The dark past and secrets of this ancient Taunton building

If you've ever made the trip down East Reach and towards Blackbrook, you will most definitely have passed one of Taunton's oldest buildings: St Margaret's Almshouses. The almshouses sit alone, with the thatched roof standing the medieval construction out rather significantly against its brick-and-mortar suburban surroundings. The majority of us would have only briefly considered it as we have walked or driven past, but their whitewashed walls belie a far darker history.

READ MORE: The story of Somerset's 'lost islands' and archipelago They started out as a 12th century leper hospital, or 'Leprosaria', in order to place those infected with the contagious disease away from the town centre and local populace. These days, we understand Leprosy a lot better than we used to.

The infection is caused by bacteria called Mycobacterium leprae, which grow very slowly and it may take up to 20 years to develop signs of the infection. The disease can affect the nerves, skin, eyes, and lining of the nose and swollen nerves can lose the ability to sense touch and pain. In very advanced cases the body can reabsorb the affected digits over time, resulting in the apparent loss of toes and fingers.

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This dreadful disease produced a welter of emotions in the medieval mind and those ravaged by leprosy were shunned not only through fear of contagion, but because they were so hideously disfigured.

In the 12th and 13th centuries, the disease was rampant and the growth of towns helped it to spread. Leprosy thrives on close human contact and in 1175 the English Church Council ordered that lepers should not live among the healthy. The hospital of the Holy Ghost and St Margaret in Taunton was founded for lepers in 1185, with Glastonbury Abbey taking over the patronage in the late 13th century.

By the 15th century, Leprosy had all but died out, but by then the hospital was considered beyond reasonable repair.

The old Leper hospital in TauntonThe old Leper hospital in Taunton

So Abbot Richard Bere rebuilt it as almshouses in the early 16th century - although after the dissolution, the associated chapel was demolished. The building - somehow - survived and from 1612 to 1938 St Margaret's continued as almshouses, cared for by a local parish. In the late 1930s St Margaret's was converted into a hall of offices for the the Rural Community Council along with accommodation for the Somerset Guild of Craftsmen.

And it was around this time that the building started to give up its secrets. In 1935, workmen carrying out groundworks for new houses in Leycroft Road began to unearth bones.

How the papers reported on the discovery of the skeletonsHow the papers reported on the discovery of the skeletons

The find was described as being of a 'large number' of bones, both human and animal and were promptly investigated by Mr H St George Gray from the Somerset Archaelogical and National History Society. He announced that there was not 'one complete' skeleton among the bones, but had identified a skull believed to belong to a woman, dating back to medieval times.

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The skull, he said, was incredibly thick and it was believed the bones were the remains of those who had been treated at the hospital.

The streets surrounding the building are said to hide a number of tunnels - in the Lambrook Road area and Laycroft. It's widely believed those tunnels led to the old cemetery where they buried the lepers - used to prevent the disease from spreading to the healthier residents of Taunton.

All about the hospitalAll about the hospital

And as for the Almhouses? The building stood empty in the late 1980s, and in the early 90s the thatched roof was destroyed by fire, with the building looking doomed to die of vandalism and neglect.

Thankfully, it was bought until the Somerset Building Preservation Trust with Falcon Rural Housing purchased it in 2003.

Recognised by English Heritage as a building of national importance, the Almshouses were restored as faithfully as possible and is now back in use as four homes.

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