A Place where Lepers were Outcast…

We passed this sign whilst out walking during our Cumbrian holiday. It’s the name of an area, like a hamlet, which is certainly not big enough to be a village, and is now part of Ulverston. According to a local information leaflet, it was once the place where lepers were sent – cast out from the community where they lived before. However, there are no further details, and I’m having problems trying to find anything out, so I may contact the tourist office and see if they can recommend a local historian who may be able to help.

Anyway, the sign reminded me of ‘The de Lacy Inheritance’, written by my friend Elizabeth Ashworth, which has one of the most chilling openings I have ever read, with words taken from The Mass of Separation, which excluded lepers from family, home, society and church.

I’d never heard of this particular custom, so I looked it up, and found the ritual spoken by a priest even more horrifying than Elizabeth made it sound, with a curious incantatory quality, which reads like an ancient curse. It is hard to imagine listeners remaining unmoved by the rite, which banned lepers from any form of normal human contact – even touching the rim or rope of a well was forbidden unless the sufferer was wearing gloves. It must have been such a lonely life, cut off from everyone they knew and loved, unable to make a living or indulge in any leisure pursuits, and denied even the comfort of the church (although some places of worship had a special window, so sufferers could stand outside and listen to a service).

It made me realise what a terrible disease leprosy was in the days before drugs were available to cure it (it was well into the 20th century before this happened – Victoria Hislop’s novel ‘The Island’ shows how attitudes changed). I always think of lepers living in special hospitals, or lazar houses as they were known, where they were cared for by monks, but I may have gleaned this idea from Ellis Peters’ excellent Cadfael books, and I’m not sure how true it was. I understand there were also ‘colonies’ which were not attached to religious institutions, where sufferers lived as normally as possible, totally isolated from the rest of the world. Additionally, may beggars became became beggars, travelling from town to town, ringing a bell which warned others to keep away, eating scraps left out for them, and maybe staying the occasional night at a lazar house. For more Saturday Snapshots see  Alice’s blog at http://athomewithbooks.net/


45 thoughts on “A Place where Lepers were Outcast…

  1. Chilling to contemplate isn't it? Molokai, one of the Hawaiian Island's was a Leper Colony during the 1800's through 1969!! Fr. Damian, a RC priest from Belgium, later canonized a saint, cared for the lepers who were segregated there. I once read a book about this part of Hawaiian history but I don't recall the name of the book. Thanks for sharing this interesting bit of history.


  2. What a horrible thought, I'm quite sure some of these things still exist, perhaps not so extreme. One of our highschool teachers goes to a colony and works for the summer, not sure what he does, but I suspect he teaches. I know my mom use to send money to Leprosy Missions so this sign may not be so old. Great post, thanks so much for the awareness.


  3. Thank you Irene – I know leprosy (or Hansen's Disease as it is now known) is still a problem in some parts of the world, and it's interesting to hear of people who help by working in a leper colony or sending money to missions.


  4. I am sure there is still prejudice and lack of understanding. Apparently some people thought it was caused by divine punishment for wrongdoing, while others regarded lepers as living dead, and decided they were serving their time in purgatory!


  5. For some reason, perhaps because of their outcast nature lepers and how society treated them, I've always found this a fascinating topic. Up to about 1930 or so, our lepers lived behind our present hospital and were not allowed to walk the streets but, if they had to for whatever reason, they had to ring a bell so people would know to stay away. Unfortunately, the little houses where they stayed were torn down a few decades ago.

    In How to Escape From a Leper Colony by Tiphanie Yanique, based on the real-life leper island off of the island of Trinidad, the lepers were tended by Catholic nuns.


  6. When someone leaves a comment on my blog I usually click on their name and go to their profile. From there I visit all the blogs they have listed. Your profile is not activated and I would not have found you until I took a second look at your comment and finally noticed the link to this site.

    You can activate your profile and still have your privacy without giving any information about yourself. It would make bookmarking your blog and visiting you much easier. I also think it would increase your readership because others may do what I did and just go on without taking the time for that second look at the comment.

    Please forgive my getting on my soapbox with the above. Just wanted to make sure you knew it was hurting your number of visitors.

    I also found your post very interesting. I have read a great deal about the leper colonies and know how hard life was for those who lived and worked in them. Being shunned and outcast on top of having this terrible illness did not make for a happy life. And, can you imagine the fear of those that choose to care for the lepers. The knowledge that they could find themselves in the same situation at any time must have been horrible.


  7. Eugenia, thank you – that's another recommendation for a book that I shall try and follow up. I didn't realise they were still ringing bells in the 1930s to make people avoid them – I wonder widespread that was at that time?


  8. Rita, I thought the profile was activated, but I'm not very good with computers, so I'll check it out and try to alter it – I'm grateful to you for mentioning it. I'm glad you found the post interesting.


  9. That single word sounds chilling and callous… But then again, not unlike the isolation we still practice in our hospitals. I just can't imagine living in a few centuries back, with no modern medicine and convenience. It's horrifying to think of those leprosy sufferers and their families.


  10. That is so interesting but heartbreaking. It's sad how we treat people and situations we don't understand. Thank you for the information you provided in your post.


  11. It is sad how people were treated then. I think of the Bible stories where the lepers were required to call out “Unclean, unclean!” as they approached. And it's good to know how far we've come in treating this disease.

    Here's my Snapshot.


  12. It is fear of the unknown that makes people so cruel I think. The disease could make sufferers look very scary, and people were scared of catching it. Apparently many of those who cared for lepers in the special hospitals did eventually contract the disease.


  13. I thought of the Bible stories as well, and it is good that leprosy is treatable, but there are other medical conditions where people still get the support they need and are rejected by society, although not in such a formal fashion.


  14. Thank you for sharing such a moving picture and reminding us how far we have come from segregation – of any sect of peoples. It's so hard to contemplate how cruel society has been to lepers and more recently, anyone with HIV/AIDS. Very interesting post!


  15. Stacy, you felt the same way that I did. I suppose there will always be human beings who will find some group of other people people they believe should be segregated, such as Aids/HIV, mental illness, Jews, ethnic minorities… sadly the list just goes on and on.


  16. I have seen documentaries on leprosy before and always wonder about how lonely that life would have been. I cannot imagine being cut off from everyone like that. You picture is definitely a reminder of how hard it is to be an outsider. Very moving.


  17. Think placenames are so important, sometimes the only link to an otherwise forgotten past. By the way, I think there was a lepers hospital between Lichfield & Tamworth on the site of Freeford House. Lots of skeletons were found there when the road was widened. Some of the masonry in the new building is said to come from the chapel but other than this I'm not sure if there is any indication of the site's history. If not it's a shame.


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