Wednesday 19 April 2017

Bath's Secret Leper Hospital by Katherine Webb

I've recently been finding out as much as I can about the Holloway and Beechen Cliff areas of Southern Bath, to use as a setting in my next novel. It's a fascinating part of the city, though much altered by two catastrophes in its recent history. Firstly the Baedeker raids of the Second World War, which I wrote about in a previous blog post. Holloway and other areas in the south of Bath were badly damaged - many houses sat in ruins for decades after the war, and were never rebuilt. And then, in the mid 1960s, came the aggressive redevelopment that has become known as the 'Sack of Bath'. By this time, many of the C17th, C18th and C19th cottages in the area, which had long housed poorer members of Bath's society - small artisans and the working classes - had fallen into disrepair and been categorised as slum dwellings. They were torn down, wholesale, to make way for road improvements and a raft of 'modern' (ugly), cheaply built houses and flats.

The demolition of Victorian artisan housing at the foot of Beechen Cliff in 1966

The redevelopment was so brutal - and deemed by many as so unnecessary - that it actually led to new, tighter development laws. There are a great many photographs of what was lost, and what was built in its place, available to view (but sadly not to reproduce here) on the website - just search for Holloway. So, not much remains of the district as it would have looked at the time I am setting my book - in 1919, and in 1942 in the aftermath of the bombing raids. But there are still little bits of architectural magic here and there, and one that has particularly caught my eye is Number 90, Holloway; aka Magdalen Cottage; aka the old leper hospital.

S & N Buck's 1734 drawing looking west over Bath. Beechen Cliff is the high wooded hill on the left; Holloway the steeply descending housing going towards the bridge

Holloway, as it turns out, is a truly ancient bit of road. It was originally built by the Romans as part of the Fosse Way that linked Lincoln to Exeter via Bath, but it's likely that they built along an existing, far older trackway. There's some dispute as to whether the name 'Holloway', which is found all over the UK, means 'holy way', ie leading to a holy site of some kind; or merely 'hollow way' as in a sunken road. Both definitions fit for Bath's Holloway, since not only did it lead to the Roman shrine to the goddess Sulis, and later to a Christian abbey and city associated with St Dunstan, popular with medieval pilgrims, but it is also cut into the steep slope of the hill.

An early C19th map of Bath, showing Holloway curving around Beechen Cliff towards the city

At the bottom end of Holloway, about five hundred metres beyond the remnants of the medieval city walls, sits Magdalen Chapel; and a few metres further down the hill sits No. 90 Holloway: a small, plain Georgian cottage bearing a tantalising stone stating: 'This hospital was rebuilt in 1761 AD.' The cottage's origins, however, like the chapel's, are medieval. Sitting a safe distance outside the city walls, this was Bath's first leper hospital. Mercifully, given that it was in a poor state of repair by the 1960s, it was saved from demolition by belonging (and still belonging) to the St John's Hospital Foundation, who still do excellent work in Bath providing housing and resources for vulnerable people.

The east end of Magdalen Chapel on the left; the small, detached cottage further down the hill is No. 90

In the 1170s, a monk suffering from leprosy travelled from Reading to Bath in search of a cure - Bath's thermal spring waters had been reputed to have healing powers since Roman times. It is likely that this monk, thought to have been named Elias, would have stayed at Magdalen Cottage. The chapel and cottage had been gifted to Bishop John of Tours by one Walter Hussey, upon the foundation of Bishop John's cathedral priory in Bath in 1100. Bishop John was also a physician, and it seems likely that it was he who first decided to use the cottage as a hospital for lepers. Beechen Cliff has many natural springs, so the cottage would have had its own supply of clean drinking water.

The name 'hospital' here is possibly misleading. There was no cure for leprosy. Upon admission to a Lazar House, as they were known, sufferers had to make a will and cut all ties with the world. It was a form of living death, so 'hospital' is meant more in the sense of 'hospitality' -  a place to stay - than as we now interpret the word, as a place of treatment and healing. St Mary Magdalen Hospital gets a mention in the 1212 will of the Bishop of Lincoln, and the 'Master and Brethren' were then granted royal protection in 1256. As you can see in the photograph below, the cottage is tiny. Behind it there is a small yard, and then the land drops away steeply again, towards the river. It is unlikely that, when rebuilt in the C15th and then again in 1761, it was built any smaller than the original footprint. So, even sleeping several to a room, it could not have housed many unfortunate residents at a time, and in very cramped conditions. And, of course, no amount of bathing in Bath's waters would have effected a cure for the disease.

The old leper hospital. I'm no architectural historian, but it looks to me as though parts of the older structure are visible at the feet of the rebuilt C18th walls
By the late medieval period, leprosy had become a far rarer condition in England. However, such was the reputation of Bath's waters, there are records of lepers still visiting to bathe far later than this - into the C16th. The fortunes of the hospital rose and fell over the years. By 1486 it had fallen into a desperate state, and housed only two or three impoverished people. It was restored by Prior John Cantlow in 1491, after being described by Pope Innocent VIII as 'a ruinous hospital'; declined again and was restored, again, thanks to a bequest, in 1560. However, soon after this, in the 1570s, a new hospital for lepers was built inside the city walls, near the baths, with its own separate bathing pool, and it is likely that Magdalen Hospital began another period of decline. By the time it was rebuilt in 1761, it was being used as a refuge for the mentally handicapped; which is a very sad thought.

Magdalen Chapel, with the hospital visible just down the hill, in a drawing from 1829

By the time the cottage was listed Grade II in 1950, the interior was described as being in a very poor state, with no original features remaining. In 1954 a timber lean-to kitchen was added to the rear of the property, and it may have been at this time that the cottage was used as a private dwelling for the first time. It was extended and updated in the 1960s, again in 1997, and most recently in 2011-12. It is now let out to private tenants by the St John's Foundation. It is, not unexpectedly, reputed to be haunted, with a variety of ghost stories relating to its history - a reputation I plan to make the most of in my novel! It's a fascinating little building, in an interesting part of the city, and its history gives an intriguing snapshot of the history of Bath before and after its famous Georgian period.


Celia Rees said...

Fascinating post. Old buildings can tell us so much even when their uses change or they are converted for other use.

Elizabeth Chadwick said...

Very interesting. The rebuilt style is interesting too because on first look it still keeps to a very medieval style - those windows are very reminiscent of 12th and 13thc windows. Look at the Jews House in Lincoln for comparison.

Katherine said...

Thank you, Celia and Elizabeth! Yes, I also wondered whether some attempt to keep its original appearance had been made. It certainly isn't in the high Georgian style, is it?