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May 2016 Meeting Report

The Leper Chapel by Philip Robson

The Barnwell Leper Chapel on the Newmarket Road in Cambridge was the subject of the May talk to the Sawston Village History Society by Philip Robson of Cambridge Past, Present and Future. In addition to the Leper Chapel, they also care for Bourn Post Mill, Hinxton Mill, Coton Park, and Wandlebury where they are based.

The Leper Chapel dates from 1125 and was originally a Norman church for the isolation hospital built of wood behind it. Leprosy or Hanson's Disease is now happily extinct in the UK. It is a bacterial disease spread by coughs and sneezes. Victims lose the sense of feeling and the ability to blink, which leads to blindness. Combined with other unattractive symptoms, this led to them forming communities round special hospitals built on the outskirts of towns, on main roads where the lepers could beg from frequent travellers. The Cambridge Leper Chapel was not unique; there are other surviving examples at Ripon in Yorkshire, Dunwich in Suffolk, and Harbledown in Kent.

The famous Stourbridge Fair was the major source of funds for the chapel. It was the biggest fair in Europe, well served by road and river transport, and what started as a three day event gradually expanded to last six weeks. The chapel was used for storage between fairs. The University supervised weights and measures, and the fair had its own court. There was a theatre, and thirty six pubs, and there were specific areas for all types of goods for sale, at a time when there were not the range of shops we know today, which have gradually taken over the function of the fair. This led to its gradual decline until the last fair was held in 1933. The fair has been recreated on a limited scale in front of the Leper Chapel, with the next one planned for 3rd September this year.

The original Norman church has gone through a number of phases of repair and decline. The hospital closed in 1279 with remaining patients moved to Ely. The chapel has only survived because alternative uses were found for the building.

The first rebuilding we know about was in 1816 when the chapel was under threat, but was saved by Rev Thomas Kerrick who started a restoration appeal and arranged for the chapel to be conveyed to the University. Further restoration work was organised by Kerrick's son in 1843-45, and the chapel was used by workers building the railway line. However, by 1865-67 the building was again dilapidated, and an appeal was launched by the Cambridge Architectural Society. The rebuilding was directed by George Gilbert Scott who more or less completely rebuilt the west wall using stone which probably came from Peterborough.

By 1925 the building was again in poor condition. Members of Westcott House, an Anglican theological college, conducted services in the chapel and the Principal was responsible for repairs. In 1949-51 the building was conveyed to the Cambridge Preservation Society (Now Cambridge Past, Present, and Future). Repair work is a never-ending process.

The building only survives because of uses being found for it. There is urgent need to improve the facilities, particularly car parking and toilets, so that more opportunities can be exploited. Currently there is a monthly church service, Christmas events, story-telling, Music events, and University exhibitions. There are plans to build a cycle path from the new north railway station to the existing south station which will run past the chapel and under the Newmarket road. This is probably at least three years away, and nothing has been signed up yet.

Clearly this has major implications for the Leper Chapel, but the final message remains the same as it has been for all of its life - Use it or Lose it.

Jim Butchart

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