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The Andover Workhouse Scandal

The Local History Group talk in March was the intriguingly titled 'The Andover Workhouse Scandal' given by Andrew Harris. He described in great detail the workhouse in the 19th century. At that time there were deemed to be 3 types of poverty: the deserving poor who needed help because of age or illness, the undeserving poor who were able-bodied but unable to support their family and finally vagrants or travellers.

The poor tended to be looked after in the parish and the help provided was supported by the collection of taxes. Recipients of help could either go into the workhouse or could stay in their homes and receive 'out relief' although this proved expensive. The Royal Commission on the Poor Law was set up in 1832 and recommended a complete overhaul of the poor relief system, ruling that relief would be provided only in the workhouse. Conditions in the workhouse were meant to be so unpleasant that people would only apply for entry if they were desperate. Few rural areas had the resources to build workhouses and so grouped together to provide poor houses, the so-called Poor Law unions run by guardians. These were overseen centrally by the Poor Law Commission. It was decided that the allowance given to provide help led to a loss of self respect and really what was needed was self-help and better education to remove poverty.

A new system of running workhouses was introduced which had 7 classes of inmates: aged/infirm men, able-bodied men over 13 years of age, boys aged 7-13, the same 3 groups for women plus children under 7. These groups were all housed separately so that families were split up. The staff typically included a master and matron, schoolmaster, chaplain, porter, nurses (often inmates), medical officer and a clerk for the governors. Often there were few able-bodied men but those that were had to work and it was some of this work that led to the scandal mentioned in the title.

In 1845 at the Andover union, inmates were employed crushing slaughter-house bones to make fertilizer. It came to the attention of the guardian, Hugh Mundy, that men were so hungry that they were eating meat from the bones. This made headline news in The Times and led to a public enquiry. A long list of charges was brought against the master, Sergeant-Major McDougal who withdrew from his position. However, the enquiry became a more complicated investigation of the Poor Law Commission and dragged on until 1846. At this point Etwall, the local MP, critical of the Poor Law Commission, proposed that it be replaced with a body accountable to Parliament and so the Poor Law Board was set up.

For more information on workhouses go to www.workhouses.org.uk

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