While the upper and new booming middle classes were eating well and enjoying factory-produced goods by the wagonload, prisoners in the Victorian era had it worse than even the poorest British citizens — and that was by design. The government made sure its prisoners were only fed what was necessary for them to complete their forced-labor tasks, and the longer the sentence, the harder the labor. As you can probably imagine, Victorian prisoners were not fed particularly well, and learning about their daily food intake will absolutely make you feel thankful that we have evolved out of the Victorian age.
Up until 1815, prisoners were expected to pay for their room and board, meaning that the more well-off had a better prison experience.
But after 1815, the government stepped in and rationed out meals to inmates, making sure they weren’t eating better than the lower class who worked for near nothing in the factories that had sprung up during the era.
The shorter the sentence, the worse a prisoner was fed.
This was because they were only doing minimal labor during their prison stay and therefore didn’t need much to keep up their strength. Those who were in it for the long haul were fed better, but were expected to work harder.
No matter how you slice it, Victorian prisons were harsh environments that had no redeeming qualities.
According to Victorian Crime & Punishment, bread was the main source of sustenance for Victorian prisoners.
For those who were sentenced to less than two weeks of prison time, jailers allotted a mere 10 to 11 ounces of bread during each meal time. Those who held longer sentences received about eight ounces of bread in addition to an array of other dismal, bland foods.
If one was in prison for a longer period of time, and was therefore performing tougher labor, one would be served a pint of gruel in addition to their eight ounces of bread.
Gruel is basically a thin porridge, made with oat, wheat, or rye flour and boiled in water or milk. Prisoners most likely ate gruel that was entirely unseasoned. It was not meant to be enjoyed, after all — gruel was served to simply keep the prisoners alive.
Prisoners who were sentenced to more than 21 days of hard labor were often given about two to three ounces of cheese at dinnertime. The cheese served was most likely of a hard variety and, like the gruel, it was probably fairly flavorless. Still, though, the protein helped sustain the prisoners.
If gruel was not on the menu, Victorian prisoners could expect to be served “stirabout,” a gruesome gruel alternative.
According to The Conversation, stirabout was made with cornmeal, salt, and oatmeal. Even with the salt, though, the dish could hardly be described as flavorful. Yes, stirabout did provide the prisoners with enough energy to endure their hard labor sentences. But it also made them hope they’d never come back once released.
Meat in prisons was a rare thing, so suet was served as an alternative.
Suet is the rendered fat from around the kidneys of an animal. Prisoners weren’t the only ones who ate the meat substitute, however. In fact, home cooks and chefs used the ingredient in many Victorian recipes for puddings and pastries. When served in prisons, though, the suet’s meaty flavor was quite bland. And it was often dry and crumbly when served on its own.
Some prisoners who served hard labor also ate potatoes at every dinner.
The prison system determined that the laborers needed more sustenance to provide proper labor, so a pound of spuds accompanied their dinners every night in addition to the customary eight ounces of bread. Sometimes, if potatoes were not available, jailers substituted the starch with the miserly two ounces of cheese. (We imagine the prisoners had their fingers crossed for potatoes.)
As mentioned, meat was not standard fare in Victorian prisons.
Prisoners who had to serve for extended periods, however, might be lucky to receive three ounces of protein at dinnertime. And because they rarely did hard labor, incarcerated women and children did not get any meat at all. Male prisoners at the Victoria Prison in Hong Kong were treated to meat once a year.
8. Beef-Suet Pudding
Rather than raw suet, some Victorian-era prisoners were served beef-suet pudding, which was a reasonable alternative to meat.
One of the inmates’ most filling food options, this savory dish was not entirely commonplace. Furthermore, it’s unclear if the pudding was served on its own or in a pastry shell (like a meat pie). However it was served, though, we think the prisoners appreciated the variety. Additionally, a single serving of pudding was enough to keep prisoners working until their respective sentences were over.
Victoria Prison, the first western building in Hong Kong, China, was quite unique.
In fact, it housed Chinese, Indian, and Western inmates, making it surprisingly diverse. During Victoria Prison’s early decades of Victoria’s operation (the 1840s to the 1900s), vegetables were only given to prisoners every 10 days. Jailers were hardly concerned with providing a balanced diet. It wasn’t until the prison’s later years that inmates finally received a more stable menu. Eventually, they were fed four times a day instead of only three.
According to The Conversation, prisoners who were sentenced to more than three months might get a surprising treat.
If they were quite lucky, cocoa would likely be added to their daily meal plans. Steeped in a base of heated milk, the cocoa drink was more similar to its modern counterpart than you might think. People from the Victorian era even realized the warm beverage had some healthful benefits. It provided the prisoners with energy, and it wasn’t as harsh on the stomach as coffee. Inmates in the U.S., however, were often served coffee.
Prisoners who fell ill while in Victorian prisons were served milk, and many of the foods mentioned above were made using milk.
But the milk Victorians drank was often tainted (on purpose) with boracic acid, added to milk in an attempt to keep it from souring. Although Victorians thought they were doing themselves a favor, boracic acid often caused nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea. In addition, milk in the Victorian era was unpasteurized, meaning many became infected with bovine TB, which damaged internal organs.
Only a select few people ever ate fish in prison.
In fact, The Conversation also reports that prison cooks really only served fish to sick prisoners. They got the seafood option in lieu of cocoa, puddings, and soups. Prisoners in Hong Kong were also served daily helpings of salted fish in addition to a side of rice. On hot days, the prison hallways must have reeked.
In 1876, Chinese inmates at Victoria Prison in Hong Kong may have been subjected to a form of punishment during which they would only be served a bowl of rice and a glass of water two times per day. Indian inmates undergoing limited sustenance punishment suffered the same fate, except they were given pita instead of rice.
14. Corn & Potato Mush
Similar to gruel, American prisoners were given a corn and potato “mush,” which is pretty much exactly what it sounds like.
Mush. They were reportedly given as much mush as they could muster, paired with a restricted amount of soup, coffee, and molasses, which we suppose could have been used to sweeten both the coffee and the mush. Ick.
This broth was much more popular in the Victorian era.
Even prisoners ate their fair share of the dish. Soup, most likely made with basic bone broth — in the U.S. it was usually beef broth — and perhaps a small variety of vegetables was served to those doing more than three months of hard labor. A pint of soup or so was usually served at dinnertime alongside the bread, potatoes or cheese, and meat. We can only imagine soup was a welcome alternative to gruel and stirabout.
This menu alone should have encouraged everyone in the Victorian era to be on their best behavior.
16. A Single Onion
This veggie hardly provided any sustenance. And to make matters worse, the onion was likely completely raw. According to Victorian Crime & Punishment, prisoners whose sentence was under three months would receive a single onion three days a week. Sounds like a lovely, pungent addition.