How 'undeserving' single mums got no Christmas lunch at workhouse

Gressenhall Workhouse's dining room in 1926

Gressenhall Workhouse's dining room in 1926 - Credit: Norfolk Museum Services

Christmas in the workhouse was a treat: with no work and a Christmas dinner the festive season provided relief from the monotonous daily routine for many inmates. 

Traditionally they received a meal of meat, plum pudding and a pint of beer. Along with this festive meal, on Christmas Day, inmates were not required to work, except for necessary household duties.

A traditional Victorian Christmas at Gressenhall Farm and Workhouse. Picture: Norfolk Museums Servic

A traditional Victorian Christmas at Gressenhall Farm and Workhouse. Picture: Norfolk Museums Service - Credit: Archant

In the early years, the Poor Law Commissioners in London did not allow money from the poor rates (a local tax) to be used to pay for a festive dinner.

Christmas Day in the Workhouse event, 1999

Christmas Day in the Workhouse event, 1999 - Credit: Norfolk Museum Services

The Guardians at Gressenhall, like several other workhouses, continued to give such a meal to inmates paying for it out of their own pockets.

Some were not allowed to join in the celebrations. The dinner was not given to the men in the able-bodied ward and the single women with children. These paupers were thought to be “undeserving”. 


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This all changed in 1847 with the formation of the national Poor Law Board, where the Guardians were given permission to fund Christmas dinner from the poor rates. 

The Upper Octave performing at a Victorian Family Christmas day at Gressenhall Farm and Workhouse. P

The Upper Octave performing at a Victorian Family Christmas day at Gressenhall Farm and Workhouse. Picture: DENISE BRADLEY - Credit: Copyright: Archant 2016

By the middle of the century, a Christmas dinner had become a regular affair and was gratefully received. The newspaper Norwich Mercury reported on the 1851 festivities within Gressenhall workhouse. 

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The report said: "The inmates of the Mitford and Launditch workhouse, 390, were bountifully supplied with roast beef, plum pudding, potatoes, ale and tobacco, on Christmas Day.

A traditional Victorian Christmas at Gressenhall Farm and Workhouse. Picture: Norfolk Museums Servic

A traditional Victorian Christmas at Gressenhall Farm and Workhouse. Picture: Norfolk Museums Service - Credit: Archant

"The women in addition had tea, sugar, butter and snuff; and the juvenile branches had nuts and oranges given them.

"The day was altogether to them one of great joy and cheerfulness. They desire to express their grateful thanks to the Guardians for this liberal feast."

However, this all changed again in 1856, when a motion was put before the Guardians by John Porter Smith, a Guardian from Dereham, that no extra Christmas dinner be given. The next year Christmas dinner returned for inmates.

A traditional Victorian Christmas at Gressenhall Farm and Workhouse. Picture: Norfolk Museums Servic

A traditional Victorian Christmas at Gressenhall Farm and Workhouse. Picture: Norfolk Museums Service - Credit: Archant

Even during both world wars, when rationing was in place, Christmas dinner was provided to the inmates. 

In 1876 musical entertainment was given to the inmates and by 1897 even the able-bodied men received a Christmas Dinner.

By the end of the 19th century, the inmates also began to receive presents and Christmas cards from local well-wishers. The annual festive affair continued until the workhouse’s closure in 1948.
 

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