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Notes from the sticks: Not so much a hospital, more a small town


While Notes from the Sticks is taking a summer break, we are repeating some earlier articles from the series. This was first published on September 12, 2020.

MY travels this week [September 2020] took me past a terrace of houses unlike any I have ever seen, with beautiful tile work on the front. I stopped to take a picture to share with readers, and got chatting with a couple who live in one of the houses and a woman who lives nearby. They told me the row was built in 1901 for staff at Whittingham Mental Hospital. They expressed mild amazement that I had not heard of it, so I had to explain that I was a newcomer to Lancashire. Anyway what they told me about it inspired me to look it up when I got home, and I found a rather poignant tale of another world and another time.

Work started on building the hospital in 1869 when three other ‘lunatic asylums’ in Lancashire were full. The huge site was chosen because it had a good natural water supply and it was close to Preston. The red bricks were made from clay dug on the site, with patients among the workforce. It was officially opened on April 1, 1873, under the prosaic name of Fourth Lancashire County Lunatic Asylum, with a capacity of 1,100 inmates. Staff had to be on duty by 6am and retire to bed by 10pm. They were allowed to go out one day every three weeks and one Sunday every month. Any ‘attendant’ who lost a patient had to pay the expenses incurred in their return to the hospital.

Over the years further buildings and amenities were constructed until the hospital was almost a self-sufficient small town. It had its own railway station, telephone exchange, post office, reservoirs, gas works and brewery. Staff and patients played in an orchestra and a brass band, and surprisingly, there was a ballroom. (One of the women I spoke to recalled playing badminton in the ballroom, the ceiling of which was so high that no one could hit a shuttlecock hard enough to reach it.) There was extensive farmland and an abattoir. There were tennis courts, football and cricket fields and bowling greens. There was an Anglican church, a Roman Catholic chapel, a mortuary and a cemetery. At some stage the name was changed to Whittingham Asylum.

In 1901 the recorded working week of the staff was 98 hours. Annual leave was ten days for attendants, 12 days for second charges and 14 for charge attendants. The daily diet of patients and staff included one glass of ale from the hospital brewery.

By 1915 the number of inmates had risen to 2,820. During the First World War some of the accommodation was requisitioned for sick and injured servicemen. There are four graves in the hospital cemetery which are under the care of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission. After the war the name was changed again to Whittingham Mental Hospital.

A website about the hospital records that an ‘open door’ policy was practised and patients had access to the grounds and the nearby village of Goosnargh. It says: ‘The hospital grounds by this time had become a work of art and were maintained to a very high standard and were a pleasure to wander through.’

I find it quite possible to imagine the place as a refuge for those who would find life in the community confusing and difficult, a place of safety and peace. An asylum in the true sense of the word.

At the outbreak of the Second World War in 1939, the patient population was 3,533, which made Whittingham Mental Hospital the largest in the country. Again it served as a hospital for military casualties, the first being evacuees from Dunkirk. German prisoners of war were also treated and a number who died were buried in the cemetery.

After the war two Whittingham staff, Dr C S Parker and Mr Charles Breakall, produced the first electroencephalogram (EEG) machine to record brain wave patterns, using war surplus material which was being sold for £2 10s 0d (£2.50) per hundredweight.

Sadly some bad apples had got into the barrel and student nurses who raised the alarm about mistreatment and cruelty to patients in 1967 were threatened with legal action for libel and slander. However an inquiry was held the following year, after which the Head Male Nurse and the Matron took ‘early retirement’. A nurse was jailed for manslaughter. (During this period, from 1965 to 1968, rock musician Kevin Coyne worked at the hospital as a social therapist and psychiatric nurse. He later said he was traumatised by the experience, which haunted him for the rest of his life.)

According to the writer of the website, Ken Ashton, who was at that time a nurse, there were numerous improvements after the inquiry and the hospital was functioning well. It was not to last, though. By now times were changing, with new drug treatments available for mental illness. Large Victorian institutions were deemed to be outmoded, with ‘care in the community’ seen as the way forward, and Whittingham was quite suddenly closed in 1995.

Mr Ashton writes: ‘The long stay patients had either been returned to their point of origin or placed in supposedly suitable units dotted about Preston. People who had been put into Whittingham by society were now being moved out. It is interesting to note that on the scale of trauma, death of a nearest and dearest being the top, moving home is second! Whittingham was the home of these people who had been in there for years and they had no say in their movement and placement.’ It must have been a devastating experience for these vulnerable people.

At around this time, despite a spirited campaign for mental health services to be retained on the site (there is one small unit), planning permission was granted for 650 homes and some of the hospital buildings were demolished. The rest were left to rot. Little progress was made on the housing development and in 2014 planning permission was renewed and extended, and almost all of the remaining buildings were pulled down. You can see some pictures on the website of the demolition firm. The Grade II listed St John’s Church remains but is in a state of dereliction.

I tried to contact Mr Ashton both in 2020 and recently, hoping to ask what the latest state of play is, but without success.

Back to the houses that started this off: Here is a picture of the row.

And here are details of the tiles at first floor and roof level. As far as I can tell the buildings are not listed, but they have mainly been extremely well preserved.

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Margaret Ashworth
Margaret Ashworth
Margaret Ashworth is a retired national newspaper journalist. She runs the Subbing Clinic in a hopeless attempt to keep up standards, and co-runs A & M Records where she indulges her passion for 60s pop.

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