Category Archives: Institutions

“Lunch Shaming” and Lessons from History

By Nadja Durbach

Early last year the news media reported on a surge in what has been called “lunch shaming”: practices that deliberately and publicly humiliate children whose parents have not settled their school lunch accounts. When this story broke I was in the midst of writing about school meals in Britain during the 1920s and 30s for a book that I am working on about government food programs in the United Kingdom from the 1830s through the 1960s. The practices of lunch shaming in the United States in the past few years have included: dumping students’ lunches in the trash and refusing to feed them, substituting less nutritious cheese sandwiches for hot meals, stamping the children’s arms with phrases such as “I Need Lunch Money,” compelling children to wear wrist bands marking them as debtors, and having these children clean the cafeteria tables in front of their peers. None of these strategies were deployed in Britain in the interwar period, but the idea that school meals could be a source of humiliation was alive and well. In fact it is hard to ignore that understanding the history of school meals, which were provided in many countries starting in the twentieth century, is essential to formulating a workable and non-stigmatizing program in today’s schools.

In 1906, the United Kingdom introduced a school meals program to address the fact that children from poor families often came to school hungry and thus could not take full advantage of the public education system. Participating school districts used local tax dollars and grants from the Board of Education to feed children gratis at school if their family’s income fell below a locally-determined poverty line. Lunchroom facilities were rarely available within schools before the second half of the twentieth century. This meant that the children receiving free school meals were often marched into the middle of town to a “Feeding Centre.” They were thus conspicuous recipients of the state’s largesse. These Feeding Centres were sometimes established in buildings associated with charity, such as a Salvation Army hall, or with the shame of poverty, such as an old workhouse. Throughout the Depression years then, school meals were inherently stigmatizing. Even families that were eligible sometimes rejected them, mothers often starving themselves in order to feed their children without relying on government food.

Those who accepted the meals were rarely treated to anything that could have materially effected the chronic malnourishment that intensified during the Depression. School meals were primarily intended to fill bellies and were not particularly nourishing. This was despite the explosion of nutritional knowledge newly available in the interwar period. A school meal generally consisted of mounds of mashed potatoes, minced meats or stews, reconstituted dried or overcooked fresh vegetables, and stodgy desserts. Fresh fruits and raw vegetables were rare except in communities that in the late 1930s experimented with cold meals: nutritional sandwiches accompanied by milk, salad, and fruit. These were healthy, cheaper, well-liked by the children, and could be eaten with their hands. The hot dinners, however, required utensils but students were rarely provided with more than a single spoon. Forks were scarce and knives unheard of as the supervisors feared that the children of the poor were unruly “wild animals.” These “low grade children,” it was argued, could not be trusted and “these implements might be dangerous in [their] hands.”

Supervisors feared that a child might “stick a fork into his next door neighbour out of mischief or in a quarrel.”

Up through the 1930s then, the children of the chronically unemployed desperately needed these school meals. But accepting them came at a price, as they were humiliating for the children and their parents. It was not until the outbreak of the Second World War that the nature of school meals changed significantly. In 1943, the British government announced that its objective was to make school meals available to at least 75% of schoolchildren. To achieve this, the 1944 Education Act turned the voluntary provision of meals into a compulsory service and began to take their nutritional components more seriously. While minimal fees would be charged to parents who could afford to pay, all children were to be fed together and no distinction made between those receiving free meals and those who were self-funded. These changes reflected a wartime ideology that constructed children as citizens and positioned the state as responsible for their wellbeing.

The Anti-Lunch Shaming Act of 2017 that forbids the practices used to humiliate children with outstanding school lunch debts was introduced in Congress last May. One can only hope that Congress learns from the past because the history of the school lunch program in Britain provides important insight into how we treat students in lunchrooms across the United States today. Why would we choose to shame children when providing them with a nutritious lunch in ways that do not stigmatize or humiliate them could in fact teach all of our young people that they too are citizens whom we respect and cherish?

Nadja Durbach was born in the United Kingdom. She grew up in Canada and attended the University of British Columbia, earning a BA (Hons.) in 1993. In 2000 she completed her PhD at the Johns Hopkins University and joined the faculty of the University of Utah’s History Department where she is currently a Professor. She is the author of Bodily Matters: The Anti-Vaccination Movement in England, 1853-1907 and Spectacle of Deformity: Freak Shows and Modern British Culture. She is currently working on a book entitled, Many Mouths: State Feeding in Britain from the Workhouse to the Welfare State.

The Wellcome Library’s Manuscript Recipe Books: Reflections on a Quarter-century of Collecting

By Richard Aspin

Page from Lady Ayscough’s book of ‘Receits of phisick and chirurgery’, dated 1692, the first recorded acquisition for Henry Welcome’s library in 1897 (Wellcome Western MS.1026)

Manuscript recipe books were at the forefront of Henry Wellcome’s collecting activities. Perhaps no other genre of European written artefact spoke more directly to his conception of healthcare as the fundamental preoccupation of human beings. Indeed his first recorded Library acquisition in 1897 was a late 17th-century English manuscript recipe book. At the time of Wellcome’s death in 1936 there were probably between 150 and 200 such books in the collection, depending on how they are defined. Thirty of so of these came from the cookery book collection of John Hodgkin of Reading (1857-1930), purchased at Hodgson’s auctioneers in London in April 1931.

Acquisition of recipe books fell away after 1936, in line with overall retrenchment in the development of the collections; but it is probable that this genre of manuscript suffered disproportionately as the focus of the postwar Wellcome Library and later Institute was firmly directed towards the history of scientific medicine and professional practice. Not more than a dozen manuscript recipe books were acquired between 1936 and 1986. There was no obvious scholarly interest in the history of domestic medicine, and it was not even clear that cookery was a relevant subject for a medical library.

This was the position of the field when I came into post as curator of western manuscripts in 1991. I occasionally purchased manuscript recipe books for the Wellcome collection over the coming years – we had a generous acquisitions allowance and manuscripts of this type were fairly inexpensive – but I had little sense of developing an important research resource. The standout acquisition of the nineties, Lady Ann Fanshawe’s book (MS.7113), which has recently been the subject of a popular monograph[1], was purchased as much for its associational and provenance interest as its content, and the hammer price at auction of £2800 in 1995 (equivalent to just over £5000 today), which now seems nugatory, was deemed somewhat extravagant at the time. When cataloguing recipe books we more or less followed the pattern set by S.A.J. Moorat, who after the war had catalogued the items acquired in Henry Wellcome’s time: scant attention was paid to the nature and content of the recipes beyond a broad indication of whether they were medicinal or culinary.

Little did I know that the growth of research interest in this genre of manuscript was already well under way, and not just in the productions of one or two ladies-bountiful, but in the wider practice of recipe-making and taking among the middling sort in early modern England. How I slowly became aware of this is now difficult to reconstruct: certainly it had nothing to do with proximity to the Wellcome Institute academic history of medicine department, where there seemed to be very little interest in recipes. It was probably largely owing to the growing number of researchers consulting our recipe books in the Wellcome Library, often Americans, and often coming from a literary studies rather than a medical history background.

The phenomenon was sufficiently salient to lead me to propose a seminar series on recipes to the academic department’s programme committee, which duly took place in autumn 2002, and led in due course to the formation of the Medicinal Receipts Research Group the following year. In the meantime the evident research interest in recipes stimulated increased collecting activity, such that well over a hundred additional English manuscript recipe books have entered the collection over the past twenty-five years. Many more could have been added: indeed, along with the growing realisation of the research value of these books has been a recognition of just how ubiquitous this genre of manuscript must have been among the literate population of early modern England.

The growing research interest in recipe books was marked by the microfilming of a substantial proportion of our collection by Thomson Gale in 2003[2], albeit framed within a now rather anachronistic-looking women’s history paradigm. Later, the seventeenth-century books – some seventy or so volumes – were digitised and their contents selectively indexed, so that individual recipe headings could be searched on-line. It was becoming clear that in addition to the evident interest of one or two standout recipe books such as the Fanshawe volume, the generality of books

Remedy for the plague from Lady Ann Fanshawe’s recipe book, mid 17th cent (Wellcome Western MS.7113)

formed in aggregate a substantial research resource that could be used by scholars to illuminate questions such as the circulation of recipes, the relationship between domestic and elite medicine, and the use of exotic drugs.

Paradoxically the prices realised on the open market have not reflected the increased availability of manuscripts for purchase; if in the 1990s we could buy a solid if unremarkable late-seventeenth or eighteenth century recipe book for £350 or £400, this had increased at least tenfold by 2017. Such an exponential price rise almost certainly implies vigorous activity by a new generation of collectors building twenty-first century equivalents of the John Hodgkin cookery book collection. I am not aware of any other public collection in the UK that targets recipe books as a genre of manuscript. The price rise almost certainly means that the period of ‘heroic’ collecting of recipe manuscripts by Wellcome has come to an end. Henceforth acquisitions – of which there seems to be no sign of a diminishing supply – will no doubt be highly selective. In short, the Wellcome’s collection is to all intents and purposes complete.

Richard Aspin was curator of western manuscripts and later head of special collections in the Wellcome Library from 1991 to 2016. He took a leading part in developing the Library’s research collections during that time, including the Wellcome’s unrivalled range of early modern domestic recipe manuscripts, which are today the most-frequently consulted pre-twentieth century manuscript materials in the library. His investigation of the links between two seventeenth-century recipe manuscripts in the collection was published as ‘Who was Elizabeth Okeover?’, in Medical History, 2000, 44: 531-540


[1] Lucy Moore, Lady Fanshawe’s Receipt Book: The Life and Times of a Civil War Heroine (2017)

[2] Women and medicine : remedy books, 1533-1865 : from the Wellcome Library for the History and Understanding of Medicine, London, ed. Sara Pennell (2004)


Workhouse Diets: Paucity or Plenty? [Part II]

By Lesley Hulonce

"Members of the United Cooks' Society preparing a monster plum pudding at Marylebone Workhouse for the Lancashire Operatives," in The Illustrated London News (1863). Image courtesy of the Wellcome Library, London.
“Members of the United Cooks’ Society preparing a monster plum pudding at Marylebone Workhouse for the Lancashire Operatives,” in The Illustrated London News (1863). Image courtesy of the Wellcome Library, London.

This is the second part of a post which appeared on Tuesday, 10 May.

As Edward Ostler reported to the 1834 Royal Commission, ‘humanity dictates that the inmates of a workhouse should be fed quite as well as a labourer’s family’, and the food, whilst wholesome, should be ‘of the plainest description’. Ostler described the pre-1834 diet in most workhouses as meat, broth and pea soup, each for two days, with fish on the seventh day. No amounts were given, but Ostler also reported that the diet should be ‘sufficient’.[1] In earlier years of the ‘new’ poor law some guardians had attempted (unsuccessfully) to instigate a system whereby unmarried women of ‘profligate habits’, who had been delivered of two or more children in the workhouse, should be given a reduced diet and wear a ‘badge’ to differentiate them from other women.[2]

Following the formation poor law unions in 1834, the central authorities expected that all meals would be weighed and measured to ensure the amounts stipulated were received by the paupers. Whether or not the quantities were ‘sufficient’ is, and was somewhat subjective. Although the central authorities envisaged that workhouse diets should follow the principle of less eligibility and not be of better quality or higher quantity than the ‘ordinary’ diet of a labourer’s family, this proved unfeasible as many of these labourers’ diets were too poor to sustain health.

Although the diets within workhouses appear ‘sufficient’, the food offered was indeed monotonous; the disallowance of a delicacy such as treacle would have been a blow to the four girls mentioned above. The workhouse dietary for 1837 allowed for five ounces of meat three times a week, one and a half pints of soup three times a week and 12 ounces of rice or suet pudding weekly. Breakfasts were 6 ounces of bread and one and a half pints of gruel and supper either one and a half pints of broth or two ounces of cheese with 7 ounces of bread.[3] Some workhouse soups were a little suspect, as a poor law inspector found that dirty clothes were being boiled up on the stove in a pan next to the broth, and he wisely declined to sample the soup as a result. Over the years, the main changes in workhouse diets were in the variety of foods and quantities more or less remained the same with a little more protein and vegetables and a little fewer carbohydrates. Some dishes were made more palatable, such as the suet pudding, to which was added more suet along with currants and spices. By the 1870s, ‘pie crust’, tea and butter once a week were included in the children’s dietary. The early twentieth century diet of children also included cocoa, porridge, sugar, cake, biscuits, roast beef and mutton, savoury mince, barley soup, bread pudding, boiled bacon and rice milk.[4]

Food was also used as reward as well as punishment. Various treats were given to children throughout the year and most included food that could be considered an indulgence. These treats were promoted as being obtained by good behaviour and by conforming to the projected ethos of work, independence and thrift as adults. One annual trip to a beach also saw the children ‘plentifully regaled with tea and plumcake’ and special teas were often arranged.[5]

The early 20th century diet also included cocoa, porridge, sugar, cake, biscuits, roast beef and mutton, ‘scouse’, savoury mince, barley soup, bread pudding, boiled bacon and rice milk. The local press always appeared deeply moved by both the children’s plight and the guardians’ beneficence. Concerning an earlier outing to Caswell Bay, the Welsh newspaper The Cambrian was ‘glad to find’ that the guardians showed ‘deep interest and kindness towards the children confined in our union’ and on a similar occasion it was reported that the ‘poor’ children ‘gambolled over the hill right merrily’.[1]

So, gruel was a workhouse staple, as it was across Britain for all classes. However, benighted workhouse inmates never had to rely on it as their only form of nutrition. What is gruel anyway? Or ‘skilly’ as it was often called. Basically, its just a watery porridge; here is an 1872 recipe if you want to try it at home.

Gruel recipe 1872:
16 ounces oatmeal

8 pints of water
4 ounces treacle,
Allspice to be used occasionally

"A selection of puddings," in The Book of Household Management by Mrs Beeton (London, 1861). Image courtesy of the Wellcome Library, London.
“A selection of puddings,” in The Book of Household Management by Mrs Beeton (London, 1861). Image courtesy of the Wellcome Library, London.

The tedium of these meals was relieved by special teas which were organised by local ladies and on outings in which food was part of the treat. One annual Whitsun trip to a local beach saw children ‘plentifully regaled with tea and plum cake’. At Christmas, guardians would organise a dinner of roast beef and plum pudding for all workhouse inmates, and oranges was also a favoured gift from medical officers. Here’s a recipe for Christmas pudding that might beat us all. 

1930s Recipe for workhouse Christmas pudding for 300 (yes, 300!)
36 lbs Currants

42lbs Sultanas
9 lbs Dates
9lbs Mixed Peel
26 lbs Flour
16 lbs Breadcrumbs
24 lbs Margarine
26 lbs Demerara Sugar
102 lbs Golden Syrup
102 lbs Marmalade
144 Eggs
2lbs 10oz Mixed Spice
13 lbs Carrots

Although these workhouse food strategies could be described as humane, their main objective was to curtail what was perceived as a ‘once a pauper, always a pauper’ culture thought prevalent among the destitute in Victorian Britain.

Sounds rather familiar…

[1] The Cambrian, 23 July 1858, 24 May 1861.

[1] Royal Commission of Inquiry into Administration and Practical Operation of Poor Laws, 1834, appendix C, 173.

[2] WGAS, U/S 1/1, Guardians’ Minutes, 20 June, 4 July 1850.

[3] TNA, MH12/16437, 29 May 1837.

[4] WGAS, U/S 1/33, 20 December 1900.

[5] The Cambrian, 15 June 1860.

Dr Lesley Hulonce is historian and lecturer of health humanities in the College of Human and Health Sciences at Swansea University. She is co-director of the Research Group for Health, History and Culture and her research interests include the histories of children, disability, poverty, gender and prostitution via state and voluntary action. She is completing her first monograph about the lives of pauper children in England and Wales which will be published in August.

Workhouse Diets: Paucity or Plenty? [Part I]

By Lesley Hulonce

Draft ‘Dietary’ from 1872, source TNA MH12 16439. Image courtesy of the author.
Draft ‘Dietary’ from 1872, source TNA MH12 16439. Image courtesy of the author.

‘All we ever get is gruel’, sang the workhouse lads in the 1968 film Oliver! But were workhouse boys like Oliver Twist really forced to bravely step forward and beg for more food?

Certainly, in some poor law unions in Britain poor diets generated widely reported scandals. At Andover workhouse the diet was found to be extremely meagre in quantity, resulting partly from the ‘dishonesty’ of the workhouse master. In consequence, inmates who were employed in bone crushing ‘ate the gristle and marrow of the bones they were set to break’. The subsequent inquiry also found that if the workhouse visiting committee had ‘acted regularly and duly in the discharge of their important duties’, the scandals could not have occurred.[1] The regular presence and intervention of poor law guardians was vital to the treatment of workhouse inmates and many of the perceived ‘cruelties’ of the poor law were mitigated by the goodwill of some poor law union guardians (Henriques, ‘How Cruel’).

Similarly, the strict application of poor law principles in the Bakewell union in 1855 led to such a serious deterioration of health that an inspector had to implement a much improved diet and exercise regime (Hopkins, Childhood Transformed, 174). This potent imagery appears to have coloured some historians’ view of workhouse diets. Crompton’s assertion that an already ‘inadequate’ diet was aggravated by ‘institutionalised starving’ as punishment, is one example. In her extensive analysis of 3,000 workhouse and prison diets, Johnston argues however that ‘starvation had no role in the policies of either institution’. (Johnston, Diet in Workhouses and Prisons, 5) Crompton cites software ‘Super Diet’ written by the University of Surrey, which was used to determine that the workhouse diets revealed up to a 56% deficiency in energy content, 50% shortfall in vitamin C, hardly any vitamin D and a ‘serious’ deficiency in calcium. The diets were compared with ‘what would be regarded today as a balanced diet’ (Crompton, Workhouse Children, 67).

Of course, it could be argued that the diet was still ‘inadequate’ by today’s benchmarks, but such anachronistic comparisons could be made concerning most social conditions of the nineteenth century and is not helpful to our understanding of the period. In practice however, diet and conditions in workhouses often exceeded those found in the homes of many poor families, but nonetheless a deterrent remained owing to the widely held punitive and humiliating reputation of the workhouse.

Children were assured of receiving a fixed amount of food and did not have to compete for food with the adults and siblings in their family. As Ross argues, death by starvation was still a ‘regular occurrence’ up to and after 1870 (Ross, Love and Toil, 27). In poor law workhouses, diets were also used as a means of control with punishments often taking the form of a modification of rations. This appears to be generally the substitution of one meal for bread and water or in the case of girls (who could not be beaten), a dinner of potatoes instead of the day’s predetermined food. Four young girls who had damaged a partition in the workhouse were punished by their dinner allowance being halved and their treacle ration withdrawn.[2] Workhouse food was monotonous, under-seasoned and probably badly cooked, but the quantities were sufficient and it was designed to deter rather than starve.

Part II of this post will appear on Thursday, 12 May.

[1] Report from the Select Committee on Andover Union, 1846, paper nos. 663-I; 663-II, iv-v.

[2] WGAS, U/S 24, WGAS, Workhouse Punishment Book, 2710 January 1855.

Dr Lesley Hulonce is historian and lecturer of health humanities in the College of Human and Health Sciences at Swansea University. She is co-director of the Research Group for Health, History and Culture and her research interests include the histories of children, disability, poverty, gender and prostitution via state and voluntary action. She is completing her first monograph about the lives of pauper children in England and Wales which will be published in August.