(AFP) – Dec 17, 2008
PARIS (AFP) — Doctors writing in the British Medical Journal (BMJ) say they have uncovered the gruel truth behind the Victorian workhouse.
Charles Dickens, they contend, was exaggerating when he portrayed Oliver Twist and other orphans driven to the brink of starvation by a miserly diet of watery porridge.
In fact, the food provided under 1834 Poor Law Act, which set up workhouses for the destitute poor in mid-19th-century Britain, was dreary but there was plenty of it and the diet was nutritious enough for children of Oliver's age, their paper says.
In "Oliver Twist," Dickens wrote, the orphans were given "three meals of thin gruel a day, with an onion twice a week and half a roll on Sunday."
On feast days, according to the novel, the inmates received an extra two and a quarter ounces (64 grammes) of bread.
Four medical experts, with skills ranging from nutrition to paediatrics and the history of medicine, say such a diet would have killed or crippled the children, inflicting anaemia, scurvy, rickets and other diseases linked to vitamin deficiency.
They took a closer look at the actual historical record, sifting through contemporary documents and even replicating the gruel that workhouse children most likely had.
One important source for their research was a treatise by a physician, Jonathan Pereira.
He wrote it in 1843, five years after Dickens completed "Oliver Twist" and ignited a furious debate about the workhouses.
Pereira found that the local boards of the guardians of the poor had a choice of six "workhouse dietaries", one of which they could choose according to the circumstances of each establishment.
On the basis of Pereira's figures, using a recipe for water gruel taken from a 17th-century English cook book, the authors calculate Oliver would have had around three pints (1.76 litres) of gruel per day, comprising 3.75 ounces (106 grammes) of top-quality oatmeal from Berwick, Scotland.
Far from being thin, the gruel would have been "substantial," the authors say.
This would not have be the only source of food. Pereira details "considerable amounts" of beef and mutton that were delivered to individual London workhouses.
"The diet described by Dickens would not have supported health and growth in a nine-year-old child, but the published workhouse diets would have generally met that need," the BMJ paper says.
"Given the limited number of food staples used, the workhouse diet was certainly dreary but it was adequate."
The authors add a caveat, saying that this assumption is made on the basis that inmates actually received the quantity and quality of food prescribed, but Pereira's book suggests this was generally the case.
Dickens' attack on the workhouses may have come from his own deprived childhood and separation from his family, after his father was imprisoned for debt, they suggest.
"Dickens' novel is a timeless chronicle of the abuse of childhood," the paper says, adding, though: "Fictional 'truth' does not always coincide with the true facts."
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