A Workhouse Scandal – Pauper Abuse in Edmund Bartlemas’ Time

Historical Notes from Chapter One of The Horseman’s Desire

Emma Turpin, heroine of The Horseman’s Desire, was raised at the Norwood Industrial School (or The Norwood School of Industry) before taking up her post as Lady’s Maid to Miss Augusta Armstrong’s at the age of 13. Industrial Schools sprang up all around England in response to the burgeoning workhouses that accommodated countless poor families in what became known as The Hungry Forties (1840s). While some workhouses accommodated children with their mothers until the age of seven or eight, other institutions were unable or unwilling to do so, and the children were farmed out to Industrial Schools, often never to see their families again.


While the Norwood Industrial School seems to have been one of the better run institutions, regardless of what must have been a dehumanising experience, not all workhouses were the same. In researching this subject, I came across something so shocking that I found it difficult to believe at first. Further research confirmed that the incident had indeed happened and was reported in newspapers of the time, and if you’re currently eating your breakfast, I would suggest that you wait a while before continuing.


A newspaper illustration from The Penny Satiri...

A newspaper illustration from The Penny Satirist (6 September 1845), depicting the inmates of Andover workhouse fighting over bones to eat. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Prologue to the Scandal – In Brief

Before 1834, parishes provided relief to the poor through the Old Poor Law which had been in effect since Tudor times. The population of England grew by 60% to almost 15 million in the first 30 years of the 19th century, and did so at the same time that mechanised threshing machines began to reduce the need for labourers on the land. The combination of this and the reduced demand to produce food for an Army and Navy no longer at war with France, meant that those on the land suffered greatly during this time.

As the Old Poor Law was inadequate to cater to the dangerously increasing demands upon England’s parishes, workhouses were ill equipped to feed, clothe and house its inmates. Between July and November, 1830, the Swing Riots (protests over mechanised threshing) broke out in Kent and soon spread across the country. Mob rule prevailed, and the ensuing trials saw resultant hangings, transportation and incarceration. It was only when the Government stepped in and a New Poor Law came into effect in 1834, that workhouse inmates began to receive better food, shelter and living conditions and the hoi polloi settled a little. The New Poor Law was managed by grouping parishes into “unions” and sharing the cost of supporting the needy through those Parish Unions. Sadly for those in the Andover Workhouse, the New Poor Law was not heeded.

Bloody Fights, Seduction of Inmates and Stealing Rations


Inmates in a London Workhouse – Late 1800s

In 1845, the Master of the Andover Workhouse was one Colin McDougal, a Waterloo veteran with a penchant for cruelty and violence. His wife, Mary Ann, was described by those who knew her as “a violent lady”, and between the two of them the McDougals ran the institution like a harsh penal colony. McDougal constantly diminished the inmates’ rations by stealing the food to make money for himself, and the inmates were forced to eat with their fingers (possibly because the McDougals had sold the silverware). Conditions became so desperate that many male inmates deliberately committed crimes in order to be thrown into prison, where the food and working conditions were far better.

McDougal and his wife fought whenever he got drunk, and the fights were often bloody and peppered with his wife’s threats to kill herself. Mary Ann McDougal’s state of mind may have been the result of McDougal’s attempts to seduce some of the younger women inmates. McDougal’s son was employed as a schoolmaster at Andover, and he too was intent on seducing young female inmates. Babies died often in such desperate conditions, and McDougal had them listed as stillborn in order to avoid explaining why the children weren’t baptised. (Baptism cost the workhouse a shilling a time). He even once went as far as forcing one poor woman to carry her own baby in its coffin to the cemetery for burial.

The Whistleblower

Staff working at the Andover Workhouse were aware of the McDougals’ transgressions, but feared they would lose their jobs if they spoke up (especially if it meant ending up as an inmate at Andover!). Finally, Hugh Mundy, one of the Workhouse Guardians, witnessed male inmates fighting over bones that they were supposed to crush into fertiliser for local farms. When he saw men so desperate for food that they picked marrow and gristle from rotting bones in order to have something in their stomachs, he could hold his tongue no longer. He raised the issue at a board meeting, but the only response was to suspend bone crushing operations in hot weather. Undeterred, Mundy took his concerns to his local Member of Parliament, Thomas Wakely.

 Thankfully, Wakely raised the question in Parliament on August 1st, 1845. He related tales of paupers who “were in the habit of quarrelling with each other about the bones, of extracting the marrow, and of gnawing the meat.” Although the Home Secretary found Wakely’s words difficult to believe, he had the sense to instigate an immediate inquiry, and sent Henry Parker, the Assistant Poor Law Commissioner down to Andover the following day.

Parker discovered that the allegations were true, and that the inmates had indeed been starved by their cruel masters. Six months after Wakely raised his concerns in Parliament and Parker visited Andover, the Poor Law Commission grudgingly acknowledged that the Andover inmates were required to crush bones. Nothing was mentioned about the inhumane conditions. Only when twelve months had elapsed, did a Parliamentary Committee come into being as a tool to investigate the administration of the Andover Workhouse. Those in charge at Andover finally conceded that the inmates had been given insufficient rations due to “an administrative error.”  Witnesses however had a very different story to tell.

Starving Inmates Eat Rotten Bones Destined to be Fertiliser

On a starvation diet, inmates were required to use 28 pound “rammers” to smash bones in a large bone-tub. The bones were rotten and malodourous, and boys as young as eight worked in pairs to wield the rammer. Flying shards of bone often stabbed the inmates’ faces, and blistered hands were a constant and painful problem, especially when in contact with rotten bones. Those in charge at Andover thought it an excellent pursuit for paupers, mainly because they bought bones at 17 shillings a ton and sold the bone dust at 24 shillings a ton.


Rules of the Later Poor Law Board

At the enquiry, 61-year-old Samuel Green described what happened when fresh bones arrived at the Andover Workhouse.

“…we used to tell the fresh bones by the look of them and then we used to be like a parcel of dogs after them; some were not so particular about the bones being fresh as others. I like the fresh bones – I never touched one that was a little high; the marrow was as good as the meat. It was all covered over by bone; that was when they were fresh and good. Sometimes I have had one that was stale and stunk and I eat it even then. I eat it when it was stale and stinking because I was hungered, I suppose. You see we only had bread and gruel for breakfast, and as there was no bread allowed on meat days for dinner, we saved our bread from breakfast, and then, having had only gruel for breakfast, we were hungry before dinner-time. To satisfy our hunger a little, because a pint and a half of gruel is not much for a man’s breakfast, we eat the stale and stinking meat. If we could get a fresh bone we did not take the stale and stinking meat. The allowance of potatoes at dinner on meat days is half a pound, but we used to get nearly a pound, seven or eight middling sized potatoes. The food we got in the workhouse was very good; I could not wish better, all I wanted was a little more… I have seen a man named Reeves eat horse-flesh off the bones.”

 Charles Lewis, a labourer inmate, also answered a number of direct questions from Wakely himself about the conditions at Andover.

Wakely           During the time you were so employed, did you ever see any of the men gnaw anything or eat anything from those bones?

Lewis               I have seen them eat marrow out of the bones

Wakely            Have you often seen them eat the marrow?

Lewis               I have

Wakely            Did they state why they did it?

Lewis               I really believe they were very hungry

Wakely            Did you yourself feel extremely hungry at that time?

Lewis               I did, but my stomach would not take it.

Wakely            You could not swallow the marrow?

Lewis               No

Wakely            Did you see any of the men gnaw the meat from the bones? 

Lewis               Yes

Wakely            Did they use to steal the bones and hid them away?

Lewis               Yes

Wakely            Have you seen them have a scramble and quarrel amongst the bones?

Lewis               I do not know that I have seen them scramble, but I have seen them hide them.

Wakely            And when a fresh set of bones came in, did they keep a sharp look-out for the best?

Lewis               Yes

Wakely            Was that a regular thing? 

Lewis               While I was there.

The Outcome

One year and five months after Wakely first raised the issue in Parliament, the Select Committee published an enormous, two-volume report into the scandal. As a result of the report, the McDougals were found to be unfit to hold their posts as Master and Matron of the Workhouse. The following year, the Poor Law Commission (who had mismanaged the enquiry) was abolished. In its place, the Poor Law Board was set up and made totally accountable to Parliament.

As to the Andover Guardians – they seem to have learned little from the scandal. In McDougal’s place they appointed a new master, who was a former prison officer from Parkhurst Gaol. The new master was dismissed within three years for taking liberties with female inmates.

Andover was not the only workhouse to treat its inmates in such an inhumane manner, and many other scandals were to rear their heads in years to come. The Hungry Forties certainly took their toll on those unable to defend themselves when at the mercy of a poorly run Parish Union, and unable to do anything but accept insufficient care rather than starve.

The Andover Workhouse Today

The Andover Workhouse Today


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