Richard Anthony Underwood as a Student Mental Nurse in the 1960s

The Crest of Whittingham Hospital
The Crest of Whittingham Hospital

When Richard Anthony Underwood was twenty-one years old he determined to become a mental health nurse, and he became a student mental nurse at Townleys Hospital Bolton (now the Royal Bolton Hospital). The course was split, with the academic training taking place in the hospital training rooms at Bolton, but with the practical placements taking place in Whittingham Mental Hospital just outside Preston.

Whittingham hospital was an old building, built in 1873, which at one time grew to be the largest mental hospital in the UK and possibly the largest in Europe.

The Sun Newspaper front-page about Whittingham Hospital.
The Sun Newspaper front-page about Whittingham Hospital.

I commenced working as a student nurse at Whittingham in 1968, just a year after other student nurses had been threatened with legal action and dismissal for complaining about the conditions. I found the conditions there appalling, with routine physical and mental abuse of patients. Students were continually complaining about more senior staff, and their complaints were usually ignored or the complainant would be threatened with dismissal.

Students braved the threats of dismissal and this eventually led to an enquiry by a committee led by Sir Robert Payne.  His report (Report of the Committee of Inquiry into Whittingham Hospital, ISBN 9780101486101, 1972) led to a police investigation which in turn led to one nurse being convicted of manslaughter, two nurses being convicted of theft, the sacking of the hospital’s two most senior nurses, and the dismissal or resignation of every member of the hospital Management Committee.

Some of the things found by the enquiry, and some of the things seen by me, included:

  • Patients ‘bathed’ by being forcibly stripped and hosed down with a hose-pipe.
  • Patients being locked in small store rooms.
  • Patients being restrained by having a towel held around their kneck until they passed out.
  • Patients being restrained by being tied to chairs.
  • Patients being dragged by their hair to move them from place to place.
  • Patients being routinely and excessively drugged.
  • Patients being routinely assaulted and subjected to violence.

I sometimes worked on wards containing one-hundred mentally ill patients, with the only staff on duty being a single trained nurse and myself, a student nurse.  There was no way I could ever learn the names of all the patients, never mind what was wrong with them or what their treatment should be.  Some of the patients had been hit so frequently that whenever I approached them to speak to them they flinched away to avoid the expected slap.  Every patient, by law, had to be seen by a doctor at least once a year, and on one occasion I was present when the annual reviews were done.  The doctor came to the ward, signed a one line entry in each one of the patient’s records, and then left without seeing any of the patients.  The patient’s records sometimes showed these single line entries for several years, with no other notes being recorded on the record.

In the 1960’s most mental health jobs were located in similar large asylums, so my experiences at Whittingham hospital led me to conclude mental health nursing was not what I wanted to do at that time. I subsequently left the course aged twenty-two years and joined the police.

Further information about Whittingham Hospital in the 1960’s can be found on Wikipedia by following the link, especially if you scroll down to the ‘Abuse scandal and enquiry‘ section,

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