The feature of the 1834 legislation that caught the attention of contemporary opinion was not the system of central administration but the threat of seeking relief, with special emphasis being paid to the workhouse test. Official records are stronger on administration that relief, but they do give more attention to the inmates of the workhouse than to those on outdoor relief. In many respects this is unfortunate since the majority of paupers were normally those in receipt of outdoor relief. The statistics of the period suggest that over 80 per cent of paupers were on outdoor relief. In 1837 11 per cent of all paupers had been workhouse inmates; by 1844 the figure was no more than 15 per cent.
The workhouse test was designed to deter the able-bodied poor, but the majority of workhouse inmates were normally the impotent; the physically and mentally disabled, the aged and a wide variety of sick. In dealing with the able-bodied the workhouse test was invariably offered to those regarded as of bad character: aged or diseased prostitutes, ex-criminals, mothers with more than one illegitimate child, known alcoholics and vagrants. Regarded as a refuge for undesirables, the workhouse gave its inmates a greater stigma than applied to those in receipt of outdoor relief.
The Victorian workhouse was faced with the impossible task of providing a refuge for the impotent while deterring the scrounger. In that the mass of the poor regarded the workhouse with considerable dread the deterrent feature had been successfully conveyed, despite the fact that the majority of the inmates were usually unsuitable for such treatment. Indeed for the Webbs, the workhouse became 'shocking to every principle of reason and every feeling of humanity'.
This dismal view corresponds to that of contemporary critics of the 1830s and 1840s such as The Times and the novelist Charles Dickens. The picture of the workhouse presented by its early opponents suggested a life of horror. For even the mildly awkward there were savage beatings and solitary confinement in the most unsuitable of cells. For the majority, existence was endured on a starvation diet, families were ruthlessly separated in the interests of classification, accommodation was overcrowded and unhealthy and daily life was a monotonous routine supervised by unsympathetic officials. Finally, for those unfortunate enough to die in the workhouse, the end was a pauper burial without dignity or respect.
For the modern historian the picture is no longer entirely a study in black. There was much variation between workhouses and those that paid most attention to the directives of the central authority probably provided better food and accommodation than was available to many of the poor who struggled to survive outside. In the case of children and the sick, foundations were being made for future progress, though developments were slow and partial up to the mid -1860s. Most historians accept the conclusions of David Roberts that the sensational stories of cruelties were either false or the result of survivals from the former regime. In a number of cases, such as the flogging of young girls at the Hoo Workhouse or the scandal at Andover, the local authority could be shown to have ignored the directives of the central authority. However, this did not entirely excuse the inadequacy of the supervision that allowed such things to take place.
The Andover scandal was not unique but it was highly publicised and used by those critical of or opposed to the new system. Bone crushing was used in some workhouses as a 'useful' occupation for paupers. Sir Robert Peel's Home Secretary, Sir James Graham, disapproved of it as a means of employing the poor but Commissioner George Nicholls was a great enthusiast and a second Commissioner, Sir George Cornewall Lewis vacillating in his attitude. Andover was regarded, from the Commissioners' point of view, as a model union. All outdoor relief was stopped as soon as the workhouse was opened and it was one of the few unions not to relax this rule during the 'great freeze' of January 1838. The Board's ruthlessness shocked even the Rev. Thomas Mozeley, a convinced opponent of the old system.
At Andover, the work was hard, the discipline strict and the diet scanty. No little indulgences were allowed to creep in. This was due to the choice of ex-sergeant Colin M'Dougal, a veteran of Waterloo, as workhouse master and his wife, Mary Ann, as matron. The local Guardians acknowledged that even this admirable couple had their faults but were only too ready to leave the management of the union's affairs to their domineering chairman. Attempts to end bone crushing at Andover in December 1844 were voted down by the chairman and his supporters. However, during the next few months ugly rumours began to circulate about what went on in the bone-yard in terms of inmates eating the marrow from the decomposing bones. The Guardians took no action, apart from suspending bone crushing during hot weather. Hugh Mundy, a local farmer frequently at odds with his colleagues whom he infuriated by paying his labourers ten shillings a week, two shillings more than his fellow landowners, went public. He turned to Thomas Wakley, who on Friday 1 August 1845, rose to ask the Home Secretary about paupers eating bone marrow at Andover. Sir James Graham replied that he could not believe this situation but promised to institute an enquiry. The following day Henry Parker, the Assistant Commissioner responsible for Andover, was dispatched to ascertain the facts.
His enquiry began on Monday 4 August 1845 and by the next day he was able to report back to London that the charges were true. On 14 August Parker was instructed to investigate any alleged 'neglect or misconduct on the part of the Master or officers of the workhouse'. M'Dougal offered his resignation on 29 September but when Parker, now summoned back to London, suggested consulting the Commission's solicitors about prosecution the lawyers advised against it. The Commission was left with a hostile press, a critical Parliament, a seriously alarmed public and no scapegoat.
Parker now found himself cast in this role. When he drafted a letter from the Board to the Andover Guardians he was accused of trying to throw the blame on the Commissioners. On 16 October Parker was called upon to resign and his only reward for years of devoted service was a suggestion that he should seek work with one of the expanding railway companies. If the Commissioners felt that they had saved themselves by dismissing Parker, they were mistaken. The former Assistant Commissioner published a long pamphlet in his own defence, which indicted his recent superiors, and his case was rapidly taken up by a group of anti-Poor Law MPs.
The public were unhappy about Parker's dismissal and the Commission compounded their error by peremptorily ordering another Assistant Commissioner, William Day, to resign after years of loyal service, nominally because he had been ill for several weeks after falling down some steps. This provided too valuable an opportunity for Edwin Chadwick, still bitter about his treatment by the Commission, who encouraged MPs to keep the issue alive. On 8 November 1845 the Poor Law Commissioners tacitly acknowledged the justice of the attacks made on bone crushing by issuing a General Order forbidding it. This came too late. Public opinion was now seriously alarmed and the government bowed to it. On 5 March 1846 a Select Committee of the House of Commons was established to investigate the Andover scandal, the conduct of the Poor Law Commissioners and the circumstances surrounding Parker's resignation. The fifteen members of the 'Andover committee' -- including three well-known opponents of the workhouse, John Fielden, Thomas Wakley and Benjamin Disraeli -- began work two weeks later. For the next three and a half months they heard evidence from witnesses and their words were reported at length in the press. The New Poor Law, the Whigs who had created it and the gentry who administered it were on trial.
The Report was published in August 1846. It filled two large volumes totalling several thousand pages and contained a scathing indictment of everyone involved. The government announced that it proposed to take no action but it had privately decided that the Commission must go, partly to placate public opinion but also because it had done its work. The poor rates had been cut; outdoor relief for the able-bodied had all but ceased and almost the whole country had been unionised. The time had come when 'the three kings of Somerset House', as the Poor Law Commissioners had been nicknamed by their critics, could safely be replaced by a body with fewer dictatorial powers and directly responsible to Parliament.
When the Act that had extended the life of the Poor Law Commission ran out in 1847 it was not renewed and the Poor Law Board Act was passed in its place. It set up a new body, the Poor Law Board, consisting in theory of four senior ministers [the Home Secretary, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, Lord President of the Council and the Lord Privy Seal]. In practice, like the Board of Trade, it was a mere fiction and never intended to meet. The real power lay with its President, who was eligible to sit in Parliament, and his two Secretaries, one of whom could become an MP. It was expected that the President would sit in the House of Lords and the Permanent Secretary in the Commons but in practice both ministers were usually MPs.