‘Good roast beef with potatoes, cabbage and gravy’: asylum food 1861 -1900

Patients Arthur Nichols and John Weston both write about the asylum food. Their experiences can be compared to both the official reports from the Asylum Visitors and Commissioners and other documentation on the asylum farm and menus. Most of the time Nichols viewed the food quite favourably, which is interesting considering he was from a fairly middle-class background. In his letter above he provides a diary account of his day. A typical entry is where he mentions they had ‘corned beef, potatoes and red pickled cabbage’ for lunch and seed cake for tea in the evening. Another letter states they had ‘good roast beef with potatoes, cabbage and gravy’, which for those from a lowly background must have seemed fine fare indeed (Admission book BRO 40513/C/2/7, p. 33). Although complimentary about the food, he does blame it for his digestive ailments and thinks he may have been poisoned.

John Weston’s account gives the daily dining routine at the asylum: breakfast was at eight, lunch at one and tea at five thirty. He moans about the bluntness of the eating implements but that was almost certainly an understandable safety measure. Weston is generally more critical about the food than Nichols, though he admits the coffee was ‘pretty good’. He saves his harshest words for the meat pie which was ‘flavoured with a summer savory which made it exceedingly gross and unpalatable’. (Weston, J. 1866, Life in a Lunatic Asylum, London, Houlston and Wright: 22–5).

Our two writers’ observations are valuable but they were both from more privileged backgrounds than the majority of patients and we would expect them to be critical. This accords with my own experience as a psychiatric nurse at Barrow Hospital. The patients from poor backgrounds rarely complained about the food but those used to finer fare often pronounced it inedible.

The asylum’s own records provide ample evidence of the diet of the patients during their stay. The table below shows the diet of the patients in 1894, which by today’s standards seems to be well balanced with a very good proportion of vegetables.  Although we cannot guarantee the quality of the cooking, the ingredients were nearly all grown at the asylum farm, which included a piggery, and thus would have been very fresh. The Visiting Committee and the Commissioners regularly inspected and tasted the food. Their comments were invariably favourable, though as members of the Bristol elite they would generally have had a grander diet, and sometimes they indicated that they felt the patients were being too well fed. On June 7th 1862, it was noted that the diet was so good that ‘it was more than was allowed in many asylums and may partially explain the high charge… And everything should be done to economise expenditure at the asylum.’ (Bristol City Council meeting minutes, June 7th 1862, M/BCC/MEH/3/1.)

The nearest to criticism of the food was in the Commissioners’ report for 1870 which stated: ‘judging from the untouched portion of the stew which we tasted and did not object to, it is unpopular especially with the men’ (Wellcome Library: WLM28.BE5B86, 1869–1880).

The two reports indicate, perhaps, that the Visiting Committee and the Commissioners’ task was to look after the welfare of the patients but also to have an eye on keeping costs down. Current staff of the National Health Service would recognise this parsimony disguised as efficiency.


Meal Days Gender Diet


All days Males 1 pint coffee, 7 oz. bread, ½ oz. butter
Females 1 pint coffee, 5 oz. bread, ½ oz. butter













Sunday, Monday Wednesday & Friday


Males 5 oz. cooked meat free from bone, 16 oz. vegetables, 3 oz. bread
Females 4 oz. cooked meat free from bone, 12 oz. vegetables, 3 oz. bread
Males & females 1 lb fish occasionally (in lieu of meat)
Tuesday & Thursday Males Meat pie (containing 4 oz. uncooked meat free from bone), 16 oz. vegetables
Females Meat pie (containing 3 oz. uncooked meat free from bone), 12 oz. vegetables


Males 1½ pints pea soup (containing 3 oz. uncooked

meat), 8 oz. vegetables, 5 oz. bread and 1 oz. cheese

Females 1 pint pea soup (containing 3 oz. uncooked

meat), 6 oz. vegetables, 4 oz. bread and 1 oz. cheese

Tea All days Males 1 pint tea, 7 oz. bread and ½ oz. butter, or 7 oz. seed cake
Females 1 pint tea, 5 oz. bread and ½ oz. butter, or 5 oz. seed cake


Patients’ diet, 1894

(Medical Superintendent’s Report 1894, BRO 35510)


Many patients were undernourished when they were admitted, either due to poverty or their mental condition, and the asylum was quite successful in helping them to put on weight. The notes on patients generally reveal a profound concern with ensuring the patients had an adequate diet and they regularly resorted to tube feeding those who would not, or could not eat. John Weston notes, ‘next to striking an attendant the non-eaters seemed to be accounted the greatest sinners’.

Care and control often go hand in hand. The asylum felt, sometimes erroneously, that it knew best how to treat the patients. Even Rogerian counselling, which boasts of being non-judgemental, often bullies patients into making (supposedly) their own decisions. Thus, success is sometimes achieved at a price; the drip-feeding of patients and the harassment of those who would not eat are evidence of the control exerted by the asylum. This is a theme throughout the history of psychiatry; those who think they know best how to treat patients exert their control, often experimentally and sometimes, certainly in hindsight, with a lack of care. On the other hand, if someone is about to die from starvation but is refusing to eat, taking control does seem reasonable.