RAIKESWOOD Hospital started life as the Skipton Union workhouse - but became a much-loved institution in the town.

Erected in the late 1830s at a cost of £4,000, it was designed to accommodate 200 inmates.

It had a reputation of being rather more humane than many other workhouses and, in 1871, even provided an excursion to Morecambe for the workhouse children.

In 1930, control of the workhouse site passed to the West Riding County Council and it was redesignated as a Public Assistance Institution, with the infirmary being enlarged and a new nurses' home being erected.

The site later became Raikeswood Hospital - "a bright, caring establishment, staffed by people whose only concern has been the well-being of those in the twilight of their lives".

But, by the 1990s, it was on borrowed time as Airedale Health Authority struggled with an predicted deficit of £1.4 million.

So, with the dawn of a new financial year, it decided that Raikeswood would close on Friday, April 5, 1991, with its 56 patients being transferred to other hospitals in the areas.

The move would result in the loss of about 80 jobs - 40 full-time and 40 part-time - and would save the district £600,000 a year.

The staff were given just over a week's notice of the closure.

"The way it has been handled is disgusting," said one member of staff. "Some people have worked here for 30 years. There are people on holiday and it will be a great shock to them when they return.

"Only last week, £1,000 worth of curtains were bought for Ward 2. The paint isn't dry and now they are closing it."

Health authority chairman Donald Hanson said he appreciated the decision would cause great concern, but the Health Advisory Service had recommended closure because it felt the hospital was not up to modern-day standards.

It was worried that the site gradient made it difficult to transfer patients from wards to therapy departments, toilets were inaccessible to patients in wheelchairs, corridors were too narrow and, on one ward, the emergency exit was via a permanent chute.

"The hospital has a long history of valuable support to the residents of Skipton and district, but no longer provides the standard of accommodation required for modern therapeutic care for elderly people," said Mr Hanson, who added that he had been given a commitment by the Regional Health Authority that all monies from the sale of the Raikeswood site would be used to fund improvement at Skipton General Hospital.

His hope - which was never fulfilled - was that it would be possible to provide two new wards for the elderly, a day room and day centre.

Mr Hanson was also optimistic that some of the staff would be offered jobs at Airedale Hospital and said others would be needed for the new wards at Skipton General.

His comments failed to appease members of Skipton Hospital Friends, who saw the closure as a betrayal and launched a petition to try to get the health authority to change its mind.

Over the years, the Friends had laid out the gardens, donated seats, spruced up the wards and bought equipment.

President Norman Hodgson said: "The staff are in tears and residents are distraught. The authority is not thinking about old people, but about money. It has been a set-up from start to finish."

He added that the Health Advisory Service report was an excuse and it was laughable that after 150 years to say that the corridors were too narrow and toilet facilities inadequate.

Friends chairman Betty Patchett said Raikeswood was the finest geriatric hospital in the country and much money had been spent in recent years installing things such as gas heating and a damp-proof course.

"The Friends have been working for the hospital for 40 years and it has been their life. We are all absolutely shattered," she said.

Also hitting out at the decision was Friends treasurer Kenneth Holmes, who said the community had raised "scores of thousands of pounds" over the years and among other things had provided Raikeswood with a day room.

The closure plans were also condemned by a local doctor, who claimed it was yet another instance where Skipton was being deprived of beds for elderly residents.

Dr Brian Fisher, of Otley Street Surgery, who worked at the hospital for 26 years, said that while he accepted the district was experiencing financial difficulties, he was dismayed by the proposals and the hurried timescale.

"It is basically about money and I feel, as with a lot of things in the health service at the moment, patient services come a long way down the scale. There always seems to be money for administration, but not for patient services."

He added that the general management of the NHS needed to be looked at as wards were being closed throughout the country.

"This has a knock-on effect, with waiting lists getting longer. The health service keeps putting out adverts, saying everything will get better but that cannot happen if money is not being directed in the right places."

He also accused Airedale Health Authority of deliberately running down Raikeswood Hospital. "It has been very subtle - they have let the numbers fall over the past six months and then they claim they have no-one to fill the beds."

And he said he was unconvinced by the Regional Health Authority's promise to create extra beds and day facilities in Skipton from money raised through the sale of Raikeswood. "Several promises have been made in the past and have never been followed up. This is yet another closure of services on the periphery of the area and I don't think they will be replaced. I don't believe anything they say."

Today, Raikeswood is a luxury housing complex.