historyoflancs – blog 1 – Whittingham mental asylum preston

HistoryofLancs (Lancashire History) Blog

Author: John Ellis
Blog Number: 1
Blog Topic : Whittingham mental asylum
Location : Whittingham road , Goosnargh, near Preston

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Introduction

Ok firstly welcome to the HistoryofLancs twitter account and accompanying blog  , thanks for adding. I set up the account as I thought it’s a great way to pass knowledge regarding the history of the county, via links , stories etc. I have liked local history for a while and I have just finished my first of hopefully many books on local history. The idea is to get a community of like minded people together and the more the merrier. As numbers grow we should be quite formidable in answering any question you may have on history and I hope that people will find it interesting. Another question I have received is the area of the account , I consider it as being the old boundary of Lancashire. I hale from Blackpool so I have grown up in and around the county. The account isn’t just meant to be mine , I want it to be a catalyst for lots of local stories so please send your links in. If you would like to write a blog and send it in please direct message me. I also retweet interesting stories from the county. The success of the account will increase with the numbers so please spread it if you get chance.

 

 

 

I have decided that the first topic of my blog will be about the county mental hospital based at Whittingham. It grew  to become the biggest asylum in the country. The history of the site has everything from the macabre upwards. I find the whole history interesting it has great personal stories , documents the change in medicine and has its fair share of scandal. The site itself has now closed for reasons I will discuss further along. Demolition has started I believe on some of the buildings as they have become dangerous through disrepair. The plans in the long run are to build a residential area around the site  , but obviously the state of the economy has impacted construction.  The plans include 650 residential houses which will be popular with the location, although road traffic concerns are rearing there head in the planning process. There is still a modern mental health site as the side of the old buildings just further up the main road. The location is semi rural and it’s in an historic part of the county , basically next door to Chingle hall (reputably the most haunted house in England).

History

The original buildings were opened in 1873 as existing sites in the area were becoming full (namely Lancaster , also in a similar state to whittingham and an interesting building on the outskirts of the town near the modern prison, Rainhill-Liverpool and Prestwitch-Manchester).The initial site was designed by Henry Littler on behalf of the Lancashire Asylums board. Many of the patients in these original institutes came from Victorian workhouses.  It was originally built to increase capacity in the system, initially to house around 1000 patients. The area was chosen because of its location , it was near Preston and centralised in the county,  it also had good amenities such as water. In the later years it was well served by the road network , being situated near to the m6 motorway and main A6 road. The buildings were built by bricks produced on location , the pond being a by product of this , on a spare note Lancashire soil with its clay content has always been good for producing brick , Accrington being famous , but Chorley had its fair share , lots of small ponds in the county such as the Wrea Green village pond, owe themselves because of excavations for bricks. This also hints at the self sufficiency of the site which became a prominent part of its design and history. The site was required due to a change in the way patients were treated and many acts such as the lunacy act helped in bring the treatment forward. Buildings were steadily added as demand rose and its worth remembering that electric lighting wasn’t added to the site until 1894 (15 years after Blackpool , the first place to introduce street lighting, made history). It must of been hit and miss and an unusual place in its beginnings. Although the site is famous for treating patients with mental health issues , it wasn’t its only function, the site also had a sanatorium for infectious disease , served as a military hospital, I have also heard , unconfirmed that it was used to treat people with alcohol addiction and also housed some prisoners of war (Italians) in the second world war.


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By 1939 , with over 3,500 patients and 500 staff it became the biggest in great Britain and one of the largest in Europe. After the second world war and with Bevan’s nhs being built,  thanks to the Beveridge report (written in the boarding houses of Blackpool during the war) the site fell under the service. Parts of the site were fairly open and in the early stages people were given days out , there was even a fine for staff who lost their patients! The site a Victorian dream was fast becoming redundant in the modern times with a huge change in the way mental health patients were treated, the death nail for the site being the mental health act of 1960 and other modern day improvements. With medication , improvements in therapy, a focus on care in the community and a move in favour of smaller sites situated next to modern hospitals. The site finally closed in1995.

Facilities

The site was completely self sufficient and had a huge number of buildings including

+ Post office (opened in 1880 with agreement from the postmaster)
+ On site brewery (both staff and patients were entitled to one glass each per night)
+catholic church (built in the first stages)
+Anglican church (built in the first stages)
+its own railway station (branch line , 1887, closed 70 years later)
+morgue/mortuary
+shop (where patients could buy food etc)
+large ball room (the centre of recreation on the site)
+ onsite farm (where animals were cared for by patients)
+Telephone exchange (1880 and initially linked to Preston)
+clock tower (built in 1914 , although demolished soon after)
+graveyard (including some soldiers grave from the military hospital)
+brass band (reaching a good level)
+cricket pitch
+ on site electricity generators

 

Whittingham Railway Station


Due to the size of the sites and the number requiring access , it was decided to build a train station to serve the hospital. Previously all materials and people required at the site had to be transported by horse and cart. The station itself opened in 1889, eventually closing in 1959 as roads took over. The line was built linking it to a junction of the Preston-Longridge line as the village of Grimsargh, a passing loop was built as the line was single track. The station on site was made from Brick and had a glass roof, there was only 1 platform, the site also had a coal and engine shed. Later on in the 1920s the track was lengthened and a boiler house added to the site. Locomotive operated on the line , they carried mainly good but a regular passenger service also operated for the benefit of patients, staff and visitors. It also served the local population , one of the benefits of the site , at its peak 3000 passengers used the service per week , mostly free of charge, catching one of the 9 services daily.

 

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Early Use Of Electroencephalogram (EEG) In Psychology

Whittingham hospital played a pivotal and early role in the development of EEG in the fields of Psychology and psychiatry. EEG had been used previously in other fields of medicine, particularly in neurology. But the site pioneered its use within the treatment of mental health problems. The machines which record electrical activity in the brain , were thought to be of use within the ever changing treatment of mental health problems , something which has been proved beneficial over the years. A machine built from surplus world war 2 material was built at the hospital complex. Here two scientist which need mentioning , Dr C S Parker and Mr C Breakall, conducted and record numerous early experiments in the field. There research which was pioneering at the time , gained much critical acclaim and was mentioned in scientific journals during the 1950s, including the lancet magazine , a peer review scientific weekly, famous in the field. By reading and interpreting the readings via the machine the psychologist is able to build a picture of the brain activity , which can then be used to recognise different psychological disorders.

 

The Enquiry

The official Payne enquiry in to the well known failures of the hospital was published in 1971. It shone light upon mistreatment , poor operations and fraud which plagued the site.

There had been bubbling some discontentment from students as they perceived widespread malpractices for a while at the site. Students working at the hospital got together and complained , going back initially to 1967. They voiced their concerns about the problems but were roundly dismissed. The managements actions towards the complaining students was nothing short of disgraceful. Some were threatened with libel, others feared for their jobs and a sort of black list was drawn up of the names of the complaining students. The claims were swept under the carpet and actively covered up , the minutes for the meetings were “suppressed”  (although later people were disciplined for this)  but the discontent particularly among students was still rife. The spark being the employment of a new psychologist who moved to the hospital in 1968, appalled at the malpractices he was determined to speak out and the students got behind him. This time they could not keep it quiet and an independent enquiry became inevitable, 2 of the worse suppresses of the students , perhaps seeing the ice-berg, retired. Although I cannot find the name of the psychologist and the people that initially raised the concerns despite facing retribution , I am sure they can look back at the whole issue with their heads held high , in which they acted for the common good and should be rightly pleased with what they achieved by remaining true to their beliefs. Without them undoubtedly the suffering of patients would of continued for longer periods of time. (if you were one of these members of staff or know anyone that was employed at the site I would be grateful if you got in touch , so we can document your experiences for future generations)

When the report was published and the true detail of the scandal was revealed it caused uproar.

The main findings of the enquiry revolved around ill treatment, poor practice and financial mismanagement.

The mistreatment of patients , it must be pointed out , was mainly linked to four wards , all located within the St Luke’s ward. But it was these which made the headlines. It alleged that violence and totally deplorable acts against patient were committed by staff including the following –

# Patients being locked in a room under the stairs and locked in airing courts in all temperatures

#Patients being dragged across the floor by their hair

#Male members of staff  on one ward were said to have placed flammable liquids on  2 patients and then set them on fire

#Patients being punched and assaulted

#Patients being tied to chairs

#Patients being subjected to wet towel treatment , in which a wet towel is twisted tightly around the neck until the person becomes unconscious

 

 

 

As well as the mistreatment , the general operation and facilities were criticised, it is alleged that the training of staff was very poor, communication between departments , wards and managers was severely lacking. There were not sufficient staff levels in some places. The buildings were poorly maintained and some wards (habited by patients) were reportedly infested by cockroaches. The poor state of the buildings shouldn’t of come as a shock to the management , I have been able to find a transcripts from the house of commons ,dating to the 1950s , condemning the poor conditions in some parts of the hospital. You could argue that with such an old vast site , it was inevitable that deterioration would take place , however when caring for some of the most vulnerable people in society this simply wouldn’t be acceptable.

Financial mismanagement , or stealing as is probably more appropriate, was widespread. Patients were stolen from regularly and the reports and research suggest it was endemic amongst staff at the facility. One nurse was quoted as saying;

 “if you were not in the corruption, you didn’t get on”,

Many other members of staff backed these claims. The figures speak for themselves, in 1968-1969 £91,000 was issued to patients but only £42,000 was returned via the onsite shops , which I think highlights the extent of the issue. Many members of staff were reportedly ‘living above their means’ on the patients money. Although the mistreatment made for the headlines, perhaps the widespread nature of the stealing makes it the most damaging to the institution.

The Aftermath Of The Report

As  you would expect the report caused widespread shock, it was for a brief time a national story , making the front pages of many newspapers. The management of the Manchester regional hospital board , in charge of the site , was forced to act. Many of the worst perpertartors were removed and the hospitals management left.

Lord Aberdare(minister of state for the department of health and social security) speaking in the house of lords in 1971 said;

“allegations of ill treatment of patients, fraud and maladministration were made in confidence to my predecessor in 1969”

“the report is very disturbing”

A nurse was charged and convicted of manslaughter of a patient on the site , it also appears that the publication and official response was delayed whilst charges against two other nurses at the site were ongoing in the courts (they were both acquitted of these charges). It is clear that the management were largely to blame ,as they failed to act on what was going on under their jurisdiction. It also stated that complaints were often squashed and ignored. It was also critical of the reduction in the visiting hours on wards , with an opinion formulating that this may of been to disguise bad practice within the areas. The report then recommended that

“all members of the Whittingham Hospitals Management Committee should be invited to resign”

It appears to me that the punishments for these quite frankly deplorable accusations , almost certainly true , were severely lacking. Whilst I haven’t been able to access all the details , It appears that this may of been down to minimising embarrassment particularly of stopping the issues rising upwards through to the Manchester regional hospitals board and indeed to the government in its failure to act. The fact that the management board were invited to resign and not taken to court of malpractice suggests that their superiors may of been trying to keep a lid on things. On a separate note we still see this today, with many pieces surfacing in the papers of police officer being asked to resign , rather than being charged / sacked to avoid embarrassment to the local authority (this practice has also been used by Lancashire police, but that is for another day). The lack of convictions based on the report is slightly worrying and there will be a lot of people around who would consider themselves lucky to have avoided further action. Of course this leads to the possibility of reopening the case , although practically it would be probably better to let sleeping dogs lie. Again to vilify all staff at the hospital would be completely unfair , but likewise to suggest that the issues were not common knowledge amongst some aspects of staff would seem short sighted to say the least. The money issue which was obviously fairly widespread among staff must of been known to management as the audits were published , it wouldn’t be rocket science to see that the figures didn’t add up and something untoward was afoot. Also the fact it took student nurses , of another generation and coming recently to the hospital from outside, to report the failing s suggests there could of been a clique or acceptance amongst existing staff members of the failing practices administered by staff. The report highlights specific wards and it could of been the case that the issues were widespread amongst some wards and nonexistent in others , this is unclear to me. Again the people in charge of the audit office would be quite obvious for further punishment as it looks like they were used to cover up the pilfering from patients for the benefit of the wider fraud ring.

Again it is also worth saying that if the report was to be released today the outcome would of been much more severe. With the improvements in investigative journalism , the support available to whistle blowing and the extensive use of social networking. The public outcry would of been, in my opinion, considerably heightened and the ability to sweep it under the carpet diminished as the press/public would demand action. I can remember a channel 4 documentary on mistreatment at a care home , which caused uproar a year or two ago and had top politicians questioned as part of the aftermath, as a viable example of this change.

Towards The End

With a change in medical treatment of mental health and the huge costs associated with keeping an antiquated site open, the closure of the site was becoming inevitable. It is clear that by the late 1980s the management viewed the site as coming towards the end of its life. The report didn’t  help its case with one member of staff , working at the site in the 1980s quoted as saying;

“the report hanged over the staff”.

The number and type f patients was changing along as changes in medicines meant large numbers of people previously kept in hospitals like Whittingham were allowed back into the community. Drugs such as ‘modecat’ extensively promoted in the 1970s allowed patients with symptoms such as schizophrenia and personality disorders to better control their symptoms and thus be more successfully incorporated into the community. Towards the end there was a prominence of elderly patients at the hospital , particularly noticeable in the Granada documentary. These patients now tend to be cared for in smaller local buildings. The popular views tended to see large old ‘asylums’ as a dump bin for mental health patients in areas where medicine had caught up with the syndromes.  One of the main critics of such asylums was Enoch Powel (made famous for his anti-immigration speeches) , who is quoted as such in parliament. The view now that only people who are at risk from harming themselves or others should be restricted is a view that I can think is only a good thing. Thus the hospital has probably run full circle and served a very important purpose throughout its life. It is worth pointing out however that view modern facilities would be able to harbour such a community feel under such wide facilities of a site as whittingham. In the last few years of the hospitals operating life , scandal appeared again. In 1990 Mr Howell , mimicking the previous allegations was shocked at the state of the hospital. He also reported that toilets were locked at night in some wards , denying the most basic of facilities to the patients and that sexual abuse was prominent. In fact a nurse was sent down for 2 years for having sex with a patient and a psychologist  dismissed for similar reasons. These accusations again discredited the site , I also heard from a friend who had worked on the development of the modern site recently , that rumours, including an extraordinary one about the pond , were rife. These rumours may have simply been sensationalism at the history of site , that is unclear. Mr Howell stated in 30 years he had;

“never experienced such a bad situation (at the hospital) and considered walking”

By this time the fate of the hospital had probably already been decided, Mr Howell himself came under the spotlight and was eventually suspended , over some dubious discharge decisions, one involving an attempted murder. It is worth pointing out that he has direct support from the community and many people have since criticised the management decision (it appears that almost every decision the managers took had some controversy) to suspend Mr Howell.  On a plus point it must be mentioned that the site had one of the best facilities for the treatment of Huntington’s disease in the world (at Frank Gardham house). The main site finally closed its doors in 1995 , with the remaining patients moved to nearby smaller units. The site still has the Guild Park modern secure site , although on a much smaller scale than the historic hospital.

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Development Proposals

The future proposal for the site is to build homes on the land. It is no surprise really with close access to the motorway network and in the Preston/Lancaster commuter belt it would be an ideal location for homes. Although the site is still undeveloped (apart from some preliminary demolition and the erection of security instalments) with its large grounds and semi rural location it will certainly appeal to buyers. The initial plans were submitted by Taylor Woodrow in 2007 and were for around 650 homes on the across the 147 acre site. There was a lot of challenges and the construction was linked with the older plans for the Broughton bypass, Traffic in the area would obviously increase with the sizeable development. Amendments were made and there was a lot of argument , disputes reportedly costing the local taxpayers some £30,000. With the economic issues and the uncertainty of the Broughton bypass there is still unknowns about the development and the land sits idle. However with the need for additional housing strong and the governments commitments to building such sites (Buckshaw village on the old ammunitions site is a good example) it is my opinion that it will only be a matter of time before the development begins and the history of the asylum will of come full circle.

The plans included knocking the buildings down , which is a real shame in my eyes. Having visited the site there are so many great buildings , typical of Victorian architecture and full of character which are going to be lost forever. Its seems to me stupid that with are new found love of conservation and improvements in building preservation (far from the days when buildings were simply demolished to make way for roads etc ,as happened in Lancaster when the ring road was built , costing many historical buildings) that such a site can just be disregarded. It is a shame the majority of Victorian buildings aren’t protected by strict regulations in the country and the site will only remain in photos. I often look back at old photos of buildings lost and think how stupid it was to demolish them and indeed if your reading this in a 100 years time and thinking the same , I was right. The way the building has been left to rot is a discredit to its roots and the lack of security has ultimately made its fate irreversible. I understand the need for housing and finance concerns but it is a real shame. If you look at places like the old Salford hospital and see how well they have been restored and turned into functioning units it is a real shame the same can’t be done at Whittingham.

The current state of the site is poor , me and my mates used to drive from Blackpool and visit the site quite regularly, initially it was easily accessed, we were drawn by the atmosphere of the place. Time has taken its toll and the rampant vandalism has ruined so much of the site. You got the feeling that it had been abandoned over a night , with lots of eerie reminders of its past. It used to be littered with medical remnants , cast iron beds and brilliant architecture. One of my vivid memories was the scale of the ballroom , which had at the time a disco ball suspended from the ceiling. It is no surprise that the site is so popular with urban explorers, I can’t judge having done the same , the real issues were with the people who simply wanted to wreck everything. If the buildings couldn’t be saved it seems really stupid that the developers didn’t allow reclamation on the site instead just allowing the historic pieces to be destroyed. I work part time as an antique dealer and there were so many historical pieces that were just ignored. Such items as old wooden flooring (now ripped up) , large suspended glass lights, cast iron Victorian radiators, huge art deco doorways , significant stain glass windows (all of course now smashed) and large stone staircases would of been highly sort after. As well as generating money for the scheme it would of allowed at least some of the history to remain, I can see them now , local reclaimers with the heads in the hands at the waste of the site. It just go to show the total disregard to the physical history of the place shown by the developers and it is a shame.

 

Conclusion

What is clear is the importance in preserving and remembering the site. It is a big part of the local history and has so many stories connected to it. It will no doubt soon be demolished but I’m sure that people won’t forget. There is plenty of interest in the site , lots are drawn to the stories and scandals as well as the dark imagery. There will always be lots of sensationalism linked to such a site and it’s fair to say it has had its ups and downs. The highs being the community spirit it had and its usefulness to the local society. Unfortunately it will probably be remember for the bad points , which it is important to learn from. Ultimately it did become outdated and with changes in care it was probably right to close the site or to certainly downsize and upgrade its operation. I am sure it will live long in memory even when the houses are built and it would be nice if the new development could incorporate some sort of memorial for the hospital and its people.

Additional sources

Here are some of the better sources available on the hospital.

+There are some records about the site , stored at the Lancashire records office, including I believe a full list of patients/staff , useful if your tracing a family member. The office is situated on bow Street in Preston (near the station, off Fishergate). Unfortunately (and very annoyingly) the office hasn’t caught up with technology or indeed the national archives and do not possess electronic copies. There is however details of some of the record held on the national archives website.

+ There are some artefacts from the hospital stored in the museum of Lancashire in Preston (near to the prison).You can search artefacts online via their website.

+ There are also numerous websites on the site, the foremost being that of www.whittinghamhospital.co.uk  (very supportive of the asylum practice, it’s a very good website which champions the old hospital , I do however thinks it is a bit bias towards staff actions and is a little too dismissive of modern nursing techniques in the field)

+ I also found a well put together page on an urban explorer site with some good professional photos  www.jarrelook.co.uk/Urbex/Whittingham%20Asylum/Whittingham.htm

+There is also a book(let) on the hospital , called Whittingham hospital – 100 years (1873-1973), although it is hard to find and is out of print. You can also find copies of the official enquiry into the problems at the hospital, I saw they were available on eBay.

+Another great source is the Ray gosling Documentary where he visited the hospital towards the end of its life. The documentary was produced by Granada and was a great visual insight into the Hospital , he also met numerous patients who were happy to share their stories. The video is available on YouTube  ( I posted a link on the twitter site previously) but it is split into three parts , the best link where you can watch the video all the way through is – http://video.google.com/videoplay?docid=-1193641534144524120&hl=en# 

Notes: Due to the state and inaccessibility of the site I haven’t been able to take my own photos so I have sourced them off the internet, obviously I don’t operate for financial gain but if you have any issues please let me know and I will remove the photos. If you would like to reproduce any of the information it shouldn’t be an issue just drop me a message. If you have any stories of the hospital , feedback or have spotted any inaccuracies please let me know via email ( bfc1989@hotmail.co.uk or via the twitter page). Also if you have any questions or would like some more information on the hospital , don’t be afraid to ask, I’ll try to help or may be able to point you in the right direction.

Thanks for reading.

One comment

  1. H.Ireland · · Reply

    I think it is hughly irregular that Howell was involved in the closing down of Whittingham Hospital and the was on the board of the group of investors who purchased the beautiful grounds and acreage in order to build profitable housing developments. More fraudulent practices at the old mental hospital ? I feel sorry for all those elderly patients who had lived there for forty years and knew no other place to call home. Some people have no consience when puruing profits..

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