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Living the Workhouse Diet

2014 April 15
by lucinda matthews-jones

Rachel Duffield (Norfolk Museums’ Live Interpretation Officer)

Life as an interpretation officer at Gressenhall Farm & Workhouse working with more than 10,000 Norfolk schoolchildren a year is never dull. I spend most of my time in costume inhabiting a Victorian wash-house, farm kitchen or workhouse schoolroom, teaching students about rural domestic life 150 years ago. Now I am preparing for a bigger challenge: living the workhouse diets of more than 100 years ago for three whole weeks. From 26 April, I’ll be swapping my modern day sweet tooth and soft spot for a cuppa for the diet of an inmate living in the Gressenhall workhouse in 1797, 1834 and 1901. It’s a diet consisting of milk broth, onion gruel, pease pottage, boiled meat and dumplings, among other dishes. Of the 21 meals, 12 involve beer…and five mean beer at breakfast!

My job is about bringing to life the stories of the people who lived and worked in the workhouse, and food was an important part of their lives. This is a great way of experiencing a little of how they lived, as well as doing a bit of myth busting. The first diet is plain and repetitive, with lots of bread with a small chunk of cheese. But I’ll also get some vegetables, and frumenty, which is sweet and a little like rice pudding. It was with the Poor Law Act of 1834 that things went Dickensian and that’s when we get the grim gruel and smaller portions that Oliver Twist experienced. In 1901 workhouse recipes were standardised and the diet features some tasty looking things like suet pudding.

Norfolk Museums' Live Interpretation Officer Rachel Duffield all dressed up for workhouse supper

The hardest thing for me is going to be missing my cups of tea – there is a lot of tea in 1834 but no mention of tea in 1797, so the first week is going to be tough for me because I have a very sweet tooth and I’m a real ‘tea pot’. The more people say ‘you’re doing WHAT?’, the more I look at the recipes, and start to think, I don’t know if I’ll be able to do this for three weeks. Then I think about my reasons for doing it: Gressenhall is the only workhouse site where visitors experience a unique combination of workhouse buildings, collections and archives. We are hoping to transform Gressenhall in a new re-development. Funded by the Heritage Lottery Fund, over the next few months we will be exploring how we can improve our workhouse displays. Using recently revealed original accounts, we will tell the real stories of the people who lived and worked in the workhouse. Living the Workhouse Diet is one way that we are sharing our research. Our new displays will explore the themes that make the workhouse story relevant today, including the treatment of the elderly and rural poverty. We will also develop an innovative online resource, enabling people to share their own workhouse stories. For more information please see the museum’s website.

To follow my journey read of my blog , or follow me on Twitter @workhousediet, or visit my Facebook page

Wish me luck!

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