The village of Hungerford probably originated in the late 11th century as a hamlet grouped around the church. The first mention of the church was in 1108. Around the end of the 12th century, it is probable that the new town of Hungerford was laid out on the pattern we know today - a main north-south street, with burgage strip plots on either side of the street running back to the back lanes (now Fairview Road and Prospect Road) on either side.
- Savernake Forest at its maximum, c1200
- Bridge Street, looking north towards the site of The Priory
The Leper House:
In the late 12th century, leprosy was prevalent. Indeed, by the 13th and 14th centuries, there were known to be about 200 leper houses in England.
At this time, the Forest of Savernake was very much larger than we know it today. In a "perambulation" (or survey) of the forest dated 1199, we read that it reached in the east as far as "the house of the lepers outside Hungerford".
The exact site of the leper colony has been much debated. There are several early references - it was mentioned in 1228, and later in 1232 when Henry III signed letters of protection in favour of "the leprous sisters of St. Lawrence of Hungerford". Leper houses were often attached to religious institutions, and this appears to have been the case at Hungerford. Follow this for more on the Leper House.
The Priory of St John the Baptist:
At the same time, also in 1232, King Henry III had signed other letters in favour of the house and brethren of the Hospital of St. John the Baptist. Richard, the Chaplain (Prior or Warden) of St. John, was to celebrate divine service three times a week, and was to "provide lodging for poor, sick, and infirm persons".
This Priory of St. John was established at the northern edge of old Hungerford, on the island between the two arms of the river Dun - occupied now by the War Memorial and various buildings comprising the northern part of Bridge Street. Follow this for much more on the Priory of St John.
We can surely look on these institutions as the foundation of medical care in Hungerford.
There is no written reference to the leper house after 1300, and it may well have ceased to exist at this time. The Priory of St. John continued until its dissolution by Henry VIII in 1547.
It seems that the Bear Inn became established on land adjacent to St. John's Priory and the leper house as a hostel or annexe to these institutions, providing additional accommodation for travellers and visitors along the King's Way. Indeed, the earliest known (dating from 1464) written reference to The Bear refers to it as a hospice.
Contagious diseases and the Pest House:
Throughout the Middle Ages there were, of course, a number of illnesses which caused suffering and death on a wide scale. Most of these were contagious illnesses of which we see relatively little in modern times. We have mentioned leprosy, but must add bubonic plague, (which caused the Black Death and killed about half the country in 1348-1350), along with a liberal amount of dysentery, cholera, diphtheria, tuberculosis, and smallpox.
None of these really showed much sign of declining until well into the 1700 and 1800's. Many of these illnesses were recognised as contagious, leprosy from as long ago as biblical times. Others followed in the Middle Ages, and most towns arranged for one (or more) dwellings to be designated "The Pest House", where unfortunate sufferers of these various infections would be sent, not for treatment, but most probably to die.
In Hungerford, the pest house is clearly marked on the 1819 Enclosure Award Map. It lay, as they so often did, on the very edge of the town, and in Hungerford's case it was the most westerly dwelling on the road out of the town to the west, close to Freeman's Marsh. The building still exists today, the thatched cottage near the marsh gate, now much extended. It probably became established c.1603, when there was much plague in the area. By 1848, it is known that a new pest house was established at Sanham Green. The implication is that the former pest house had closed by this time. Follow this for much more on the Pest House.
Medicine in Hungerford:
- The Early Days - from the 13th century
- The Start of Organised Medicine - from 1550 to c1830
- Local Hospitals (including more distant ones used by Hungerford residents)