THE Charity Commission is investigating complaints about a Hampshire animal shelter. It comes after stormy scenes at St Francis Animal Welfare's annual meeting when police and bouncers helped keep more than 50 apparently paid-up members from attending.

A civil war at the heart of the charity, which has provided a vital lifeline for thousands of unloved and abandoned animals at its Fair Oak shelter for more than 50 years, is threatening to rip the organisation apart.

Complaints have flooded in to the Charity Commission about the running of St Francis, and the extraordinary scenes at its annual meeting.

Tempers flared as six police officers helped ensure only those whose names were on a list of members drawn up by the committee's solicitors were allowed into Fair Oak Village Hall.

Inside, the committee put itself up for re-election as is required by St Francis' constitution, and won by a landslide.

But outside, those who had wanted to challenge that election were left angry and upset.

Shelter staff, fundraisers, former committee members and many others carrying membership cards were all told they could not enter and have their say.

Charity bosses say they called in police fearing a public order incident could develop once people were informed they would not be allowed in.

"It had come to our attention that people were planning to attend the AGM that had no right to be there, with the sole aim of causing disruption," said a committee spokesman.

"We therefore felt it necessary to protect our genuine members, some of whom are elderly."

When the numbers of angry members' swelled, the two officers at the hall called in back up, meaning a total of six police and community support officers attended to ensure the situation did not get out of hand. No arrests were made.

The dramatic developments come after months of internal wrangling within the charity, which in 2006 had a total income of £165,000 - nearly all from public donations and legacies.

The committee insists it only refused entry to members it had no record of on its database because it feared the meeting was being hijacked.

St Francis' committee spokesman said details of new members could not be verified because the membership secretary had not properly passed them on to the committee.

They said about 300 names were on the committee's database, all of whom were eligible to vote at the annual meeting.

Days before the meeting the committee sent letters to members, who all pay £10-a-year subscription fees, urging they attend and use their vote to defeat "an unlawful attempt to overthrow the current elected chairman and the rest of the elected committee".

In February, two long-standing committee members were dismissed after backing the attempted co-option of two new people to the ruling body.

The new members are friends of the shelter's live-in manager of 28 years, Ann Hillman, and the committee says it feared their acceptance would lead to a conflict of interest.

The rival group, which included Mary Windebank - St Francis' membership secretary for more than 20 years whose father helped found the charity - hoped to use the annual meeting as an opportunity to resolve the issue.

They say they have grown increasingly worried at the way the committee is run and claim the meeting's vote should be declared null and void because of their exclusion.

Many have passed their concerns to the Charity Commission.

"Whether we've gone about things the wrong way is beside the point," said Miss Windebank, one of those removed from the committee last month.

"You need to get together to discuss things or nothing will ever be resolved. "If we had been let in and the vote had gone their way then fair enough, and we would have had to accept that."

One member of more than 20 years who was one of the 60 people allowed in described the meeting as "a kangaroo court".

"I'm just so angry," said Chris Edwards afterwards.

"I can't understand why only so many members were let in and so many were kept out. I think it was out of order."

A statement released by the committee after the AGM said it had successfully defeated a "hostile takeover by unconfirmed members of the charity".

It said action had been taken to stop "a small group of rebels with the sole aim of causing disruption" from entering "to protect our genuine members".

St Francis' spokesman insisted the meeting, which included the co-option of two new committee members, had been run in line with the charity's constitution.

They said the committee now wanted to return to its main focus - the welfare of animals.

When asked if the outcome of the AGM vote would be impacted by those excluded being proven to be legitimate members, they said: "We'll cross that bridge when we come to it."

The Charity Commission last night confirmed "several" complaints have been received about St Francis, "relating to the administration and governance of the charity, including in relation to the recent AGM".

"Generally, the Commission cannot intervene in disputes or staffing issues - such administrative matters would be for the trustees to resolve themselves in the first instance," said a spokeswoman.

"However, we are currently considering if there is any role for us in relation to the general concerns raised. This would usually involve providing the trustees of the charity with advice and guidance on good practice."