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The hospital was founded in 1869 and grew to be the largest mental hospital in Britain, and pioneered the use of electroencephalograms (EEGs). During its time it had its own church, farms, railway, telephone exchange, post office, reservoirs, gas works, brewery, orchestra, brass band, ballroom and butchers. It closed in 1995.
In 1866, the three Lancashire lunatic asylums at Prestwich, Rainhill and Lancaster were deemed to be full. Extra accommodation was urgently needed and to this end the building of Whittingham Asylum began in 1869. The hospital was designed by Henry Littler of Manchester, Architect to the Lancashire Asylums Board and built of red brick made from clay dug on site. The buildings followed a plan of multiple quadrangles with inter-connecting corridors radiating from a long axial corridor section.
The hospital officially opened on 1 April 1873. The large complex (later known as St. Luke's Division) had an initial capacity of 1000 inmates and included an Anglican church, a Catholic chapel, a recreation hall and a large farm estate.
In 1878 a new annexe (later known as St. John's Division) was built on 68 acres of land to the north of the site. The annexe was completed in 1880 and accommodated 115 patients and, by the special agreement of the Postmaster General, the hospital's own dedicated Post Office. In 1884, a sanatorium was established in the grounds for patients with infectious diseases.
In 1892 works began for the grounds to be illuminated by electric lamps; these works were completed in 1894. Around this time an annexe called Cameron House was opened to the northwest of the main building, joined in 1912 by a third annexe, later to become known as St Margaret's division. By 1915 the number of inmates was recorded as 2,820 - more than double the asylum's original capacity.
The Whittingham Hospital Railway was a two-mile (3 km) private branch to Grimsargh, built in 1887, to transport coal and other goods. It also provided free transport for staff and passengers. It eventually closed in on 30 June 1957.
In 1918 the New West Annexe (St Margaret's) was commandeered for the treatment of war casualties: patients who died during treatment were buried in the institution's private cemetery at the northern edge of the site. The hospital was returned to civilian use the following year following the cessation of hostilities.
In 1929, the Hospital Commissioners noted that an "open door" principle was practised on a number of wards, and the 1930 Act later resulted in the admission of the first voluntary patients. By 1939, the number of patients was 3533, with a staff of 548, making it the largest mental hospital in Great Britain.
At the outbreak of the Second World War in 1939, Wards 31 to 36 in the West Annexe were again commandeered by the military and mental patients were relocated to other hospitals in the area. The commandeered wards were renamed the Whittingham Emergency Hospital and treated casualties of war, both military and civilian, the first being evacuees from Dunkirk. Following the end of the conflict the wards were returned to civilian use in 1946.
In 1948, the hospital became part of the newly formed National Health Service and was renamed "Whittingham Hospital".
While working at the hospital during the 1950s, Dr C S Parker and Mr Charles Breakall produced an early electroencephalograph (EEG) machine using War Surplus material purchased for £2.10.0d. and conducted pioneering experiments in the field of encephalography and mental illness using patients there. An article was published in The Lancet describing these experiments, and considerable interest was said to have been expressed by the American Department for Space Medicine at the time.
On 18 July 1967, the Student Nurses' Association held a meeting with the senior nursing tutor, submitting serious complaints of cruelty, ill-treatment and fraud in the hospital. The Head Male Nurse then called a meeting of all students in which the students were threatened with actions for libel and slander. Several further complaints were suppressed until the following year when the Hospital Management Committee finally intervened and announced an inquiry into allegations of corruption and abuse. The inquiry divided the allegations into three specific headings: Care of Patients, Organisation of Services, and Financial Control. The enquiry heard (among others) the following complaints:
It was also reported that some wards were infested with vermin and others were too cold, too hot or too damp. In addition, it was found that there was a culture of petty theft on the wards and of serious fraud and embezzlement in some administrative offices.
In 1968–69, £91,000 was issued from sources for the use of patients, yet only £42,000 was recorded as having been spent in the hospital shop, supposedly leaving the remaining £49,000 unaccounted for.
As a result of the investigation, both the Head Male Nurse and the Matron took early retirement. Two male nurses were convicted of theft and in a separate incident another nurse was jailed for manslaughter after an elderly patient he had assaulted later died.
During the 1970s and 1980s, new drugs and therapies were introduced to treat people suffering from mental illnesses. Long-stay patients were returned to the community or dispersed to smaller units around Preston. The hospital closed in 1995. and the site subsequently became known as "Guild Park". In 1999, Guild Lodge was opened on the edge of Guild Park, providing secure mental healthcare services to a small number of patients, followed the next year by purpose-built rehabilitation cottages close by.
It is planned to build 650 new homes on the site and to convert some of the hospital buildings for use as apartments. However, these plans will not proceed until a date for the construction of the Broughton bypass is known. While some buildings on the outskirts of the site have been demolished, most of the buildings on site are presently derelict, and have proved a popular destination for Urban Explorers.