It was a forerunner to the National Health Service, for decades offering free healthcare to some of the city’s most needy. But today Wakefield’s Clayton Hospital stands (just) in a state of complete dereliction.
Though its structure remains, philanthropists who supported it in its first century of existence would find the place hard to recognise.
The hospital, founded in 1854, has been out of use for six years and, now home to several pigeons and at least one dead rodent, its windows are boarded up, paint and plaster peel from its walls and many of its internal doors are smashed in. Wires dangle from its ceiling, and, as we make our way around, we are forced to negotiate, by torchlight, a path through the rubble scattered across much of the floor.
It is likely that in the next 12 months the former hospital will cease to exist. Whilst a date is not yet set for demolition, planning permission has been approved for much of the crumbling facility, bar a central tower and its adjoining buildings, to be knocked down. And its new owners the Wakefield Grammar School Foundation (WGSF), who plan to redevelop the site, are hopeful that work will be underway “not too far in the future”.
If its looming fate was not reason enough to want to visit, the stories of Wakefield’s great and good, who kept it on its feet ahead of the founding of the NHS, was certainly another. And it was the tale of one of these - Edith Mackie - that was the reason for the exploration.
Members of the Forgotten Women of Wakefield Project, who organised the visit, are researching and sharing her story as part of their work to shine light on the lives of influential women from the city’s past.
“Edith Mackie was very instrumental in raising funds and awareness for the need for a hospital in Wakefield”, says Sarah Cobham, from arts company Dream Time Creative, who is leading the project. Born in 1853, from an early age Edith, who the group hope to have recognised with a blue plaque next year, devoted her life to helping others.
With a motto of ‘deeds not words’, she raised money for Clayton, where she spent much of her time visiting patients, founded a training institute for nurses and had a children’s ward named in her honour. She also sat for many years on its Board of Governors, the group has found.
“Those unfortunate people in Wakefield who could not afford medical care would not have got it without people like Edith Mackie,” says Sarah, who explains that Edith also gifted her own cash to support the hospital. “And particularly the children, which is why the children’s ward was named after her. She ensured that children who needed medical care and attention got that.”
It is thought that a plaque bearing her name was left in the hospital when it was vacated in 2012. But it is nowhere to be seen. Standing in what was once the ward, Sarah says: “Edith was particularly interested in caring for and nurturing the children of Wakefield. She used to visit every single day.”
Edith, she tells me, set up a nursing school that became known as a centre for excellence and trained people from all over the UK. Some, it is thought, went on to provide medical care on the front line during the Second World War. “We have in Clayton Hospital the nurses’ home where they were trained,” Sarah says. “Apparently this was still in use until just before the hospital closed. I’m certainly aware of living stories of women that have trained here.”
Edith’s is not the only story to tell. As we walk through the hospital, today there are few reminders of the philanthropists that first supported it, enabling the then ‘voluntary hospital’ to provide free medical care for people too poor to afford the ‘luxury’.
But their donations remain part of a long history of Clayton. The hospital’s origins go back as far as 1787, when Wakefield General Dispensary was formed to treat outpatients in the city.
The year 1826 then saw the founding of the Wakefield House of Recovery, for poor in-patients suffering from disease. According to a statement prepared by heritage consultants Purcell for WGSF’s Clayton planning application, the latter closed in 1854 and offered furniture and equipment to the dispensary. In the same year, the document states, then Mayor of Wakefield Thomas Clayton bought several buildings on Northgate to allow the dispensary to expand and admit its first in patients.
The hospital became known as the Wakefield General Dispensary and Clayton Hospital in his honour, later changing again to Clayton Hospital and Wakefield General Dispensary after he further donated.
In 1879, four years after plans for a new hospital were announced, the new Clayton, where it now stands off Wentworth Street, was opened. Benefactors supported it over the next seven decades. Among them, according to the heritage statement, was Samuel Canning Childs. In 1928, a new outpatients department was opened thanks to a donation of more than £32,000 that he made in memory of his parents. Several years later, in 1931, the Ann Canning Hospital for Women opened as a result of another of his bequests.
Come 1948, with the formation of the NHS, the hospital ceased to be a voluntary hospital and was known from then on as Clayton Hospital. A royal visit from the Princess Royal and plaque unveiling marked the hospital’s centenary year in 1954.
In 2012, WGSF was advised that the NHS was planning to sell the site, says Laurence Perry, Bursar and Clerk to the Governors at the grammar school foundation. After a period of negotiation, an agreement was reached with the Mid Yorkshire Hospitals NHS Trust for the sale, subject to planning permission, which was granted in 2017.
The WGSF, which incorporates Wakefield Girls’ High School and Queen Elizabeth Grammar School, took ownership of the hospital in January this year. The site now has a new life is in store, with sports facilities, a swimming pool, small auditorium and business school expected to be created during its redevelopment.
It is hoped its history can be kept alive through an archive in the retained original building - and Edith Mackie will likely be among those it will recognise.
“It is the current hospital building, now awaiting demolition, that many people will remember,” says Kevin Trickett, president of Wakefield Civic Society. “It has been part of the Wakefield landscape for nearly 150 years. Everyone will have passed by it at some point. Some local people might have worked there, others will have visited relatives there and some will have no doubt had treatment there themselves. Sadly some will have also died there.
“It’s not surprising that so many Wakefield residents hold the hospital in their memories when it has played such a large part in the lives of so many local families.”
Over the past six years, the ‘abandoned’ hospital has attracted much attention and has been the subject of several Youtube videos looking inside.
In 2014, local paper the Wakefield Express reported that around 200 youths turned out to go ghost hunting at the site after rumours it was haunted went viral on social media.
In 2015, Wakefield Council threatened to take enforcement action over the hospital, which was plagued by vandalism.
In 2016, police issued warnings about the dangers of the site after being called out to reports of youths on its roof.
In 2017, Wakefield Civic Society unveiled a blue plaque to mark the site where the hospital first stood before its move to its current site.