31 Days of Hallowe’en Tales: Day 27 – Whittingham Asylum for Pauper Lunatics

On day 27 of our Halloween Tales, we explore the history of Whittingham Asylum and the notorious ruins once irresistible to urban explorers across the UK.

First, a note. Throughout this article I will refer to Whittingham as an asylum, but it did change its title to Whittingham Hospital mid century. I do not mean to be insensitive with this reference, and I am personally very thankful that our understanding and treatment of mental health has improved (somewhat) since then.

However, Whittingham Hospital still exists in some form in the modern Guild Lodge Hospital just up the road, and I do not wish to cause confusion between the two. I also do not believe that the exploitation of people from the past should be used for entertainment. What I will recount here is the true history of this place, the impact this has had on the community, the legends associated with it, and the legacy it has left behind.

In the 1860s, the asylums of Lancashire were full to bursting. Lancaster, Prestwich and Rainhill were full to capacity, and a solution needed to be found. The answer came with the construction of ‘Whittingham Asylum for Pauper Lunatics’, as it was originally named, in 1869. Some 115 patients were transferred to the asylum a year before it opened, and some of these patients even ‘helped’ to build it. Renowned asylum architect Henry Littler designed what would become one of the largest asylums in Europe. It finally opened its doors on 1st April 1873.

The asylum actually had its own orchestra and brass band. Music was an incredibly important part of the Whittingham psyche.

This place was far more than just a medical facility. It was a vast, sprawling estate, an intricate complex of buildings that all contributed to the smooth running of such a huge hospital. Around 90,000 gallons of water per day were pumped from Beacon Fell to provide for the asylum patients and its buildings. On site there was a gothic church (now Grade II listed), a sanatorium for infectious diseases, extensive farms, a butchery, a brewery, a post office, a telephone exchange, a reservoir, a gas works, tennis courts, bowling greens and even a railway station. Inevitably there was also a graveyard.

The railway ran to the asylum from the village of Grimsargh. Originally, trains were just supposed to transport coal and goods to the site, but soon, staff and visitors were hopping on for a free ride to the asylum.

Anyone who was intrepid enough to explore the asylum when it was abandoned would have marvelled at the beautiful ballroom, but they may have probably wondered why it had one at all. Well, that’s because the asylum actually had its own orchestra and brass band. Music was an incredibly important part of the Whittingham psyche.

During the Great War, the asylum turned its West Wing into a hospital for those wounded in the trenches. As you can imagine, many of these poor souls did not survive their injuries and were buried on the grounds of the asylum in the graveyard. This was much the same in the second war, when the asylum again housed casualties, including evacuees from Dunkirk.

Despite its size, overcrowding was a serious problem, and by 1939 3,533 people were in residence in Whittingham, cared for by 548 members of staff. That’s a lot of patients in one place at one time, all needing complex care that both the staff and medicine at the time were just not equipped to provide. Staff went on strike for better conditions for all, but to no avail.

The exploitation of Whittingham’s patients intensified, and in the 1960s, horrific reports of patient abuse and maltreatment started to surface.

It wasn’t all negative. In the 1950s, using bits of scrap machinery left over from the war, two very clever doctors at the asylum, Dr CS Parker and Mr Charles Breakall, invented the world’s first electroencephalogram (EEG) machine to record brain activity. Something positive to come from such darkness and an important contribution to medicine.

Unfortunately, the exploitation of Whittingham’s patients intensified, and in the 1960s, horrific reports of patient abuse and maltreatment started to surface. The scandal of the cruelty that existed at Whittingham mired its reputation. After a meeting of student nurses in 1968 a full investigation was finally launched and the findings were shocking. I won’t include the details of the report here as these are real human lives, not some Hallowe’en story, but they certainly make for a sobering read.

Following this investigation, the male head nurse and the matron took early retirement. And nothing much more was done. These complaints and investigations would go on for nearly 30 years before Whittingham finally closed its doors for good in 1995.

The abandoned asylum was irresistible to urban explorers

Many staff members who worked at Whittingham before it closed reported seeing shadows walking the wards. There were reports of haunted corridors and phantom footsteps. From my private sources who have intimate knowledge of the asylum, I have learnt some very strange tales.

There was a gravestone that moved of its own volition. No matter how many times it was returned to the cemetery, it mysteriously moved to a specific spot in the grounds, adjacent to the football pitches. Legend was that the person named on the headstone was tortured by an orderly on that very spot, who told her she’d end up dead there. A horrifying thought indeed.

Then there was the sinister Red Room. In a neglected building with boarded windows, there was a lonely room where patients would be taken on their deathbed. Even when the site was abandoned, this room was left intact, with its sole window left as the only one unboarded and the deathbed itself left completely untouched. The dusty bedclothes were an unnerving deep red, with a single white pillow at the head.

Above the bed, there hung a stark crucifix. The bed was placed directly opposite the unboarded window, so the dying could look out upon the grounds. Outside the window was a gnarled, twisted tree, with branches curving up into the effigy of a crooked hand. It was said that this tree, gazed upon by those close to death, would cleanse them of their pain and suffering. It would clear their fevered minds and end their torture.

When we encountered a human shaped hole in the fence that had been cut out and led to a single open door, lying ajar just beckoning us in, I could not bring myself to enter.

Beneath Whittingham lay a vast labyrinthine network of tunnels. Long after the site was abandoned, these tunnels still had power, and the lights remained on. It was said that they were used for transporting food and goods throughout the asylum. However, just like a modern hospital, these long subterranean corridors were often used to transfer the dead. Children brave enough to enter the property would dare one another to see who could run the furthest down them before losing their bottle. One eye witness even reported seeing long leather body bags lying in an alcove, forgotten with the hasty closure of the site.

I was lucky enough to visit Whittingham about 15 years ago, in all its decaying grandeur. It was a remarkable building, and we marvelled at the many abandoned structures. However, when we encountered a human shaped hole in the fence that had been cut out and led to a single open door, lying ajar just beckoning us in, I could not bring myself to enter.

With so much human pain and suffering in one spot, some of that misery is sure to soak into the bones of the place. I refused to enter but many more did not. Now, we have only Whittingham’s legend and photographs of its sad dereliction to remind us of what happened there. A housing estate now occupies this troubled land, but the ghost of the asylum still casts a long shadow over the town.

Read our previous Hallowe’en Tales

Day 1 – The Curse of Carleton Crematorium.
Day 2 – The Witch Ducking Stools of Poulton-Le-Fylde.
Day 3 – The Ghost-Seer of Weeton.
Day 4 – Smuggling, Drowned Nuns and Fallen Acrobats at Raikes Hall

Day 5 – The Hauntings at the Old Coach House
Day 6 – Old Scrat
Day 7 – A Goblin Funeral at Extwistle Hall
Day 8 – The Ghost of Lady Macbeth
Day 9 – The Mermaid & The Sea Serpent of Marton Mere
Day 10 – The Banshee of Poulton
Day 11 – The Possession of the Lancashire Seven
Day 12 – Lady Fleetwood of old Ross Hall
Day 13 – Tales of Boggart House Farm
Day 14 – Miss Bamber of Marton and her Charms
Day 15 – A Severed Head at Mowbreck Hall
Day 16 – Burnley’s Satanic Pigs and the Clogging of Owd Nick
Day 17 – Three Pilling Boggarts
Day 18 – Hall i’ th’Wood
Day 19 – The Skull House, Appley Bridge
Day 20 – The Boggart of Clegg Hall
Day 21 – The Haunted Hall on the Hill
Day 22 – The Wraiths of Wycoller

Day 23 – The Shipwrecks and Hauntings of Bispham Village
Day 24 – All Hallows Church and the Zodiac Portal
Day 25 – The Drowned Villages of the Fylde Coast
Day 26 – The Spirits of Skippool Creek

Take a look at Zowie Swan’s debut novel, Chingle Hall here.

Reclaim Blackpool - Mapping Sexual Harrasment
  • Zowie Swan is a local writer of fiction and folklaw. Her debut novel, Chingle Hall, is out now with Safety Pin Publishing. She's also bassist for Blackpool band Dischord.

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