From pauper asylum to care for mental health

Middlewood Hospital, Sheffield - November 1975
Middlewood Hospital, Sheffield - November 1975
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Middlewood Hospital in Sheffield that once looked after people with mental health problems started in life with the now terrible-sounding name of the South Yorkshire Lunatic Asylum.

The first patients were received there in 1872.

Middlewood Hospital, Sheffield - protest 4th June 1990

Middlewood Hospital, Sheffield - protest 4th June 1990

Before that the workhouse in Sheffield looked after what were then known as pauper lunatics.

Anyone who was more difficult to treat was sent off to Wakefield in West Yorkshire.

Patients were housed in large wards in two large three-storey blocks and men and women were separated.

The asylum had its own bakery and brewery in the grounds and there were workshops for upholstery, carpentry, plumbing, book-binding and other skills.

The asylum was described in the press as one of the most imposing structures near Sheffield when Middlewood was still a village.

The isolated spot made it difficult for patients to receive visitors they were allowed once a month.

Tickhill History Society researched patients from the area and found that, although it was a pauper asylum, many patients had worked in domestic service and trades.

Several, including joiner John Alderson, who was admitted in 1903, were able to continue with their working lives after they left the hospital. He died aged 72.

The Tickhill group found that “regulations covering the behaviour of staff and general care of patients show considerable concern for the patients’ welfare: providing daily outdoor exercise, comfortable and home-like wards with plants from the garden, birds and pet animals and a variety of entertainments.

“At the same time, expectations of the staff’s behaviour towards the patients were high from showing kindness and consideration to being conscientious about security, cleanliness and the administration of medicines.”

By 1906 it had beds for 1,600 inmates.

In 1915 the building, then known as Wadsley Asylum, became Wharncliffe War Hospital with at one point more than 2,000 beds.

The patients were evacuated, mainly to institutions in West Yorkshire.

Wharncliffe War Hospital closed in July 1920, having treated nearly 37,000 patients.

Around 1923 the word asylum was dropped and the building became known as a mental hospital.

Outdoor tuberculosis wards for men and women were added in 1926 and then a new, separate Middlewood Hospital opened in February 1935.

The idea was to study and treat all new patients to identify those who could be readily cured and returned home from the others.

During World War Two, part of the building became Wharncliffe Emergency Hospital for military casualties.

Its medical and surgical facilities stayed open after the war.

The hospital specialised in plastic surgery, particularly to treat burns, having gained expertise from treating air crew during the war.

In 1954 cases of spinal injury were transferred to Lodge Moor and other facilities 
were gradually phased out.

Wharncliffe Hospital closed in October 1978, by which time its 129-bed unit had only 11 patients.

The mental hospital had continued its own work during the war and in 1949 Sheffield Regional Hospital Board decided to expand by adding 1,000 beds.

However, by the early 1970s, attitudes to the treatment of the mentally ill began to change, moving to providing more services in the community.

The policy became highly controversial when expanded by Margaret Thatcher’s government.

The hospital finally closed in 1996.