Dietaries and the less eligibility workhouse
Or, the making of the poor as biological subjects
in The politics of hunger
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Notoriously, the Poor Law Amendment Act of 1834 moved beyond monetary relief to establish precise dietaries for the poor ‘relieved’ in union workhouses. Out-relief was now something only to be given in absolute emergencies. By dictating what the poor ate, as opposed to what they might eat, workhouse dietaries established an absolute biological minimum for bodily survival decided by individual poor law unions within parameters set by the central state through the Poor Law Commission. While the implications of workhouse dietaries have been subject to careful study, this chapter takes a broader perspective. It examines the makings of the idea of the dietary, analysing debates and discussion concerning both the physiological and practical science of pauper diet, as well as examining antecedents, before going on to explore the implementation of workhouse dietaries in the new centrally controlled but still locally operated system What emerges is a highly uneven system, patterned by varying ideological, practical, economic and political imperatives. The chapter also analyses the critiques of the system, exploring the centrality of critiques both to the politicking of radical politicians and to the rise of a particular type of humanitarianism, a concern with the bodily welfare of the poor.

The politics of hunger

Protest, poverty and policy in England, c. 1750–c. 1850

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