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Asian Tribune is published by World Institute For Asian Studies|Powered by WIAS Vol. 12 No. 2709

New 'Twist' to Oliver Twist story and Trinity's Perimpanayagam

By Daya Gamage

"Please, sir, I want some more."

The master was a fat, healthy man; but he turned very pale. He gazed in stupefied astonishment on the small rebel for some seconds, and then clung for support to the copper. The assistants were paralyzed with wonder; the boys with fear.

"What!" said the master at length, in a faint voice.

"Please, sir," replied Oliver, "I want some more."

The master aimed a blow at Oliver’s head with a ladle; pinioned him in his arm; and shrieked aloud for the beadle.

Those who have read Charles Dickens’ "Oliver Twist", the above were the most reiterated section Mr. Perimpanayagam recited in our English class.

Mr. G.T.R. Perimpanayagam in his Grade Seven (or Form Two in those days) English class at Trinity College, Kandy Sri Lanka took immense pride in teaching English in this elite school whose motto was 'respice finem' or 'look to the end'. When he related that in Victorian workhouse in the 18-century Oliver Twist was fed less to ask for more. The manner in which Mr. Perimpanayagam taught us English we asked for more. He often said that despite Ceylon, as she was known before 1972, was under the British rule for 150 years only 10% of her population had the privilege of obtaining a well rounded English education. GTR wanted us to join that 10%. So he made us ask for more.

As Mr. Perimpanayagam we all believed that in Victorian workhouse where nine year old Oliver Twist gave his child labor all the inmates were underfed.

Mr. Perimpanayagam came to my mind immediately when a 'new twist' was given to the Oliver Twist story. We Trinitians who were in G.T.R. Perimpanayagam’s English class in the Middle School connect him to all rich English literary works that made our lives much better in later years. And, when I read the new recent research on the ‘diet’ given to Oliver Twist obviously Mr. Perimpanayagam came to my mind. His reading of the best English literary works gave us a severe thirst for the Queen’s language (or the ‘Kaduwa’/sword we use to say at Peradeniya) so was our belief how cruel the Victorian Era had been.

And it was the foundation GTR laid that will inspire any Trinitian to read the findings of this research that gave a new ‘twist’ to the diet of Oliver Twist.

A group of British researchers – two dietitians, a pediatrician and a historian – asked "was the Victorian workhouse diet sufficient for a 9-year-old boy?" They found that going on Oliver Twist diet would guarantee radical weight loss and rapid descent into illness.

With available evidence Mr. Perimpanayagam dramatized the plight of the poor 9-year old boy to make us interested in the learning of the language.

Now the researchers have concluded that the diet given at that time in Victorian workhouses were rich as much as the language skills Mr. Perimpanayagam gave Trinitians.

The study was published online December 17, 2008 in The British Medical Journal.

The researchers say: The plaintive words of the unfortunate boy chosen to plead for his fellow inmates still resonate. They speak of chronic want, injustice, and neglect. But how true are the sentiments underpinning this powerful popular work? A dietetic analysis of Oliver Twist’s workhouse diet, as well as contemporaneous workhouse menus, allows us to answer the question—did Oliver really need more?

Writes the British Medical Journal: In the past few decades, historians have described workhouses as "pauper palaces." Yet others have highlighted the barbarous injustices perpetrated on inmates, most notably at Andover workhouse, where paupers were reduced to gnawing rotten bones. Terrifying rumors of floggings, starvation, and the separation of families circulated in contemporary society. Dickens was mainly responsible for the dim view of the Victorian workhouse.

In Oliver Twist, Charles Dickens wrote damningly about the workhouse and the plight of Victorian children. Oliver was born in a workhouse, almost immediately orphaned, and then abandoned. He survived his first nine years at a "baby farm," where eight in 10 children perished. He then entered a workhouse where comforts at best approached the lowest levels that could support existence. Oliver remained there for three months until he was ejected for "ingratitude" after his request for more food.

Dickens describes Oliver’s diet as "three meals of thin gruel a day, with an onion twice a week and half a roll on Sunday." On feast days, the inmates received an extra two and a quarter ounces (60 g) of bread. The dilemma was of "being starved by a gradual process in the house or by a quick one out of it.” But how true is this of the average workhouse?

Surviving menus and other material concerning early 19th century workhouse diets provide some answers. Jonathan Pereira’s Treatise on Food and Diet with Observations on the Dietetical Regimen (1843) describes the "workhouse dietaries" which were adopted for use in poorhouses throughout England in 1836.

From these six dietaries the local board of guardians of the poor selected the diet "most suitable to the circumstances" of each establishment. Pereira emphasizes that they "have been proved to be sufficient in quantity and perfectly unexceptionable as to the nature of the provisions specified in each.”

In addition, great care was taken when preparing the workhouse meals. "Great dispatch is necessary in the serving. Two persons, one to cut the other to weigh, will on the average, have to serve 14 rations in two minutes. So much to be done, and, from necessity, in so short a period of time, requires some skill, and not a little practice on the part of the Carver and Weigher, to keep within a moderate loss.” This quotation alone challenges suggestions that the food would have been rendered inedible by unskilled cooks working with unsuitable equipment.

Dietetic analysis

Although historians have suggested that modern dietitians might approve of workhouse diets, especially the coarse workhouse bread, no nutritional analysis of these diets has been conducted. The British researchers therefore assessed Oliver’s diet and the diets described by Pereira using the Dietplan6 computer program.

They calculated Oliver’s intake as 3 pints (1.76 l) of gruel a day. For our analysis we used a recipe for water gruel taken from a 17th century English cookery text. Unlike the gruel described by Dickens, the gruel described in Pereira’s workhouse diets is substantial, not thin (each pint contained 1.25 oz of the best Berwick oatmeal). Dietetic analysis shows that the diet described by Dickens would not have sustained health and growth but would have resulted in multiple nutritional deficiency diseases, such as anemia, scurvy, rickets and beriberi.

Pereira's diets would have sustained growth in a 9 year old child unless he or she was exceptionally active. The British researchers used the reference nutrient intake (the amount that meets the needs of 97.5% of the population) to compare nutritional requirement with provision, although this method overestimates the requirement for most people. However, these charts are based on a 9 year old boy living today, not one who has been chronically undernourished for years and is shorter and lighter than a 21st century Western child of his age. Although in theory the emaciated Oliver would need more energy to provide catch-up growth, he would need less energy than a child today because basal metabolic rate is linked to body weight. However, the confounding factor is physical activity; present day children are less active than their predecessors, and emaciated children do not have enough energy to be very physically active.

Did Oliver really need more?

Oliver Twist was written in monthly installments only three years after the Poor Law Amendment Act 1834. For many reasons, Dickens was strongly against this act, which led to the establishment of many workhouses for the destitute poor. The Poor Law commissioners, who regulated the workhouses, provided evidence that the poor received a better diet in the workhouse than they would have done outside it. Although many scare stories were published about alleged abuses in workhouses in the late 1830s, most did not stand up to scrutiny when supporting evidence was demanded. However, the substantiated abuses were bad enough. In one example in 1840, James Miles, the master of Hoo workhouse in Kent, was alleged to have flogged inmates, including women and children.

The contemporary workhouse diets published by Pereira prove that the diet Dickens described for Oliver Twist was not typical of that given to children in workhouses at the time. The diet described by Dickens would not have supported health and growth in a 9 year old child, but the published workhouse diets would have generally met that need. Given the limited number of food staples used, the workhouse diet was certainly dreary, but it was adequate. Of course, we make this conclusion on the assumption that the inmates received the quantity and quality of food prescribed, but Pereira’s book suggests that this was generally the case.

After looking at the facts, the Poor Law commissioners can be considered to have shown "a benevolent concern for the welfare of the paupers." That said, histories of the Poor Law show that historians should avoid generalizations. By 1803, England had 3765 workhouses, and practice must have varied in different localities. Conditions will have varied according to the size of the Poor Law union, the wealth of the ratepayers, the activities of pressure groups, and other variables. Workhouse discipline relaxed in the last two decades of the 19th century, and conditions contrasted greatly with those described by Dickens and others at the beginning of the Victorian period. Masters could be dismissed, and frequently were—27 (3%) of 882 masters who left their posts between 1860 and 1920 were dismissed, and another 86 (9.7%) were forced to resign, usually after complaints that were serious enough to be investigated.

Dickens would have been aware of all this. Oliver Twist was a deeply personal novel—Dickens’ early life had been hard. He received little formal education and after his father’s imprisonment for debt started work in a blacking warehouse at the age of 12. A recent biography states, "it is possible to see why the New Poor Law provoked in Dickens angry memories of his own deprivation, of his own separation from his family, and his own obsessive comparison of the need for food with the need for love."

Dickens' novel is a timeless chronicle of the abuse of childhood. Its strength and vigor still reminds us today of those who are disadvantaged and outside of society. However, our dietetic analysis and material from other books written at the time warn us not to be carried away by the force of the writing, but instead always to look at the evidence underpinning it. Dickens reminds us that fictional "truth" does not always coincide with the true facts.

- Asian Tribune -

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