Living the workhouse diet

Life as an interpretation officer at Gressenhall Farm and Workhouse working with more than 10,000 Norfolk schoolchildren a year is never dull.

But in April 2014, Rachel Duffield prepared for the biggest challenge of her career: living the workhouse diets of more than 100 years ago for three weeks.

Rachel swapped her 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 was a diet consisting of milk broth, onion gruel, pease pottage and boiled meat dumplings, among other dishes. Of the 21 meals, 12 involve beer ... and five meant beer at breakfast for Rachel.

“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” said Rachel before she started her ideal. "This is a great way of experiencing a little of how they lived, as well as doing a bit of myth busting”. 

“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 teapot.”

In 1834, things went Dickensian and workhouse meals became pretty grim. Oliver Twist’s gruel therefore formed part of Rachel’s diet for the second week. Fortunately workhouse food did improve a little in 1901 (week three) with the arrival of suet.  

The more people said ‘you’re doing what?’ the more Rachel looked at the recipes and thought, “I don’t know if I’ll be able to do this for three weeks."

You can find out how Rachel reacted to her first meal of gruel by watching this YouTube video 

You can follow her progress on her three week challenge via: