In the modern age, we’re all used to political scandals in politics.

Whether it’s Barnard Castle or Watergate, scandals can have a variety of impacts on those at the heart of them, from resignations to reputation damage.

While many take place at the seat of national government, however, many others have taken place across the country, including in north Hampshire.

In the 1840s, a scandal in Andover saw the whole of the system designed to support the poor upended following serious allegations about the town's workhouse. Here’s what happened more than 180 years ago:

The Poor Laws

The support of the less well-off dates back many centuries in England, with the first act affecting the poor made in 1388 with the Statute of Cambridge, which gave areas of the country a responsibility to look after those incapable of work, though his support wasn’t always given.

It was formalised further in the late 1500s, with the Tudors establishing the Poor Law system which saw ‘Overseers of the Poor’ appointed to collect taxes at a parish level and use that to provide support. Those who could not work were provided with food and money, and given accommodation in certain circumstances, while others were put to work. Those who refused to work could be imprisoned.

However, by the 1700s, the system began to become unsustainable as wars and famines drove more people into unemployment. This saw the introduction of workhouses, where those wanting to seek support could be sent to enter a workhouse and work on a variety of menial tasks.

In 1834, the system was costing £7 million a year (almost £1 billion today), and so reforms were brought in to manage the system at a national level, with Poor Law Commissioners established to implement a variety of changes. In particular, workhouses were intended to become the only way of receiving support, and would intentionally have harsh conditions to discourage people entering them.

Andover’s Workhouse

Andover’s workhouse was decided on in 1835, with the first meeting of the Andover Union, consisting of Andover’s parishes and those of surrounding villages, wanting to build a facility for 400 people.

The workhouse was designed by Sampson Kempthorne, who built it in the shape of a cross. Different wings housed different individuals, with families separated by age and gender across the site.

The Andover Union already showed problems in its early years, with a clerk embezzling almost £1,400 (around £160,000 today) from its accounts when collecting the poor rates. Instead of investigating, the Poor Law Commissioners instead replaced the auditor who had helped discover the shortfall.

A few years later, the scandal that would make the workhouse’s name was shortly to be uncovered.

The Scandal

Among the duties of the workhouse’s inhabitants were expected to perform in Andover was the production of bone meal, used as a fertiliser. It was made by crushing leftover animal bones by the workhouse residents.

They were set to this task by Colin McDougal, a Waterloo veteran who ran the workhouse for his own gain by diverting food supplies intended to be given to residents to his own household, and so reducing the rations below the limit set by the Poor Law Commissioners, while denying the sick the extra rations they were entitled to.

As a result, rumours began to spread that the inmates were so hungry they would gnaw gristle from the bones. This was investigated by Hugh Munday, a magistrate and member of the board overseeing Andover Union, who confirmed this, and found that inhabitants fought each other for the job of crushing bone meal so as to get fed.

Testifying later under oath, Hugh Munday said: “When a beef bone, or chine bone, was turned out of the heap, there was a scramble for it, described like a parcel of dogs, and the man who got it was obliged to run away and hide it until he had an opportunity of eating the marrow.

“One man fetched two bones, which he had eaten that very morning in wet ashes; a portion of muscle very offensive was adhering to the ends of the bone. The men said that it was a considerable time before they could make up their minds to do so, but after they had once taken to it they preferred that description of labour to any other, because they could get bones to pick.”

Those opposed to the poor law reforms, including Andover’s MP, Ralph Etwall, raised the matter in parliament, and an assistant-commissioner was sent to investigate. However, this commissioner was involved in the administration of the Andover Union, and his inquiry considerably narrowed the scope of the investigation.

Following a brief inquiry in private, allegations of sexual assault against McDougal were laid, leading to a larger, public inquiry. However, before the defence case could begin, the Poor Law Commission abruptly suspended the inquiry.

The Fallout

The decision to suspend the inquiry laid bare the wide-ranging powers that the Poor Law Commission had over the poor in England, with very little in the way of Parliamentary oversight.

The case was brought to light in newspapers such as The Times, with public demands for reform. In Andover, the master was eventually forced out, but his replacement was also revealed to be under investigation by the commissioners. The assistant-commissioner who held the inquiry was also forced out, but released details of his dealing with the Poor Law Commission and the Home Secretary, Sir James Graham.

He said that Sir Edmund Head, a senior politician, had “expressed a desire that I should exert myself to bring the inquiry to a conclusion with as little delay as possible, in order that the public mind might be quieted.”

Challenged in parliament on this matter, the home secretary described the incident as “a workhouse squabble”, but was defeated in parliament when he attempted to block an amendment allowing the investigation of the Poor Law Commissioners.

As a result, a select committee was established with a wide-ranging remit to investigate the Andover Workhouse and the Poor Law Commissioners generally. The committee found mismanagement throughout the system, from Andover to nationally.

As a result, the Poor Law Commission was abolished and replaced with the Poor Law Board, which had parliamentary oversight. While the workhouse system continued, opinion had swayed, setting in motion gradual change in the approach to the care for those who could not support themselves.

Poor laws gradually transitioned to focus on health and social issues, with better healthcare, education and standards brought in. In 1930, the Poor Law system was abolished altogether.

What remains today?

Today, Andover’s workhouse has been converted into a residential development known as the Cloisters, while there are a number of memorials around the town. The most prominent of these is the entry on the Time Ring, located in Andover’s high street.