Dunkirk evacuees treated at Whittingham Hospital – later, scandal

Dunkirk evacuation rope water Pic: CORBIS/Corbis via Getty Images
Dunkirk evacuation rope water Pic: CORBIS/Corbis via Getty Images

Whittingham Hospital near Grimsargh was once the largest mental institution in the country. It was also used in both world wars, to treat soldiers. Whittingham eventually became like a small town with its own telephone exchange, gas works and railway. In fact the site also pioneered the use of electricity with a private power station, opened in 1892.


During the Dunkirk evacuation in 1940, 366,000 survivors were pulled off the beaches.

Undoubtedly the need for hospital space was paramount, hence the use of any available facility, including asylums.

The forces war record states:

“The waiting troops suffered keenly from hunger and thirst, no rations having been provided, and became less and less alert as time went by. They huddled down miserably into their self-dug foxholes, watching the destruction spread around them, and prayed for it all to be over.”

This massive complex grew out of a need for more asylum space in the 19th century.

The asylum

Whittingham Asylum
Whittingham Asylum Pic: Opacity

Up to 1866 there were three asylums in Lancashire. Before drug treatments, this was the only way to deal with what were known as pauper lunatics. Consequently, the asylums were overflowing and a new complex was proposed.

Whittingham Asylum began construction in 1869 and the first buildings opened in 1873. The previous year saw 115 residents at the site; they helped with the building work! Later, 1,100 residents had a large farm estate and two churches to ease their misery. The site continued to grow with 2,820 inmates by 1915.

The hospital remained in use, and became part of the NHS in 1948. Eventually scandal and closure would ensue.

Read more: Explore the 150-year history of Preston’s Whittingham Asylum thanks to two year project


In 1967, after an initial cover up, the hospital management committee opened an inquiry into several reported complaints of abuse and fraud. Allegedly, patients had been left untreated and fed ‘slops’. In particular patients had been left outside in all weathers or locked in cupboards.

Financial problems included common petty theft on wards and allocated funds going missing; in 1968/9 £49,000 had been ‘lost’.

Consequently, a number of staff took ‘early retirement’.

By the 1990s new drug treatments meant that most patients could be treated in the community and the site closed in 1995.

The railway

The station at Whittingham, with brake van converted to passenger use Pic: Opacity
The station at Whittingham, with brake van converted to passenger use Pic: Opacity

Due to its isolated location, seven miles from Preston and 3.5 miles from Longridge, supplies to the asylum had to be carted in. This was both expensive and slow, so in 1884 a railway was proposed. The line was to run for two miles, from a junction at Grimsargh on the Preston to Longridge branch.

However the line was not opened until 1889. Substantial stations were built at Grimsargh junction and Whittingham. Additionally there was an engine shed and coal storage area. Although originally a goods line, a four-wheeled passenger carriage was purchased. At one point nine trains a day ran, using converted brake vans for passengers.

The rail yard at Whittingham Pic: Opacity
The rail yard at Whittingham Pic: Opacity

The Longridge branch was a joint operation between the LNWR and the L&Y Railways. Consequently, they refused to operate the line. Unusually, this forced operation on to the county council who then purchased two locomotives.

Read more: Railway chaos in Preston, a station too far?

A small saddle tank made by Andrew Barclay was used until 1947. The line continued in operation until 1957. The Ribble Steam Railway, in Preston has several Andrew Barclay locomotives in its museum.

Read more: Looking at the history of the Ribble Steam Railway as it reopens for business

The Whittingham Hospital Andrew Barclay 0-4-2- side tank built in 1904 Pic: Opacity
The Whittingham Hospital Andrew Barclay 0-4-2- side tank built in 1904 Pic: Opacity

The site now

Demolition of the site began in 2014, some buildings were retained including the main entrance block. In 2019 Homes England was granted consent for 750 houses. The Church will also be converted to residential. Finally, a new road and sewerage works are to be implemented.

As of June 2021, 150 homes have been completed and the next phase of building is due to begin in July.

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