An Overview of food in 19th Century Gaols
Until 1815, prisoners had to pay for their keep, and many had their food brought in by relatives or friends. After 1815 prison food was paid for out of the local rates.
The authorities wanted to avoid giving prisoners a better life than the poor had outside prison and so kept the cost of the prisoners' food as low as possible.
Dietaries were published in the 1820s, showing what the prisoners should be given at each meal. Although this provided a standard diet, it did not ensure that it was good quality food. The regulation daily meals also meant that the diet was very monotonous.
From 1843 onward, the government expected a minimum standard of food to be given to prisoners in all establishments throughout the country.
Prisoners serving different sentences had different dietary regulations. Diet improved as sentences were longer and the type of work was harder. However, convicts were still expected to be given less food than the poorest people outside prison, that is the people in the workhouse.
Prisoners could look forward to the same meals every day never varying in accordance to dietary rules laid down by the authorities. The basic diet consisted of bread, cheese, gruel and suet.
The Town and County Gaols were funded locally and in spite of the dietary regulations the magistrates were always aware of the cost of maintaining the Gaol and feeding the prisoners and looked for ways to save money.
This is reflected in the examples given from Bedford County Gaol of the diet offered to prisoners in 1841; and their appeal to reduce the quality of the dietfrom that recommended by the Home Office in 1850.
The magistrates claimed that prisoners preferred the prison diet to that of the Union Workhouse and this was no incentive to resist a life of crime.
It is interesting to compare the diets offered in 1841 and 1850.