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There are several references to a 'leper house at Hungerford' in the late 12th and early 13th century. Most notably, a Patent Roll of 1232 includes letters of protection from King Henry III to the 'leprous sisters' of the church of St Lawrence in Hungerford, and conferred not only pledges of 'protection' against molestation, damage or harm to the institution, but also contained a clause urging financial support to be given to it - recommendatory permission to seek alms for their house sine termino. (Pat 16 Hen. III m.1.).
Leprosy was prevalent in England in the last half of the 12th century; and in the 13th and 14th centuries there were said to be about 200 leper houses. After this the disease declined and only relatively isolated cases seem to have occurred.
The horrific effects of this disease, for which there was no known cure at the time, caused waves both of compassion and revulsion. Wealthy patrons founded leper houses or hospitals in their own localities. We do not know who was the founder of the leper house at Hungerford; but it is possible that it was founded by the Lord of the manor, Robert de Beaumont, 2nd Earl of Leicester (from 1168-1190), who was nicknamed Blanchmains ('white hands'), perhaps because he was a victim of leprosy.
Leper houses were traditionally set up at the edge of the town limits, not only because of a fear of transmission of the disease, but also because it is stated in the bible that the leper should dwell 'without the camp'. Leper houses or hospices came to be provided by and attached to religious institutions, its inmates consisting of 'brothers or sisters'; with their own chapel, its own administrator or 'prior', a priest, and accommodation on average for about 10 lepers.
The site of the leper house in Hungerford is frequently mentioned in early 13th century documents, although the exact location is hard to determine.
The most frequent records are in Close Rolls and surveys ("perambulations") of Savernake Forest. Norman Hidden (in "Aspects of the Early History of Hungerford", 2009) discusses several early references. Many refer to the boundary of the forest running along the King's Highway from the Leper House at Hungerford to Puttehalle (Puthall). A perambulation of 1199 states that the boundary ran "from Puttehalle by the road leading to the house of lepers at Hungerford, and so up the water which comes from the Bedwin" and so on.
A little further evidence is provided by a late 12th century perambulation of Hippenscombe bailiwick. According to this, about 1 mile north of Shalborne the bounds crossed the river Shalborne at what is later known as Six Acres Lane and continued down the stream "which flows under a bridge called Smythford outside Hungerford, and so from Smythford to the house of lepers of Hungerford, going down by the water; and so from the house of lepers as the water called Kennet flows to Cherleford Mill". Smythford Bridge is probably a variant of Smitham Bridge. Clearly the leper house was alongside the river. Charlford Mill was another 2 miles downstream from Denford, just north of the present Home Farm.
The site of the leper house at the extremity of the town appears to have been not only on the Hungerford - Marlborough road but also somewhere along the river below Smitham bridge. One site which fulfils all of these requirements is the site of the former hospital (or Priory) of St John, on modern day Bridge Street.
The date of the foundation of the hospital of St John is, like that of the leper house, unknown, but in May 1232 the king issued it with letters of protection. Six months later, on 25 October, the king, issued two simultaneous letters of protection, one for Richard "chaplain of St John" and the other for the "leprous sisters" of the church of St Lawrence already quoted.
Both the hospital of St John and the parish church of St Lawrence were administered by the Abbey of Bec and it was the Abbey which presented its nominee to the vicarage of Hungerford as well as the chaplaincy of St John's. Sometimes the two posts were occupied by the same man; and since there was a vicar, named Richard, during the period 1220-1238 it seems likely that this was the case in 1232. There was clearly a close connection between the hospital for the leprous sisters and the church of St Lawrence and equally between the hospital of St John and the vicar. It seems reasonable therefore to suppose that the leper house was, or was an annexe to, or became, the hospital of St John, later called the priory.
It is probable that the need for a leper hospital as such died out in Hungerford quite early, for there is no extant reference to the leper house later than the early thirteenth century Perhaps the occasional sufferer continued to be cared for at the Priory of St. John just a part of the hospital's other services.
- The Leper House at Hungerford, in "Aspects of the early History of Hungerford", Norman Hidden, 2009