Stourbridge Leper Chapel

Set down in an inconspicuous hollow, just a few dozen feet from the edge of the busy dual-carriageway of Newmarket Road, lies Cambridge’s oldest surviving building. The Stourbridge Hospital for Lepers and its Chapel, dedicated to St Mary Magdalene was built sometime before 1150. During the Leprosy epidemics of the 13th century the hospital flourished, but as leprosy declined the need grew less and the hospital was closed in 1279.

Only the dinky little one-storied Norman chapel now remains, the wooden hospital and leper huts surrounding it have long since fallen into disrepair and collapsed. The little chapel itself has come close to dereliction on a number of occasions in the past 700 years. In the 14th century the vaulted roof collapsed and was replaced by voluntary labour. By 1606, it had ceased to be a chapel and passed into private ownership. During the 1750’s it was used as a barn and storage shed. In 1816 it was nigh on falling down when the first of four major restorations was begun. Once restored the Chapel became the property of the University of Cambridge. It was further restored in 1865, 1925 and 1951, when it passed into the hands of the Cambridge Preservation Society who continue to maintain and upkeep the building to the present day.

That this plain little chapel, contemporaneous with Chartres Cathedral, should survive intact through over 700 years may be partly due to its association with the famous Stourbridge Fair. In fact the original fair was founded by the Leper chapel, in 1211 the lepers were granted permission from King John to hold a 3 day fair in the grounds of the chapel. The date set was “The Feast of the Exultation of the Holy Cross”, the 14th September.

In 1289, with the Leper Hospital closed, The Corporation of Cambridge took over the running of the fair, which spread rapidly, establishing itself as a major annual gathering. In 1516 Stourbridge Fair lasted from 24th August until 29th September. By 1725 it was one of the largest fairs in Europe, and had been name-checked by Daniel Defoe, John Bunyan and Samuel Pepys, amongst others.

However, in 1811 the fields on which the fair took place were enclosed, areas were sold off: the decline of Stourbridge Fair had begun. The riotous and bawdy atmosphere of the three week long fair had long incurred the wrath of the University who banned students from the Fair. Meanwhile the Victorian fashion for restraint further added to a decline in attendance, in 1933 the Stourbridge Fair closed drab with disinterest.

In 2004 the Friends of the Leper Chapel, a charity supporting the work of the Cambridge Preservation Society, revived the fair in the grounds of the Leper Chapel.
The revived Stourbridge Fair has taken place in September every year since.

 Jean Dark
July 2005

Further information

Cambridge Spirit of Place – Nigel Pennick (2004)
Stourbridge Leper Chapel – Barry Pearce (2003)
Coldham’s Common & the Leper Chapel (guided history tour walk) – to reserve a place phone: Alan Brigham (01223) 212189

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