What did food taste like in an 1860s Yorkshire Workhouse?
50 volunteers participated in a new artwork at Ripon’s Workhouse Museum had chance to find out. Contemporary artist Pippa Hale, in a day long performance project has filmed participants preparing, cooking and eating a typical Victorian Workhouse meal for her new artwork, Consumption, which links past and present experiences within a specific location. This was displayed in the original Workhouse Dining Hall, which is part of the Workhouse Museum's new main block.
Pippa Hale comments:
“A real highlight for me of creating Consumption has been to gain a sense of what life was like here for people in the past. One of the main challenges of creating this piece was working with such a large group of people, fifty four in total, whilst trying to keep it natural – the volunteers are integral to the artwork. I remember visiting the museum for the first time and being overwhelmed by the hardship faced by the poor who were interred here: the mindless work and long hours, the paltry food portions, the splitting up of families. I hope I’ve achieved what I set out to do, the inmates would have eaten in this dining hall every day, by creating this experience within the same space and also by screening Consumption in here, the past really will meet the present.”
Pippa’s research into the museum’s archives helped to ensure that this was an accurate representation of a Victorian pauper’s meal in 1861, with ingredients, recipes and preparation techniques as well as etiquette and seating plans all drawn from historic sources.
A small group of volunteers prepared the Workhouse lunch using a traditional menu, recipes and cooking techniques under the direction of professional cook, Gaynor Eden. This was served and consumed in the original Dining Hall, where participants were segregated by sex as would have occurred in the 19th century.
Cook Gaynor Eden created the meat pie from a Victorian recipe, with beef ‘stickings’ supplied by the same family of Ripon butchers who originally supplied the Workhouse and topped with pastry made with ‘dripping’. She comments: “I researched the meat pie previously and was surprised that it didn’t taste that bad, despite the fact that it had no additional flavouring and the meat wasn’t browned. It must have been hard for people to work manually day in day out on this diet”. The meat pie, with no additional vegetables, would have been washed down with tea, made in a big pot with milk and sugar already added regardless of personal taste.”
Moira one of the volunteer cooks, added:“I’ve done a lot of peeling spuds today! I was actually surprised at how much of the pie people ate – as I thought that there would be a lot of waste.”
Many of the volunteers, the majority of whom were aged 50+, commented that the meal was reminiscent of school dinners! On a deeper note it was an opportunity for them to reflect on what life was like for inmates many, many years ago. Glenys observed: “To eat in this dining hall was a very emotive experience for me, the ladies filed in after the men from a separate entrance, which would probably have meant that their food was cold. Life for people living here must have been really austere – I am surprised that people in the Workhouse lived for so long.”
About the artist
“I remember the visiting the museum for the first time and being overwhelmed by the hardship faced by the poor who were interred here: the mindless work and long hours, the paltry food portions, the splitting up of families. I’m sure many of us are familiar with workhouse horror stories, so I was surprised to find a census from 1861 listing all inmates at Ripon Workhouse and to discover so many older people living here. Usually we think conditions were so harsh that only the fittest and strongest survived, but Ripon seemed to buck the trend. Here, nearly half of inmates were over 60 years old and 90% of those were living well into their 70s and 80s. So the question arose, was there something about regular meals and company that led to longer life? ” Pippa Hale
Pippa Hale is a contemporary artist based in Leeds. She is interested in social history and geography and her work includes large-scale installations both in heritage venues and the public realm. Born in 1971, Coventry, Pippa studied at the University of Leeds. Previous projects include ‘Beyond The Dustheaps’ at the Dickens Museum (London); ‘Pool’ a temporary installation at Leeds International Pool commissioned by Leeds City Council; ‘North and South’ for Southampton Art Gallery and ‘Yarn’ commissioned by The Culture Company for Leeds City Council and Holbeck Urban Village.