Outcasts at Worship

How Cambridge cared for its lepers

This article appeared in the Ely Ensign in June 2003 on page 8.

When I first came to Cambridge, I used to deliver cars for Eurodollar (now Europecar) who were based along Newmarket Road. Often I would be sat just over the bridge near the football ground in traffic. And I would often look across at the ancient chapel and wonder about its origins. So this article was of great interest to me.

Today, you can find more information online about the chapel:

When you drive out of Cambridge on the busy Newmarket Road, you may spot a small Romanesque chapel. It stands inauspiciously next to the main railway line and opposite a scrap mental yard. Yet this 12th century building is one of only two surviving English leper chapels still in use as places of worship.

The Stourbridge Leper Chapel, builtin the reign of Henry I, around 1125, is probably the oldest complete historic building in cambridge and has a well documented history. It gets is name from the Stour, a tributary to the River Cam.

The building, dedicated to the patron saint of lepers Mary Magdalene, was originally the chapel of an isolation hospital for people suffering from syphilis and a range of disfiguring skin disorders, as well as leprosy.

Medieval hospitals like Stourbridge were located well outside towns and cities and there were strict rules enforcing isolation. Lepers were forbidden to enter churches, inns or other public places.

Leper hospitals were self-regulating concerns, usually run by monks or clergy. So religious observance formed an essential part of hospital life with the patients attending worship daily – and probably praying for the souls of their benefactors.

Stourbridge chapel has a simple layout; it consists of a nave where the lepers would congregate to stand, kneel or even lie, if they were seriously sick, and the chancel which contained the alter. None of the other hospital buildings have survived and the burial ground for those who died at the hospital is now the site of the Abbey Football Stadium.

By the end of the 12th century the hospital owned pockets of land across the countryside of Cambridge, Chesterton, Barnwell, Landbeach, Comberton and Bourn. Most of this land, donated by different patrons, was let to tenants to help fund the work of the hospital. At this time more than 150 leper hospitals had been established in England.

Towards the end of the 13th century the extend of leprosy had declined and many hospitals were finding it difficult to recruit staff for a job that required enormous dedication. By 1279 the hospital ceased to receive lepers and the Chapel was transformed into a free chapel – as there was no associated parish at the time.

The survival of this historic chapel is due mainly to the Stourbridge Fair. In 1199 King John granted the lepers the right to hold a three-day fair on the Vigil of Holy Cross. Rent from the stalls and booths added to the leper’s income, which was otherwise derived from begging on the roadside, and from crops which they grew.

Stourbridge Church

The fair developed into the well-known and long-lasting Stourbridge Fair, which according to the 18th century English novelist Daniel Defoe, had in his time become one of the largest fairs in Europe. At its peak it lasted for three weeks. But by the twentieth century the fair had faded away and in 1933 it was officially abolished in favour of the Cambridge midsummer Fair, with its more central location.

In 1751, the Chapel ceased to be a place of worship, instead being used to store stalls between fairs. In 1783 it was advertised for sale as a store shed. After changing hands servera times, it was bought for £160 in 1816 and restored by a Fellow of Magdalene College, Thomas Kerrich. A year later he gave it to the University on condition that it was kept in good repair and preserved unaltered.

In the 19th century the University Senate authorised the chapel as a place of worship once again – this time for the spiritual benefit of the labourers building the new Eastern Counties railway line.

IN 1951 the University gave the chapel to the Cambridge Preservation Society, which also bought the whole of the six-acre field know as Chapel Close, in which the building stands.

The chapel is maintained by the Society for visiting and worship. It is now part of the parish of Holy Cross and the Eucharist is celebrated on the first Sunday of every month.

The ‘Friends of the Leper Church’ was established in 1999 to promote use of the Chapel for educational purposes, cultural events and as a place of prayer. They organise a series of events throughout the year at the chapel and are currently raising £60,000 to provide a disabled access.

Next month an exhibition will be held in the Chapel and the Cottenham Brass Band will be playing in the grounds on Sunday 6 July at 6pm. A heritage weekend will be staged on 12-13 September with the children of Abbey Meadows Primary School depicting the history of the Leper Hospital. A special carol service will be held in December.

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