It may be hard to believe when visiting the pleasant market town of Thrapston today, but it was once home to a hospital for people affected by leprosy.
The discovery that a lazar, or leper, house had been established in Thrapston only came about after the forest records became available at the Public Record Office, now The National Archives.
Subsequent research now suggests that the hospital of St Leonard was situated alongside the River Nene on the east side of the Nine Arches Bridge.
The existence of the hospital was revealed in a 13th century account of an encounter with some poachers.
It was part of the forest law imposed by Norman kings that an inquest had to be held upon the discovery of any unauthorized slain deer or venison, and the flesh be sent to the nearest hospital for people affected by leprosy.
The account found in The National Archives reads as follows:
“Sunday morning after Epiphany, 1246.
“Maurice de Meht was passing through Sudborough with Sir Robert Passelewe, a justice of the forest, when they saw three men carrying a sack.
“Suspecting that they were poachers, Maurice followed with his bow stretched.
“The men saw him, threw away the sack and fled.
“In the sack he found a flayed doe and the snare with which it had been caught.
“Maurice went into the church at Sudborough and told the whole township what had happened.
“An inquest was held the next day before the verderers and foresters of Rockingham, with the result, inter alia, that the flesh of the doe was given to the lepers of Thrapston.”
This piece of forest law is seen as proof in itself that leprosy was common at that time, and also of the number of lazar houses around the country.
What is leprosy?
Leprosy is caused by a slow-growing bacillus, Mycobacterium leprae.
It is transmitted via droplets from the nose and mouth of untreated patients with severe disease, but is not highly infectious.
If left untreated, the disease can cause nerve damage, leading to muscle weakness and atrophy, and permanent disabilities.
Leprosy can be easily treated with a six to 12-month course of multidrug therapy.
The treatment is highly effective, and has few side-effects and low relapse rates.
Thrapston’s connection with the disease continues today, through the work of Scotts of Thrapston’s finance director, Peter Waddup.
He is treasurer and trustee for the Leprosy Mission England and Wales, which raises about £5m a year to help communities around the world affected by leprosy.
In February 2011 he spent time visiting some of the projects in West Bengal, and hopes to visit Africa again in the future.
References: Victoria County History – Northamptonshire