In 1893 the Leigh Local Board purchased the Astley Hall (Damhouse) Estate with the intention of turning the site into a sanatorium for infectious diseases. The late Elizabethan manor house was turned into the administration block and ward blocks were built in the grounds around it. Just over a century later the sanatorium, which had become a general hospital in 1948 was closed, the wards demolished and thankfully, the manor house was saved and restored by the Mort’s Astley Heritage Trust. The hospital, which was at the heart of the Astley community, exists in local memory but has all but disappeared physically, apart from one little building that was used as the Smallpox hospital, tucked away down a country lane.
Coldalhurst Lane, 1902
By 1902, Astley Sanatorium had been functioning for a number of years and was successful in the treatment of Diphtheria, Scarlet Fever and Typhoid. That year the Joint Hospital Board purchased land down Coldalhurst Lane and built two ward blocks to deal with Smallpox patients. The above map shows the location of the Smallpox Hospital (bottom right) and the distance from Astley Sanatorium (top right). The Smallpox Hospital was built about half a mile away to avoid cross contamination with other patients.
The buildings were built of corrugated iron and lined with wood. They were furnished inside and heated by radiators. Fortunately, there was never an epidemic of the disease in the area. There was a small cottage built near to the wards, for the superintendent of this isolated unit to live in. In 1911, 56 year old Thomas Millichap and his wife Mary Ann were recorded as living there in the census.
World War One
As with many public and private buildings, Astley Sanatorium played its part in the war effort on the home front. On 23 October 1914, a group of 29 Belgian refugees arrived at the Astley, having fled their homes from the German invasion. It was decided to house the men, women and a two month old baby in the Smallpox Hospital, which had remained unused since 1906.
Its seems quite unimaginable what these people went through and history seems to have largely forgotten the plight of the Belgians in the midst of the horrific nature of the war. Here is an excerpt from The Chronicle which provides an insight into the world at the time:
Yet these men and women were only a unit of the crowds who have had to flee for their lives. They have come across the Channel in all sorts of crafts in a panic-stricken rush from German rule. Twelve thousand came from Ostend in a single day. Most of them had spent the night at sea, without food or shelter, huddled together on the decks to keep warm. Transports, Channel steamers, pleasure boats, colliers, trawlers, dredgers, yachts, motor and rowing boats and fishing smacks were all used to bring the exiles over to Folkestone, Dover and Lowestoft. Their privations were severe and some terrible stories of hardships and distress are told. A child of three died on the way over in a fishing boat. A mother lost her baby which slipped out of her arms when she was overcome with sea-sickness.
The Belgian refugees who arrived at Astley had suffered greatly; one man had become separated from his wife and children had no idea of their whereabouts and the majority of the group had no personal possessions beyond the clothes they stood in and the sudden and swift nature of the German invasion of Belgium meant they fled their homes under attack, with no time to gather anything.
Every effort was made by the local population to welcome their guests. The wards were decorated with flowers and a dinner was prepared, with coffee served afterwards as a special consideration to the continental guests. On Sunday, the Belgians were escorted to St. Joseph’s Catholic Church in Leigh to celebrate mass and they received several invitations to have tea in the homes of local people.
The Belgian refugees only stayed at the Smallpox temporarily until they were housed in proper accommodation. In an ironic twist, the following year, 1915, saw the Smallpox hospital used to treat German Prisoner’s of War who were suffering from infectious illnesses. The prisoners were housed as POW camp in Leigh, a few miles from Astley and given the nature of wartime conditions, they had to be treated in isolation away from the public, hence the use of the smallpox hospital.
The site today
The sanatorium at Astley grew in size during the 1930s as the catchment area for patients was widened but by 1948 it became a general hospital following the formation of the National Health Service. The Smallpox hospital itself was later used in 1928, the local press reports that in June that year it had received patients suffering from the disease. However, the Smallpox hospital had certainly become disused by the 1950s and the disease itself was eradicated in 1980 following a global immunization campaign by the World Health Organisation.
Today the former Smallpox hospital is on private property. One of the wards and the cottage were demolished and a private house now stands there. The surviving ward is used an outbuilding. Although currently still hidden down a secluded lane and still largely isolated in appearance as it was a century ago, this is all due to change imminently as a mass housing estate is due to be built on the former farmland surrounding the site.
– John and Sylvia Tonge, Astley Hall (Damhouse), (Self Published, 2002)
– The Chronicle, 23 October 1914 (Wigan Archives and Leigh Local Studies)
– Western Daily Press, 26 June 1928 (www.findmypast.co.uk)