This month’s news looks at more history connected with the Sudbury riverside. Old maps refer to the site of St Leonard’s Hospital on the other side of the Melford road from North Meadow Common. This was established on 1st May 1372 by John Colney (alias Colneis) with permissions provided, and regulations drawn up by Archbishop Theobald, known as Simon of Sudbury.
John Colney was a wealthy merchant of Sudbury and London who contracted leprosy, a disease that was incurable until the 1980s, since when drugs have reduced its prevalence worldwide by 90%. It is chronic and contagious, afflicting the skin, nerves and bones which can lead to unpleasant deformities. Lepers were, therefore, subject to stringent regulations and many were confined to leper hospitals. Those who were ‘on the road’ had to wear special clothing and carry ‘clappers’ to announce their presence. They were forbidden from entering most establishments where people congregated including inns, mills and bakehouses. Prevention of the spread of the disease was self-isolation. Now, where have we heard of that before? Whilst this was effective it took centuries for the disease to decline, but by 1700 it was fairly rare in England.
The dedication to St Leonard was the second most popular for leper hospitals in England. Leonard lived a holly and aesthetic life near Limoges, Aquitaine, during the sixth century. He befriended the sick as well as prisoners and captives of war. St Leonard’s hospital was out of town but situated where its inhabitants could beg for alms from passers-by. The Sudbury hospital provided for just three lepers, with John Colney as its first governor.
The association with the Sudbury Common Lands comes in the form of a field known as Colney’s Piece. This, along with land adjacent to the hospital (long since buried under housing), abutted Mill Field through which the lane crossed to Brundon mill and the hall. Today Mill Field is split between woodland to one side and North Meadow Common to the other side of the lane. The boundaries of Colney’s Piece are still clearly visible today. Regimes in leper hospitals were strict but they were also known for their healthy lifestyles and with plenty of land attached to St Leonard’s, the inhabitants could provide for a lot of their own needs. Indeed, Colney’s Piece was recorded as a vineyard. In 1896 this field was purchased for £190 and incorporated into the larger area of North Meadow Common, although it may already have been grazing land prior to this date.
The last governor of the Melford Road hospital died in 1813. In 1867 a Charity Commission scheme permitted the net income to be used to support the new St Leonard’s Cottage Hospital off Newton Road. Perhaps that is why it carried the same name. The new hospital, of course, brings us very much into recent times with the establishment closing in 2007. It became the maternity hospital for Sudbury so very many local people began life at St Leonard’s. Indeed, the developer who converted the site into luxury housing was born there.
Coincidently, and most suitably, St Leonard is also the patron saint of women in labour on account of his intercession and prayers on behalf of Queen Wisigarde who went into premature labour while accompanying her husband on a hunting expedition near Limoges. She recovered and gave birth to a healthy child.
Adrian Walters, Honorary Freeman of Sudbury and Clerk to the Trustees of the Sudbury Common Lands Charity