How did poverty affect diet and health in 19th century England?

11 Oct 2017

Far from being a modern issue, the relationship between poverty, diet and health has been a matter of concern for many centuries.

Dr Carl Griffin, Reader in Historical History at the University of Sussex, sheds light on how much harder it was for the poor to maintain an adequate diet before the welfare system was founded in a free, public lecture as part of the University of Winchester's Centre for Medical History seminar series.

The Making of the Poor as Biological Subjects in 19th Century England discusses the creation and implementation of the food provision provided by workhouses to each of their inmates, known as workhouse dietaries.

Workhouses, which were colloquially known as 'spikes', were set up in response to the Poor Law Act of 1388, and offered accommodation and employment for those who were unable to support themselves. However, by the early 1830's , the cost of poor relief nationally had become an economic burden resulting in the enactment of the Poor Law Amendment Act of 1834, or 'New Poor Law', which fundamentally changed the poverty relief system and implemented strict workhouse rules to reduce costs.

During his talk, Dr Griffin will discuss the concept of a dietary, analysing the debates and discussion concerning both the physiological and practical science of the pauper diet. From this basis, the talk will go on to explore the implementation of workhouse diets through the centrally-controlled but locally-operated system. This will illustrate the tension between the ideals set by the New Poor Law and show how workhouse dietaries were affected by the economy and local procurement politics in practice.

The Making of the Poor as Biological Subjects in 19th Century England takes place on Thursday 26 October at 6pm in Medecroft 16, University of Winchester, Sparkford Road, Winchester, Hampshire, SO22 4NR.

This talk is part of the Centre for Medical History 2017-18 seminar series and is free and open to members of the public. The Centre is an interdisciplinary research group which focuses on all aspects of health and illness in the past.

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