One of the most popular posts on this blog was David Perkin’s description of the urban exploration of the decaying Whittingham Mental Asylum just outside of Preston, Lancashire. But, what was it like when it was still operating and what was it like to work there? We got in touch with Lawrence Butterfield who worked at Whittingham from 1986 to 1988.Advertisement
Whittingham is known for being a rather spooky place, even during the day, and the Whittingham Inquiry was famous in the 1960s when terrible abuses were discovered at the hospital. Butterfield worked nights at Whittingham as a staff nurse, but he didn’t find it that scary.
He said: “I used to work nights to ensure the residents had a good night’s sleep and make sure, as many of them were institutionalised, that there were no problems.
“We used to work 7.30 PM to 7.30 AM so if anything spooky was going to happen, it would happen during these hours. I am intruiged by all the photos on the web of the asylum and the stories about ghosts and such like, but when I was working there I didn’t feel threatened or scared.
However, there were two experiences that caused Butterfield to feel a little uneasy during his shifts.
“The first ‘experience’, if you can call it that,” says Butterfield, “was when I was sitting up one night with a colleague and it must of been around 3 AM. It was common for staff nurses to visit each other during the night shifts as the patients were generally sleeping soundly. We were chatting and my colleague suddenly went very quiet and I saw the look on her face change, just for a few seconds, and I asked her what was wrong and she said she’d seen a shape on my shoulder. She said it was like a monkey shape, and only there for a second, but that there was definitely something there.
“I didn’t feel anything on my shoulder, but I can tell you after that I was a bit on edge for the rest of the shift!”
The second experience for Butterfield involved a corridor that was notorious amongst the staff at Whittingham for weird occurances.
Butterfield said: “There was this corridor that was a short cut between some of the wards, and using it would cut five-six minutes off your journey time. There were all sorts of stories flying round about it, the main one being that a girl had gone down it and half way down the lights had gone out.
“One night I decided I would take this corridor. I walked down it and you know, it really felt like someone was watching me. The way the corridor was set up meant it had windows on either side that looked into old wards, and there were all these wrought iron beds in there – old ones – and other stuff. Needless to say I walked very quickly down that corridor!”
Whittingham at it’s hey day had around 3,500 patients and was one of the largest institutions in Europe. When Lawrence was there it was holding around 2,000 patients but the Care in the Community Act of 1990 was looming and it was to be the beginning of the end for Whittingham.
“It’s a pity what’s happening with Whittingham”, says Lawrence, “although it’s not that attractive compared to other mental hospitals it’s a shame it’s just being left to rot.
“It’s sad as well that the Whittingham Inquiry is probably what the place is most well known for, despite all the great work and brilliant staff that were there. When I was there in the 1980s the Inquiry was still hanging over us – and I don’t think the trust with the local community was every regained.”
Butterfield has gone on to work for the NHS and become a high profile figure in the anti-stigma movement around mental health. He feels his time at Whittingham, he was 25 when he started, was a good grounding in mental health and allowed him to see such a large institution at work.
“I have many fond memories from working at Whittingham,” recalls Butterfield, “there was a great morale amongst the staff, despite the long shifts, and some of the patients were great work with.
“The hospital was a very imposing place to work, those huge Victorian buildings, big corridors and large grounds – and with Chingle Hall on view in the distance I can see why people think the area is haunted.”
Butterfield has now written a book about his experiences in the health service, particularly mental health issues, and his time at Whittingham is mentioned. The book, called Sticks and Stones, is available from June 30th 2009 and proceeds from the sales will go towards promoting more acceptance and understanding of mental illness.