Year 6 Language and Literature

Oliver Twist

An extract adapted from the original story by Charles Dickens

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The room in which the workhouse boys were fed was a large stone hall, with a large copper container at one end. Out of this container the master of the workhouse, dressed in an apron to protect his clothes and assisted by two women, ladled out the food at meal-times.

What do you think these workhouse children had to eat? Some meat, perhaps, or else some nourishing vegetables? No, their meal consisted of only one thing: gruel. ‘What is gruel?’ you might ask. Nothing very delicious, you may be sure. It is like porridge, but very thin and runny, so that, even when you have had a big bowl of it, you feel as if you have eaten almost nothing. And the workhouse boys certainly didn’t have a big bowl of gruel. They were given only one small bowl each and nothing else, except on Christmas Day and a few other important days, when they had two-and-a-quarter ounces of bread as well. The bowls never needed to be washed, because each hungry boy would scrape the bowl with his spoon, trying to get every last morsel of gruel, until the bowls shone as if they had been polished.

When they had done this (which never took very long, as their spoons were nearly as large as the bowls), they would sit staring at the copper container with such eager eyes as if they could have eaten it as well. They would sit sucking their fingers hard, just in case some tiny specks of gruel had splashed into them.

Small boys often have large appetites, and Oliver Twist and his companions suffered the tortures of slow starvation for three months until finally they became so wild with hunger that one boy, who was tall for his age and hadn’t been used to that sort of thing (for his father had kept a pie-shop), hinted darkly that, unless he had another bowl of gruel every day, he was afraid he might one night accidentally eat the boy who slept next him. He had a wild, hungry eye and the other boys believed him.

They got together to work out a desperate plan of action to get more food, and they decided that one of them would walk up to the master of the workhouse after supper that evening and ask for more. What a terrifying thing to do! Nothing like it had ever happened in the workhouse, where people were too weak and afraid ever to challenge the authority of those in charge. No one wanted to be the first, so the boys drew straws for it. Oliver Twist drew the short straw, so it was Oliver who had to ask for more.

Find out what happens to Oliver Twist and read the rest of the story in the Language and Literature chapter of What Your Year 6 Child Needs to Know.