Workhouse life in Victorian England/Britain

Workhouse orphan Oliver Twist, one of Charles Dickens’ best-known creations, famously gets into trouble for daring to ask for second helpings of food.

Researching the life of George Fawell (born Dacre, Westmorland, 1821; died 1905 Bolton, Lancashire) uncovers a little about what workhouse inmates might expect on their plate.

George was a committed Christian, a teetoaller, a Sunday school superintendant, and a supporter of self-improvement movements. The son of a Westmorland farmer/parish clerk, he clearly believed in encouraging the working class to better themselves in life by education. He was also a staunch Conservative.

He married, in Bolton in 1845, Mary Helsby, who bore him seven daughters and six sons, before dying in 1867, aged just 46.

His Christian fortitude must also have been tested by the terrible grief of losing eight of the children in infancy, the two youngest, Louisa and William, dying on the same day: Sept 23, 1866. Louisa was aged three years nine months, and William two years six months.

But it is thanks to George Fawell’s grocery business life that we learn something about the workhouse – specifically Bolton Workhouse, but surely typical of all at that time.

Please Sir, can I have some more?

The workhouse Board of Guardians met regularly, and among topics of debate and decision were tenders for workhouse supplies.

In March 1881, for instance, Messrs George Fawell and Son, Fold-street, Bolton, won the tender to supply finest linseed meal, at 21 shillings per hundredweight.

George Fawell also won the contract to supply Colman’s Mustard, and Colman’s starch.

Other tenders agreed were for: black lead; soft soap; rice; American cheese; pale soap; best currants; Sultana raisins; Scotch treacle; Scotch barley; moist sugar; best cube lump sugar; and best beef and mutton; coal; new milk; sweet milk; butter milk; fresh butter; Sutcliffe’s fine flour; Ormskirk flour; Hartley’s flour; blue peas; Indian corn; scrubbing brushes; sweeping brushes; blue worsted; woollen scouring flannel; men’s moleskin suits; men’s corded suits (trousers brown, jacket and vest black), and; men’s vests (black) and trousers (brown).

When George Fawell won the mustard contract in September 1880, other items included in tenders (ie different to those above) were: soda; bath bricks; bran; split English beans; white pepper; carbolic hard soap; best Canadian oatmeal; dishcloths; buff and black leather slippers; women’s shoulder shawls (wool);  blue-striped bed ticking; flax sheeting with blue stripe, and; beer, at 26 shillings and sixpence.

An 1882 list of tenders included 100 cwt of beef, 7 cwt of mutton, 1,000 lb of tinned beef and 1 cwt of bones per week.

I can’t believe it’s not butter

The 1881 meeting saw a great debate over whether the workhouse inmates should have ‘good Irish butter’, or butterine.

Butterine picture from

Butter would have cost about £400 more – a huge sum in 1880. As a comparison, it would be the equivalent of eight years’ wages for the average working man.

For sure, there were those on the board of guardians who didn’t think people in the workhouse should be supplied with better food than many people outside could afford.

At the meeting, it was resolved to give butterine a month’s trial.

George Fawell would have read the report with great interest, for in 1878, he represented Bolton and District Grocers’ Association as part of a ‘large and influential’ deputation for the Board of Trade on the butterine question.

This margerine-type product was a big issue across Europe and US at the time, with grocers wanting to be able to sell it under the butterine name, and dairy producers saying consumers would be tricked or confused into thinking they were buying real butter.

For more on Bolton Workhouse (and many others), try

You can even try some workhouse recipes, courtesy of this book:

  • First published Dec 2017