Wimborne's leper hospital
Nicholas Lock tells the story of St Margaret's
an article from Dorset Life)

A hundred years ago, the almshouses were surounded by countryside.

Wimborne is not the sort of place that one immediately associates with leprosy, yet in the 12th century the town had its own leper hospital, St Margaret’s, outside the town boundary beside the high road to Blandford. Irene Allen of LEPRA (the charity with the message ‘Leprosy still exists – with your help we can cure it’) says that leprosy was at its peak in Britain in the late 15th century but had virtually died out a hundred years later, with the last case lingering in the Outer Hebrides in 1798. Extraordinarily, the disease was originally most prevalent in the northern hemisphere. Now it blights millions of lives in India, Africaand South America, in spite of the fact that treatment costs in the region of only £25 per person. Just as today’s charities rely on the generosity of benefactors, so St Margaret’s Hospital relied on the church and the aristocracy for its funds. One effective way to raise money then was through the issue of ‘Indulgences’, offering remission of varying amounts of time in Purgatory in exchange for the donation of alms – a system not covered by guarantee! Between 1243 and 1254 Pope Innocent IV issued one such indulgence offering remission of 51 years 260 days, a seemingly odd term presumably calculated by some papal actuary having access to a scale of severity of sin and the magnitude of the donation. The Pope’s lead was followed by Peter, Bishop of Exeter, who issued 30 days remission to benefactors of St Margaret’s; it would appear that bishops might not have been endowed with the same capacity for forgiveness as their boss. The benefactions came not only in cash but in kind, so at the end of the 13th century Henry de Lacy, Earl of Lincoln, gave an acre of his Kingston Lacy Estate to St Margaret’s and his manorial steward followed suit by granting the hospital some land at ‘Worth’, adjacent to Walford Mill.

The popularity of gardening among the residents ensures that there is always a colourful display in the summer.

Indulgences clearly became a popular fund-raising tool and were mass-produced by the papal scribes, so much so that when a John Thoker signed on the dotted line for his remission of sins in 1413, little did he know that the other signatory, Pope Alexander V, had died in 1410! This method of fund-raising continued well into the 16th century, and much of the documentary evidence relating to benefactors of St Margaret’s is now preserved in the County Record Office at Dorchester. In 1685, St Margaret’s received its largest-ever gift. William Stone, Principal of New Inn Hall, Oxford, and a minister at Wimborne Minster since 1661, left all his property in Wimborne for the benefit of ‘the hospital of St Margaret’s’; this included the properties in West Street which remain to this day the principal source of revenue for the charity. With the disappearance of leprosy from England, the role of St Margaret’s changed to that of an almshouse. It is clear that by the end of the 17th century the five cottages at St Margaret’s were occupied by poor local people and there is some suggestion, although no firm evidence, that the cottage adjoining the chapel was occupied by the resident priest. There were strict rules by which the residents had to live, including that they had to attend at the chapel each day at 6 am and 6 pm, praying ‘devoutly upon their knees one hour’, or pay a fine of fourpence; and if any resident were ‘unquiet or disturbers of the company and will not amend by once or twice warning, it shall be lawful for the said governours to displace and put out of the house such unquiet person or persons’. Nor were residents allowed to marry! From the middle of the 17th century, St Margaret’s was administered by the Steward of the Manor of Kingston Lacy. This arrangement continued right up until the death of Ralph Bankes in 1981, when he gave his entire estate to the National Trust. However, by then St Margaret’s had been formally registered as an independent charity, so it was not included in his gift. Little seems to have changed at the almshouses before the late 19th century, when three new pairs of cottages were built, presumably to house retired estate employees or their widows. At around the same time, to quote from the Wimborne Parish Magazine of May 1901, ‘The old and interesting Chapel belonging to the almshouses remained in a sad and neglected condition for years, till the late Rev. R W Fairbank once curate of Wimborne Minster took the matter in hand, and owing to his zeal and energy was well restored, and on 30th April 1885, was solemnly re-opened for Divine Service, which has since been regularly held therein.’ This restoration work was to continue and included provision of new altar rails ‘made from those taken from Witchampton Church, some new chairs and a comely carpet’. An oak reredos and side wings carved at a cost of £20 15s 6d by a Mr A J Kerridge of The Square, Wimborne, was added in 1903. Sadly, this was subsequently allowed to become infested with furniture beetle and rot, leading to its removal and destruction together with the remnants of ancient wall paintings in about 1975, when the chapel was again the subject of restoration. Now the chapel is a warm and peaceful place of worship and the weekly services are to this day well attended by local residents. The work on the chapel in 1975 absorbed virtually all the charity’s funds and for the last years of Ralph Bankes’s life the properties gradually deteriorated. In 1981, having been cut off from the 300 years of association with the Kingston Lacy Estate, with virtually no money and the cottages in a sorry state, St Margaret’s and Stone’s Charity faced a crisis. In view of the historic and social value of the almshouses they had to be saved. With guidance from the Charity Commission a new Trust was created, with some trustees elected from the parishes served by the charity and others, including the late Mr Bankes’s steward, selected for their particular knowledge, expertise and availability. Once again, funds had to be generated.
The first break-through was from East Dorset DC, who were able to provide 90% grants towards re-roofing William Stone’s buildings in West Street . This enabled the charity to increase its rental income from these endowment properties and to begin the process of repairing and modernising the almshouses. News of the financial plight of the charity and its new isolation soon filtered out into the community and donations (even without the incentive of Indulgences) began to flow. The British Legion, Help the Aged, the John McCarthy Foundation, the Rotary Club, the Haycock family, Kingston Lacy Skittles Club and many other individuals are organisations gave generously, so that at a steadily increasing pace all the cottages were brought up to reasonably modern standards. The work involved was enormous. Most of the cottages had death watch beetle, none had any heating except for an open fire, virtually every roof leaked and structural timbers had rotted; in one case the weight of new thatch caused the front wall to bulge to such an extent that it had to be rebuilt, in cob – and the skills to do that are not always available at the critical moment. Two adjoining cottages were so small that even when they were amalgamated they were still really only suitable for single occupancy. Few had bathrooms and kitchen provision was, at best, primitive. There are now fourteen cottages providing homes, currently, for sixteen retired people, mostly from farming or rural backgrounds. Each resident can have a patch to cultivate within the communal gardens. It is a happy and safe environment, in the countryside yet close to the town. Now the trustees are looking to the future. Already, a visitors’ car park has been carefully constructed within the site in such a way that it will not impinge upon the historic surroundings. During this work a new mystery was unearthed: a small brass plaque inscribed ‘Lt W. Turner; 13 Light Dragoons’. Research has revealed that this man fought at Waterloo, where William John Bankes of Kingston Lacy, a friend of Lord Byron, was aide-de-camp to the Duke of Wellington (hence the wonderful pictures at Kingston Lacy and Stratfield Saye House, some of which were captured off the backs of Napoleon’s mules after he had looted them from the Spanish during the Peninsular War). Turner wrote a long letter dated 3 July 1815 giving graphic details of the Battle of Waterloo. Did he then return to England with Bankes, to be housed at St Margaret’s, or was he merely passing through when he lost his baggage plaque which was to lie undisturbed until revealed by the 21st-century metal-detector?
St Margaret’s had been a part of so much of Wimborne’s history. Now the future of the charity is assured through the generosity of local people and careful management of its resources and revenue. Plans are already approved to build four more cottages. The Trustees can sadly no longer offer Indulgences to raise the £60,000 necessary for each of these new homes, but perhaps there is someone who would like to provide a perpetual memorial for the benefit of truly local people through a genuinely local charity.