Oliver Twist famously asked for more when his bowl of gruel was empty, which is little wonder since inmates were routinely served a near starvation diet.

Gruel was a staple of workhouse life – but what was it made of? The answer could be almost anything, but usually was a porridge-like substance made with cereal – oatmeal, rye flour or rice boiled in milk or water.

It was thinner than porridge and was served most days in the workhouse, where the general rule was that food must be less wholesome than anything that a general labourer could afford.  Meat was served only twice a week and  possibly pickled fish once a week. There were generally no exceptions – including Christmas Day.

The workhouse master was allocated an allowance, and if he could cut a deal with local suppliers the workhouse inmates suffered, as flour often ended up being cut and milk diluted – often with chalk then added to restore its bulk.

It’s impossible to know what life was like for an inmate in the Bala workhouse, but it is worth remembering that the regime was designed to be harsh and demeaning, to deter the able-bodied poor from turning up on the doorstep.

Life is now very different at the Old Workhouse B&B, but if any guests want to give it a go, I’ll be happy to oblige with an up-to-date version of gruel.


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