The County of Lancashire was the first of all the English Counties to provide more than one asylum operating concurrently. Planning for a second county lunatic asylum commenced as early as 1842 and were encouraged by the County Asylums Act and creation of the Commissioners in Lunacy in 1845 which had made it easier for the Counties to raise the funds. Previously the 1808 and 1828 had only been permissive acts which placed no obligation on the authorities to provide sufficient space and aside from the Manchester Royal Asylum which had opened in 1766 (later Cheadle Royal Institution) there was no dedicated pauper asylum outside of Lancaster other than private madhouses.
The development of mental healthcare institutions somewhat mirrored the development of Lancashire itself with the first of the pauper asylums developed to the east of Lancaster, at that time the administrative hub of the county. The creation of the next two asylums reflected the development of Manchester and Liverpool respectively, both distant from Lancaster and with industrial development, growing at a far in excess of that in the north of the county.
To meet the needs of Manchester and also Liverpool it had been agreed that two additional asylums would be required to meet projected demand, both of which were to house approximately 350 inmates at each site. Individual designs were selected at each location with their own architects. The plans chosen for the site nearest Manchester were by the local architectural practice of Isaac Holden, in his only recorded asylum commission. The building was constructed of red brick with distinctive stone quoin decoration and low pitched slate roofing. Centrally located was the superintendent’s residence and entrance block, approached principally from the south from a gate and lodge on Wash Lane (later Clifton Road). Either side stood blocks fro male and female inmates, the females to the north side, males to the south. Airing courts were provided for the recreation of the inmates of each of the blocks. Behind stood the usual kitchens and stores facilities with an approach from the Bury New Road for goods traffic. The location was chosen for its convenience for the towns in the south east of Lancashire, particularly Manchester itself, but also Oldham, Salford and Rochdale, however it was soon to also take inmates from much greater distances. Both the new Lancashire County Asylums at Prestwich and Rainhill opened on the same day, 1st January 1851, almost immediately taking patients from Lancaster and Manchester asylums, private madhouses and poor law workhouses.
Demand was soon in excess of what accommodation was available and plans were almost immediately invoked to expand the Prestwich Asylum to increase the number of inmates to reach 500. More blocks were developed either of the existing complex in similar style and scale to the original and were ready for use in 1853. The preference of the Commissioners in Lunacy had been to restrict the numbers as much as possible to make Asylums smaller in scale and more easy to manage and maintain in line with the recommendations of John Connolly at Hanwell Asylum, Middlesex. This was soon found to be untenable in Lancashire where the population in the south of the County had been expanding exponentially due to the Industrial Revolution. Time taken to plan and develop new asylum sites was lengthy and expensive, especially when it came to site selection which could be quite protracted so it became much more straightforward to expand existing premises and add annexes than comply with the instructions of the Commissioners in Lunacy.
Just over ten years after opening the pressure to expand Prestwich became significant enough to require another extension programme, doubling the size of the complex by adding a further 560 inmates. Much of the service area behind the original frontage was remodelled to accommodate the increase in inmates. In 1867, extensions were erected to the rear of the 1853 extensions and further new wards were added to the east of the site, linked by long lateral corridors. Both of these blocks were later linked by a water tower with arched access underneath to the stores yard accessed directly from the goods gate and North Lodge off Bury New Road. The courtyard also contained a new administrative block in Elizabethan style with decoratively glazed, mullioned windows and a intricately carved stone entrance porch. On each side a barn like hall space was added, that to the male side contained the stewards stores, whilst on the female side a dining hall was created. Various outlying structures were also added including a detached isolation block, later Kenyon House, and the asylum church, to the northwest of the main building.
The third Lancashire County Asylum was opened in 1873 near the town of Preston and had already been designed to reflect the expected numbers at that time and to relieve pressures on Lancaster and particularly Rainhill and Prestwich. The architect at Whittingham was Henry Littler, a manchester architect who had already provided designs for a number of the recent expansions at the Prestwich asylum, the design of the administrative block at Whittingham being of a style and scale reminiscent of his work on the counterpart at Prestwich. He would later become the primary architect for the Lancashire Asylums Board who would take on the running of all four of Lancashire’s County Asylums from the visiting committees of the county council and provide plans for the Annexe at Prestwich constructed from 1879, and eventually the Whalley Asylum in Ribblesdsale built from 1907.
The annexe site stood some distance west of the original building, and significantly lower down the hill. A private driveway was constructed through the grounds linking the two with the asylum farm between, leaving the main building past the church. The site for the annexe stood at the lower end of Mere Clough and had been previously used in part for gravel extraction. Adjacent to the west stood the Bunkers Hill Bleach Works, later the Waterdale Dye Works which was accessed from Clifton Road. The annexe site comprised an polygonal structure with four ward blocks arranged around a central service area and with an administrative block and recreation hall to the centre of the south facade. The administrative block was the only three storey area and also comprised staff accommodation. Aside from access from the main site, the annexe also had an entrance gate with lodge onto Clifton Road, as well as a detached mortuary block, distinct from the one which served the main complex. One of the most distinctive structures for many years was the chimney which stood within the boiler house complex, inside the main building. By 1883, when the annexe opened, the capacity of the main building had reached 1,200 with a further 1,100 being acommodated in the additional complex.
Around the turn of the century, space within the main building was opened up for further patients still by constructing separate male and female staff blocks (later Chadwick and Harrop Houses respectively) so that attendants were no longer obliged to live in rooms off the main wards. Numbers of inmates had aleeady by this time exceeded 3,000. Extensions were also made to some of the wards in the annexe. A new detached male infirmary, later ‘F Block’, was added prior to 1909 with a corresponding female infirmary (now the Bowness Unit) following soon after to the north. Both were constructed on previously vacant land between the main asylum and Bury New Road where most of the final developments prior to the NHS takeover were to be built. Elsewhere the Chorlton and Manchester Boards of Guardians for the Poor Law had constructed a colony for epileptics at Langho close to the LAB’s Brockhall Inebriate reformatory. This meant that such patient’s who may formerly have been admitted to the county asylum could be transferred to such specialist establishments.
World War I caused major hardship at the asylum as staff were called up for service, some of whom would not return. Space amongst the Asylums of the LAB was vacated and inmates dispersed across other institutions in the group. Prestwich received inmates transferred from the new LAB Winwick Asylum which had become the Lord Derby War Hospital as well as from the West Annexe at Whittingham which was also put to military use. The proposed LAB Whalley Asylum which had not yet opened for its planned purpose was also given over to the military and used as the Queen Mary’s Military Hospital.
Between 1917 and 1919 the asylum was to employ a locum medical officer named Montagu Lomax. In 1921 he was to publish a book entitled ‘The Experiences of an Asylum Doctor’ based on his time at Prestwich, of which he was deeply critical. The allegations rocked the insular world of the county asylums and was one of the first major critical written works on the asylum system of the 20th century.
In 1923 the Lancashire Asylums were renamed Mental Hospitals, representing an attempt to change the negative perception of their roles. This was in line with other County and Borough Mental Hospitals, all of which had been renamed by the time of the 1930 act of parliament which was to create voluntary admission which would avoid certification. Accordingly Prestwich became the Lancashire County Mental Hospital, Prestwich, known usually as the Prestwich Mental Hospital. The Lancashire Asylums Board itself became the Lancashire Mental Hospitals Board instead.
Major changes were to take place once more at the Prestwich as most of the 1867 extensions east of the administrative block of the main building were demolished excluding the water tower and an adjacent stub. This allowed larger vehicles to pass to the south of the water tower whose arch had become restrictive of deliveries into the stores yard. A new three storey ward block (‘E Block’) was built to the male or south side of the arch and linked by covered way to the main complex. To the east, between ‘E Block’ and the mortuary , two detached villas (‘A Block’) were constructed on the former hockey ground and also linked by corridors. Part of the mortuary block was set aside for use as a clinical laboratory. The new buildings took the form of substantial neo-georgian structures typical of institutional design in that era.
The Second World War brought about the requisitioning of part of the hospital for war casualties under the Emergency Medical Services Scheme, and after a brief return to ownership of the LMHC the hospital was transferred to the new National Health Service in 1948.
The creation of the NHS brought into common ownership many of the areas hospitals formerly owned by disparate authorities, including many old poor law institutions. One such hospital was to become the Springfield hospital, later the North Manchester Hospital (Springfield Site), which also took on a number of mental illness patients in the area. The Cheadle Royal Hospital however, was to remain independent and continued to serve wealthy fee-paying patient’s outside of NHS control. Under the NHS links were weakened between the former LMHC institutions as the administrative structure and subsequent reforms of the NHS resulted in hospitals in the same geographical areas being more closely linked. A number of new structures were completed on the Prestwich hospital site as modernisation took place in the 1960’s and 70’s including a teaching unit, adolescent unit and school and industrial therapy facilities. A nurse training school was set up in a house owned by the hospital on Bury New Road known as Thornhill. Burials at St. Mary’s Church, Prestwich ceased in 1968, with patient’s having been buried there since the asylum opened.
Patients were spread across numerous wards, still predominantly divided by gender with chronic and long stay patients being concentrated at the annexe, which had long been renamed Clifton House. Given its remote location from the main building but substantial capacity, Clifton House continued to support itself with its own heating plant, dining and recreation hall, kitchens as well as a cafe in the main entrance area. Both wings to either side had been damaged previously, having lost their pitched roofs and replaced by flat asphalt – a similar fate had also befallen the old medical superintendent’s residence, Century House in the main building which lost it’s attic floor in the process and gained a parapet at roofline instead. By the early 1980’s the Edenfield Centre medium secure unit was established within the north east section of the building whilst the remaining sections were gradually vacated. The main building was also cleared ward by ward with most long stay areas vacated by 1994 with outlying buildings boarded up. The disused chapel, without prospect of future use, was demolished and grounds maintenance scaled. The hospital closed as a long-stay facility in 1996 but was chosen to remain the area’s centre for specialist mental health services which have continued to develop on parts of the estate. The main building, in particular was used as a location for the TV series ‘Medics’ whose cast included Sue Johnson and Tom Baker which was filmed in a number of hospitals in the area especially Tameside General.
Since closure many of the old buildings have been demolished on both the main and clifton house complexes and the remaining buildings present a rather disjointed appearance. On the main site the area facing onto the Bury New Road was sold for redevelopment for a supermarket and restaurant complex which involved the demolition of the north lodge, ’A’, ‘E’ and ‘F’ blocks although the former female infirmary to the north, which had become the Bowness Unit was retained and refurbished for mental health usage. Harrop House, the former female nurse’s home was modified for use by the trust for administrative functions and training. The works yards, laundry and boiler house also survive in modified form nearby in hospital use. The south lodge onto Clifton Road survives in private residential use as do the nearby staff cottages. The main building has been demolished and it’s site is gradually being utilised for new units, in particular Junction 17, a replacement for the old Mc Guinness and Gardener units and Cloughside College buildings for adolescents which it replaced. The internal road network continues to serve the site of Clifton House which has been largely demolished with exception of the section (Block R) that had been incorporated into the Edenfield medium secure unit which has since been substantially extended. onto the vacant areas alongside. Most of the farm buildings still survive on Clifton Road, and are now in private ownership.