Exhibition review: You’d Hear Them Jingle in Clitheroe

David O’Driscoll reviews an exhibition on the history of two long-stay hospitals for people with learning disabilities 

David O’Driscoll reviews an exhibition on the history of two long-stay hospitals for people with learning disabilities 

A recruitment photograph of cadet nurses at Brockhall in the 1950s. Picture: Brenda Kay

I am aware that most of my learning disabilities colleagues have not had experience of the old long-stay hospitals that so dominated our services history.

In my experience, knowledge is rudimentary and, outside our services, knowledge and curiosity is often non-existent. I am concerned by this as such ‘hidden’ history is important today.

I travelled from London to Clitheroe, a small town in the Ribble Valley, Lancashire, to see an exhibition on the history of two long-stay hospitals, Brockhall and Calderstones, which are situated a few miles apart. The exhibition was called You’d Hear Them Jingle, a reference to a comment by a patient about the sound of the keys the nurses carried.

Both hospitals opened after the first world war; Brockhall closed in the 1990s and, although there are still patients at Calderstones, it is being closed as part of the government’s Transforming Care agenda.

A chance to showcase important work

Over the past two years, Pathways Associates, with the support of a Heritage Lottery Fund grant, started a history project by developing a website and establishing a digital archive holding recorded memories, photographs, documents and objects, which will be significant for future generations. The exhibition, which has now closed, showcased this important work.

The exhibition was built around this collection and featured interviews with family members, hospital patients and staff, displayed on foldaway banner stands with additional information about the two hospitals. There were glass cabinets with some interesting artefacts, such as nurses’ uniforms, keys and daily menu for patients on display. It also features an astonishing film of a Brockhall patient called Bill Howe who wrote his life story called Crossed Wires. The book was adapted into a film called A Happy Human Being in 1968.

These institutions were common all over the country. We need to find ways to understand how these places came about, who lived and worked there, but also as a guide to the changing attitudes and practices behind today’s rights-based agenda.

Contrasting views

In reviewing this exhibition, there seemed to be contrasting views on the hospitals. Staff seemed to have positive memories. One nurse remembered: ‘The staff and the artisan staff, the drivers and the laundry, they all cared about everybody: staff and patients alike. Everybody cared somehow.’

Many ex-residents often had different memories.

One said: ‘It were hard. People don't realise when I try to tell them what it were like. They think I am just making it up.  How am I supposed to make that up?’

I found this comment particularly revealing, as from my own historical work it is clear to me that support staff are often anxious in discussing with service user’s their institution’s experiences. I felt there was a fear of opening ‘a can of worms’. 

There are still substantial numbers of service users alive today who have had experience of these places. I believe in the power of education as a way of getting staff to engage with this history. But it is not only about staff, it is also as a way of engaging with the wider public.

To this end, the organisers held various well-attended events and a feature on the exhibition on BBC Radio Lancashire. The exhibition has closed, but it is portable and the organisers welcome opportunities to display it elsewhere.

This exhibition is an important attempt to generate some interest and curiosity in a fascinating history for everyone in our community and beyond. 

David O’Driscoll is a visiting research fellow, University of Hertfordshire

This article is for subscribers only