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13 November 2014

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You are in: Suffolk > History > Local history > The leper chapel of Dunwich

The leper chapel of Dunwich

It's the most ancient part of Dunwich still standing - and perhaps the saddest. A sacred place where lepers lived, worshipped and died - in isolation.

Leper chapel, Dunwich

The leper colony hospital which stood on this land beside St James' Church has disappeared, like so much of Dunwich, but part of the leper chapel remains.

However its walls are now crumbling and the area is deemed unsafe for visitors.

It's one of only a handful of leper chapels still left in the country, but towards the end of 2008 it's believed that at least £80,000 is required to keep it from falling down.

All locals are proud of their heritage, but some fear the consolidation work will never cease and will require more and more financial input. They question who will foot the bill, but a fundraising campaign is now underway and more than £70,000 has already been collected from various sources.

"The chapel was directly joined to the leper hospital dating back to the 12th Century and it deserves to be saved," said Katherine Riches, who is from the Dunwich Parochial Church Council and is in charge of the project.

"Dunwich was a very flourishing port then and it did an immense amount of trade and because of that, ships went to places which had leprosy. It was inevitable that leper victims soon began to appear in Dunwich and they needed to be looked after, but away from the main town.

"As the lepers lay in their beds, they would have been able to see the east end of the beautiful chapel, so they could have taken part in religious ceremonies and said their prayers."

The church has ongoing links with a leprosy mission in Africa and raises hundreds of pounds for present days victims of the disease. It's hoped the repairs would allow the site to be opened to the public and, in turn, raise more funds for the mission.

Cook report

But villager David Cook admits to being somewhat of a sceptic. He accepts the historic importance of the building but he wonders where exactly the spending will stop:

David Cook and sheep at Dunwich

David Cook

"Every repair, survey and mortar mix has to be carried out to very exact - and very expensive - standards. 

"The village has about 70 people living here and it's not certain how much money this project will take to finish - it could become an open cheque book."

The leper chapel is the only piece of 12th Century architecture in Dunwich to survive hundreds of years of coastal erosion.

The town was a centre for shipbuilding and in 1242 it was wealthy enough to send 80 ships to fight against the French.

All that changed one day in 1328 when a terrible storm raged for three days and three nights. Dunwich was never to recover and people drifted away.

last updated: 03/11/2008 at 13:01
created: 03/11/2008

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rachel avis
I spent many happy holidays in dunwich as a child and belive it would be a sad and dissapointing thing to see any more of dunwich go to ruin .

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