Some called it ‘Little Annie, some called it ‘The Nurses’ special’ and to some it was ‘Sylum Billy.
It was possibly the strangest little railway in Britain, a single track just over one and a half miles long, on which a wheezy old steam locomotive would haul coal, provisions, staff and patients to the country’s largest mental hospital, Whittingham. For some who would spend the rest of their lives there, it was a one-way trip.
Historian and retired policeman David Hindle, who worked for a time at Whittingham, takes his readers back to those days in his book ‘Victorian Preston and the Whittingham Hospital Railway’.
In the 19th century Preston was a grim place, a dirty industrial town that inspired Charles Dickens for his novel ‘Hard Times: Poverty, disease and alcoholism were rife. Despite its reputation as a Catholic town, boosted by an influx of Irish workers, Preston was a fairly godless place. In 1851, it is reported, church attendance was only half that of other cotton towns. One newspaper correspondent observed: “In another beer house, fiddling and singing is the order of the night; in every one it is vice with the paint off, for most, if not all, of the men are thieves or worse, and the women, without exception, are prostitutes of the lowest and most depraved class. Here they are unmistakably plying their horrid vocation, drinking almost fiercely. The Preston Chronicle reported on the ‘thieves kitchens’ with which Dickens was familiar: “In these places lads, women, men, girls, beggars, thieves, tramps, vagabonds, cripples and prostitutes sleep together, without any respect to age or any distinction of sex, huddling in imperfectly ventilated rooms, and taking off their clothing before retiring to rest on account of the vermin:’ Conditions were ripe for physical mental illness. For the poorest and the sick, the workhouse was their fate, and when the workhouses were prohibited by law from physically restraining the lunatics, the authorities agreed such people should be housed in purpose-built institutions. And so plans for the County Asylum at Whittingham came about. The Chronicle reported, unsympathetically: “One large workhouse would have more of a deterrent effect than the honeysuckle-fronted places we now have. It would be a bigger and more tremendous embodiment of pauperism that repulsive idea that we associate with workhouses would be more tangible:’ It was to be a 1,000-bed asylum, centred on a grand-looking building called St Luke’s, which could have passed for a stately home. The first patients were admitted in 1873. Further annexes were added, and by 1915 the asylum, by now renamed Whittingham Mental Hospital, had more than 3,500 patients, making it the largest in the country.
The hospital’s little railway came into being in the 1880s, the intention being to replace the horse-drawn carts that initially carried provisions to the asylum from Preston or Longridge stations. It would cost £12,000, and would save about £1,000 a year compared to road haulage. Work began in 1887 at the Grimsargh railway station, on the Preston-Longridge branch line, and a new little tank locomotive was bought from the Andrew Barclay company of Kilmarnock. The first trains ran in June 1889, and right from the start, the railway was a curiosity. Although it was intended to carry goods only, the hospital authorities decided on carrying staff and patients and bought a passenger carriage from the Lancaster Carriage and Wagon Company, the only one ever to be bought new. This was followed by an assortment of second-hand carriages from the London and North Western Railway and later the Lancashire and Yorkshire Railway. Carriages first carried the lettering ‘CAW’ for County Asylum Whittingham then later CMHW for County Mental Hospital Whittingham. The compartments were marked first, second and third (class) but this was merely a legacy of the previous owners, for no money was ever exchanged for tickets on the railway. A second tank engine was bought in 1904 from Barclays, and the two little engines ran the trains from early morning to late at night with two teams of enginemen. In the line’s heyday in the early 20th century, the trains carried 3,000 passengers a week and 12,000 tons of freight a year. In 1930, the Preston-Longridge line was closed to passenger traffic, but the little line soldiered on, still carrying goods and passengers. By 1946, the first Barclay tank engine was worn out, and the hospital authorities paid £750 in 1947 for an old Southern Railway 0-4-2 tank engine named `Riddlesdown’, which was renamed `James Fryars’ in honour of the chairman of the hospital’s visiting committee.
Barclay No 2 died in 1952 so the hospital then bought an odd-looking Sentinel 0-4-0 steam shunting engine from Bolton gasworks and renamed it ‘Gradwell’, After ‘James Fryars’ finally gave up the ghost in 1955 and went for scrap to Wigan, the vertical-boilered `Gradwell’ became the railway’s only motive power. In its declining years, after the old passenger carriages became unusable, passengers were carried in three ex-LNWR brake vans that were converted by the hospital’s own carpenters. They looked like cattle trucks, but they did the job until the railway eventually closed in 1957, and ‘Gradwell’ was sold to contractors at Bishop Auckland.
Throughout the line’s life, the engine crews had to take special precautions as they eased the trains along the unfenced line through the hospital’s immaculately-kept grounds. Even so, there were casualties. A male patient died in 1894 when he was struck near the hospital station, and four years later another patient committed suicide by laying his head on the track. The local paper reported: “Before the driver could apply his brakes the engine had passed over the neck, shockingly mutilating the body:’ The casualties weren’t just human, either. As the line ran through fields to the hospital, farm livestock sometimes came to grief. After one accident, a court ruled that the engines must no longer push the trains from the back, which restricted the driver’s sight, but had to run round the train and pull it on every trip. The fame of the peculiar Whittingham Hospital line spread far beyond Lancashire, even to the United States, where the San Francisco Examiner in its ‘Believe it or not’ feature by Mr Ripley carried a picture of ‘The no-fare train’ and declared: ‘You can travel 50 miles a day for nothing on the Grimsargh-Whittingham line, England.
Mr Hindle recalls his own memories of a visit during 1953: “On arrival at Grimsargh Station, we discovered that the entire operational staff on the railway comprised only two separate teams of drivers and firemen. Hence there was no ticket office and anyone could travel. All they provided at Grimsargh was a waiting room, complete with a roaring coal fire and a single electric light bulb. “It was rather like the ‘Marie Celeste’, a ghost station with no staff. Beneath considerable smoke emissions, an ancient steam engine suddenly appeared around the curve close to Dixon’s Farm. As the apparition drew nearer, along rails deeply submerged in a weedy single track, the sight and sound of steam was perceived with a sense of yearning and nostalgia. Upon arrival and after running round its train, I stood in awe at the sight of a truly antiquated steam engine named James Fryars and witnessed the early shift of hospital workers slamming the doors of three green carriages, which had been converted from LNWR guard vans by the hospital’s joiners. “The kindly engine crew allowed me on the footplate to look at the controls of the clapped out old veteran, affectionately known by them as ‘Jimmy Fryar. To my astonishment, fireman Bennett produced a coal shovel, which was placed above the roaring fire to fry bacon, eggs and field mushrooms for breakfast, washed down with tea from the driver’s billy can. I am not too sure about the coal dust, but giant field mushrooms on toast, washed down with tea from the driver’s billy can, tasted delicious.
The patented coaches bore an uncanny resemblance to cattle trucks. They even had the luxury of wooden seats around the sides of the carriage and gas central heating provided by a Calor Gas bottle, which was locked away inside the coaches.
Suddenly and unannounced there was a jolt and a lurch followed by a blow on the engine’s whistle, as the train eased off from the platform to commence the journey to Whittingham. The tiniest of windows allowed us to savour the pleasant countryside during the six-minute journey to Whittingham, which was a fairly comfortable ride as I recall. From Grimsargh Station, the line curved in a north-westerly direction away from the Longridge line, past an exchange siding used to stable British Railway’s coal trucks, before reducing to a single track approaching Dixon’s Farm. Here, at the first footpath crossing over the line, a family group gave us a friendly wave from lush green fields and the driver gave a reciprocal toot on the engine’s whistle. I was totally mesmerized by the whole experience of the Whittingham line.
Riding past tumbling lapwings with the exhaust beat and shrill whistle of the engine competing with joyful chirruping swallows and the evocative calls of curlews echoing over the meadows, not to mention the galloping heifers. The latter had a clear lead over the engine and seemed to be winning an impromptu race. After crossing Savick Brook the train veered slightly right and entered a cutting about thirty to forty feet deep, gloriously festooned with colourful ox-eye daisies and purple orchids to emerge on a high embankment while crossing over Blundell Brook and Brabiner Lane bridge, the largest bridge on the line. After crossing over the stone Dell Brow bridge, the familiar water tower landmark at Whittingham hospital and the black smoke rising from the boiler-house chimney came into view. One suddenly felt a feeling of deja vu on behalf of successive generations of patients who euphemistically had held a one-way ticket for the journey to the Victorian asylum that the railway line had served since 1889. As the train trundled on towards Whittingham Station it seemed to acquire an unnerving swaying motion whilst negotiating a left-hand curve on a high embankment. Alighting from the train on to the narrow platform we walked past the engine-shed and around an ornamental lake in the hospital grounds. Then, after being attacked by a busking mute swan and watching a cricket match, it was time to walk back to the railway station and experience the return journey, but on this occasion with ‘Jimmy Fryar’ propelling the train from the rear all the way back to Grimsargh. Maybe the driver had X-ray vision but then in those days who had heard of something called health and safety? It could only have happened on the Whittingham Very little survives of the old hospital line, apart from a bridge at Dell Brow, overgrown embankment and cutting and odd lengths of iron railings.
Whittingham Hospital itself closed in 1995 and most of the buildings have been demolished……