls aged 9-15 years). On inquiry the Master discovered that neither bones nor the coarser parts of meat could be bought for any money. 'The cheapest sort of meat that could be had is beef, at 4d. per lb. The extra cost for making the stirabout of 2 oz. of bread additional to each of those in classes 1, 2, and, 4 would be one shilling one pence daily.' It was proposed by Mr. P. Williams, and seconded by Mr. John O'Keeffe, that 'the soup of the inmates of the house from this forward, on two days of the week, be made with the addition of 18 lbs. of beef each day; that ½ oat meal be used in making the stirabout; and that the bread of numbers 1, 2, and 4 classes be increased 2 oz. for each inmate.' The proposal was passed by the Commissioners on 5 May 1859. This decision was possible on economic grounds, due to the decrease in the number of inmates in the Workhouse.
On 12 July 1860 the decision of the Guardians in October 1855, in regard to cocoa, was reversed. A half pint of new milk was substituted for supper in place of cocoa, for each of the boys and girls, as the children did not like the cocoa.

The Medical Officer, Dr. Battersby, suggested that more meat and rice be added to the soup, until such time as there would be more vegetables on the farm. As a result, an extra 44 lbs. of meat was added to the soup during the 4 days of the week that no meat had hitherto been granted. Also a portion of one fifth was mixed with the soup, in lieu of vegetables, until fresh vegetables became available. By October 1860 there was a good supply of cabbages on the farm. These were then supplied daily for the soup, and the beef was reduced to only three days of the week, i.e. Sundays, Tuesdays, and Thursdays. There were reports that some of the meat supplied for the hospital patients was unfit for use. On such occasions, the Guardians ordered the purchase of more meat, if possible, and the bill was charged to the original contractor.
In January 1861 the two assistant nurses in the fever hospital applied for, and was each granted ½ lb. of meat daily.
On 7 February 1861 Mr. Michael Anthony (Poor Law Guardian) gave notice of his intention to have the weekly meat allowance of the nurse increased from 3½ lbs. to 5 lbs. This motion was passed on 21 February.

During 1861 and 1862, there were some changes made to the diet. In April 1861 first quality bread was given to the fever patients, on the recommendation of the Medical Officer. On 7 August 1862, it was given to all hospital patients who were in general very weak, and also to bad cases. In May 1861, the Master informed the Board that the hospital patients diet consisted of 'bread, milk, tea, and, meat with other extras, all of which are given in sufficient quantity.' The infants, over 1 year were allowed an additional 4 oz. of bread and ½ pint of milk daily. The Medical Officer also recommended that a glass of milk be allowed for each pint of tea in place of ½ a glass.
In January 1863 the boys and girls food allowance for breakfast was equalised by increasing the allowance of the girls, from 5 oz. of meal to 7 oz. The Board also granted ½ lb. of meat daily to Mary Kennedy, the pauper woman who assisted the Matron in cooking. Due to the fall in numbers in the Workhouse the cook had been dispensed with and the special cooking apparatus was sold.

On 30 April 1863 there was a change made to the breakfast of the 5th. class, and to the dinner of the 6th. class.
'The change recommended was stirabout for breakfast consisting of 5 oz. of meal (½ oats and ½ Indian) in place of bread, and a ½ pint of new milk, and for dinner for 5th. class, 6 oz. of bread in place of 4 oz.'
On 11 June 1863 Dr. Ambrose Hunt, Medical Officer of Lisnaskea Dispensary, Co. Fermanagh, was elected Medical Officer in place of Dr. Battersby, who was asked to resign by the Poor Law Commissioners for negligence.

On inquiry by Commissioners, the Board of Guardians stated in August of that year, that the average cost per inmate in the Union was 2s.6d., as compared to 2s. in the rest of Ireland. The Guardians explained that this was due to the high price of milk i.e. 7¾d. a gallon; and also, 'to the increase that has lately taken place in the extras given in the hospitals.' Following a successful motion by Mr. Anthony, it was agreed that, 'it be optional with the Board to declare one or more contractors for the supply of bread and milk.' Another motion passed by the Board was that 'sure boiling milk be given to the healthy men and women inmates in place of new milk, in the quantity of 1½ the quantity of the latter.' This was also extended to included the boys and girls of the 4th. class (9 to 15 year olds). However, by November the use of 'new milk' was resumed for the boys and girls. It was hoped that these measures would reduce the milk costs to the Union.

At the end of October 1863, the Medical Officer recommended that six of the Infirmary nurses get 1 lb. of meat each in the week. It was also ordered that 3½ lbs. of potatoes be given to each of the able bodied and infirm adults, twice a week. As a result tenders for 50 barrels of potatoes were immediately advertised for. However on 7 January 1864 the use of potatoes was discontinued due to the increase in numbers in the house. The Master and Matron complained that it took too much time to weigh and cook them for such large numbers. It was ordered that potatoes be used in Summer only, when the numbers in the house were small. Bread was substituted in their place.

On 4 February 1864 the Board ordered that potatoes be continued for the children under 15 years and for the infirm, and that they be discontinued for the able bodied adults, 'they having preferred the bread.' However, by the following week, potatoes were again given to the able-bodied adults, 'they having expressed a wish to get them.' The Master was ordered to attend an auction at Colligan on 29 February to purchase potatoes, 'if they can be got on reasonable terms.' The use of potatoes in the diet was again discontinued on 14 April, when prices began to rise. Bread was substituted for these.

On 14 July the diet of the cook, the woman in charge of the bath, and the woman attending the bath furnace was changed to include 10½ lbs. of bread, 1¼ oz. of tea, and 5 oz. of sugar, instead of receiving the diet of the healthy classes.
Potatoes were reintroduced into the diet in September. The able-bodied and infirm inmates received one meal of potatoes daily.
Scale of dinner allowance of potatoes, proportionate to the scale of bread allowance:

Bread oz. (Potatoes lbs.)

Men 16 (4)

Women 14 (3½)

Infirm 12 (3)

Boys & Girls 8 (2)

Children 5 to 9 years 6 (1½)

Children 2 to 5 years 4 (1)

potato allowance is ¼ of the bread allowance.
The Medical Officer stated that potatoes should be given on three days of the week, and that they should be discontinued for any inmates for whom he thought they were unfit.

It was decided on 20 July 1865 that all the potatoes grown on the farm that year were to be used in the Workhouse, and not sold in the market. New milk was again substituted for 'sure boiling milk' for the healthy classes, namely, 1st. and 2nd. classes, on 12 October 1865, as it was cheaper.

Workhouse Diet 1867-1920
On 29 August 1867 Mr. Michael A. Anthony handed in the following notice. 'I give notice that, on this day fortnight (12 September) I will move the following change to be made in the dietary of the able-bodied and infirm men and women. That these classes get three meals a day instead of 2 meals which they receive at present, and that the following scale be adopted, viz. :-

For able-bodied men
8 oz. of meal and ½ pint of new milk for breakfast,
12 oz. of bread and 1 quart of soup for dinner,
6 oz. of bread and 1 pint of sour milk for supper,
thus adding 2 oz. of bread and 1 pint of sour milk to their present daily allowance of two meals.

For able-bodied women
7 oz. of meal and ½ pint of new milk for breakfast,
10 oz. of bread and 1½ pints of soup for dinner,
6 oz. of bread and 1 pint of sour milk for supper,
thus adding only 2 oz. of bread and 1 pint of sour milk to the present daily allowance of two for this class.

For the infirm men and women
7 oz. of bread and 1 pint of tea for breakfast,
7 oz. of bread and 1 pint of new milk for supper,
6 oz. of bread and ½ pint of new milk for supper,
thus adding only ½ pint of new milk daily to the present allowance of 2 meals for this class.'

This motion was lost. However, on 3 October 1869, he again forwarded the same diet proposal. It is unclear from the Minute Books whether or not these proposals were passed, but it appears probable from later readings that they were not.
In July 1873 the food rations of the officers and nurses were altered. Officers daily allowances were: 2 lbs. of bread, ½ pint of milk, 5/7  lbs. of meat, ½ oz. of tea, and, 2 oz. of sugar. The nurses were allowed 2 lb. of bread, 1 pt. of milk, ½ lb. of meat, 2/7 oz. of tea, 2 oz. of sugar, 2 lbs. of potatoes, 2 eggs, and, 1 bottle of porter.

In 1876 Mr. Ussher recommended that sheeps heads or other cheap meat be added to the porridge given to the children for dinner, 'to render it more palatable and nutritious.'    

The next change in diet occurred in 1883. This change related to the infirm class. The following is the Medical Officer's report, dated 28 April 1883.

'The dietary of the special infirm class as at present supplied, has it appears been some years in existence and was originally adopted to relieve the hospital from overcrowding. During the past week I have had before me the diet sheets of several Unions, and in no instance are the infirm class supplied daily with a meat soup diet. Should the Guardians deem fit to alter the present diet I would in that case suggest the dietary, a table of which will be laid before you in the Master's report in which I concur. The diet of the ordinary infirms to be the same as the new diet for special infirms. By the proposed change it will be possible for the Guardians to save about £400 per year which I consider that the inmates will be rather benefited than otherwise by the change.'

However, by December 1886 the Medical Officer was again recommending changes to the diet of the sick infirms. He was following directions from the Guardians in making these changes. In making out the scale of diets his objectives were as follows:

The reduction in the number of different diets. There were eight diets in use in the infirmary and three in the Fever Hospital.
The combining of some of the extras with one or more of the diets.
The improvement of the house hospital broth, and the provision of beef tea in the fever hospital more suitable  to light fever cases than the then highly concentrated beef tea supplied.
He reduced the number of diets from eleven to eight (see table). In order to achieve this, he stated that the high, middle, and, low diets of the fever hospital would correspond with numbers 2, 5, and 8 diets respectively of the house hospital (infirmary).

He recommended that the beef tea be made with 1 lb. of meat to 1 pint of water, with the Medical Officer having the right in exceptional cases to order a more concentrated form.

He says in regard to the broth for the house hospital: 'In preparation of this broth which is made from the more inferior portions of the meat I would strongly recommend that it be prepared and thickened with flour. Meal or rice and condimented to a pleasant degree as few patients are able to continue it in its present impalatable form. As the cases for which this broth is used are not of an acute character the beef need not be as much boiled as for beef tea and the fragments of meat may with advantage be left in the soup with the rice and other ingredients. By the above changes I am in hopes that the Medical Officer will be able to exercise a more careful supervision.'

As time went by, the diet of all the inmates of the Workhouse varied little from previous diets. This is very evident from the reading of the Minute Books from the 1910's and up to the early 1920's, when the Workhouses ceased to exist.

Author: William Fraher

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