Project Description

The asylum at Whittingham opened its doors in 1872/73 and was to flourish for over 100 years until its closure in the 1990s. My own interest in the asylum’s history brings together my professional career as a mental health social worker and more latterly a University lecturer in the field of social policy. I delivered a guest lecture at Salford University on the establishment of Whittingham Asylum, and this was also the subject of my talk at the Whittingham Lives Study Day, held at UCLan on the 12th October 2017.

Over the past 8 years I have been researching the history of mental health service provision, the Asylum Reform Movement in Lancashire in the 1800s and specifically the background to the decision to build Whittingham. The research has involved using the extensive archive collection held at Lancashire Archives, Bow Lane, Preston plus the local contemporary newspapers and a range of other secondary sources.

To date this has produced a number of discussion ‘papers’, a chapter in an edited collection of writings on Lunacy in the 1800s, and the beginnings of a short book, nearly 3 chapters completed! It has been fascinating to uncover the process behind the building of the asylum. Key decisions regarding the establishment of Whittingham during the 1860’s/70’s were taken by a Committee of Lancashire County Magistrates.

The role of the County Magistrates was very different from that of today, when we tend to think only of their role in the Court and justice systems. Not only were they responsible for building roads, prisons and police stations in the County but also for the building of the large County Asylums for the pauper population of the County, which incidentally covered a much larger geographical area than today, encompassing both Liverpool and Manchester. The decision to build Whittingham, Lancashire’s 4th Asylum, was made by the Magistrates in 1866, and a specific Committee of Visitors, all local Magistrates, was established in April 1869 to oversee the completion of the Asylum. As well as detailed minute books, which I have examined, there was extensive reporting of the meetings in the local press, particularly the Preston Chronicle and Lancashire Advertiser (PCLA), published twice weekly. This was a newspaper which reported on and discussed in great detail local and national issues, and was nothing like the current Lancashire Evening Post. It, the PCLA, is still a rich source of information on many topics.

I have been fascinated by 2 particular characters in this emerging story, the Reverend J.S. Birley (1805-1883) who amongst many other public positions, was the Chair of the Visiting Committee for the Asylum, and Anthony Hewitson (1836-1912) who was the editor of the newspaper. Amongst the many issues discussed in the meetings and reported in, and commented on by the newspaper, were the causes of insanity, the reasons for the growth in insanity and the need or not for another expensive asylum.

For example, some argued that a reason for insanity was excessive drink amongst the lower classes, but the newspaper commented that wasn’t the case as ‘the French drink less and have more insanity’, an interesting viewpoint. It was also reported that one of the reasons for the increase in insanity was the ‘fact’ that ‘Lunatics from Ireland are being put on ships and dumped in Liverpool’. There were of course a number of reasons for the increase and they were also discussed in detail. Editorials were also written about the cost to the ratepayers of the new asylum and indeed by 1875 a total of £202,176 had been spent on building and furnishing Whittingham, more than double the original estimate.

My talk/lecture covered these and a number of other interesting issues and hopefully I will be able to continue my research and write up in greater detail my findings. The decisions made in the 1860s were to affect the provision of mental health services in the Preston area for over 100 years. It is only by understanding the past that we can appreciate the decisions that have been made with regard to current mental health service provisions. Many local people lived out their lives in large asylums, whilst others passed through in a journey to recovery. Now we have ‘community care’ which enables many people to live successfully in community and family settings, but which also fails large numbers of individuals, carers and families. Perhaps we are less willing to allocate the funding needed, unlike our Victorian ancestors.

Bernard J Melling

17th November 2017