The Leper Hospital, 1117 – 1539

The Leper Hospital, 1117 -1539

Mr. Parton was the vestry clerk of St. Giles-in-the-Fields in the early 19th century and he drew many maps of the site.  This one depicts the hospital at its very early stages.  On this map only the church, the hospital wall and gatehouse are shown; the position of the hospital gardens (north) and the orchards can also be seen.

The Leper Hospital, 1117 - 1539

The Phoenix Garden lies within the site of the old leper hospital of St. Giles-in-the-Fields.  When this was founded in the 12th century, the village called St. Giles did not exist: there is no mention of it in the Doomsday book, the area was just known as being part of the Hundreds of Ossulvestane or Ossulton.  In these remote times the area was wet and marshy and was surrounded by ditches – opposite the present church to the north, there lay the Pituance Croft Ditch, whilst to the south was the “great Marshland Ditch”, subsequently named ‘Cock and Pye Ditch’, now Seven Dials.  With the founding of the hospital, the land was drained and cultivated which attracted new people to reside here.

The hospital itself dates from 1117 by King Henry l and Queen Matilda at a time when there was an outbreak of the infectious disease of leprosy in England and when many of the populous were afflicted by it.  A grant from the Crown was given for the establishment of a hospital here, built “upon the spot where ‘John of good memory’, was chaplain”.  The hospital was built upon Crown land and this specific site was chosen because of its isolation and because an old Saxon church stood here amongst the fields and marshes, far from the City itself.  This parochial church lay at the west end of a small village situated where High Holborn and Drury Lane now meet which was known as Alde Wych, or the “old village”.  When the hospital was founded it was dedicated to St. Giles, the patron saint of Lepers and the site then lent its name to the small hamlet which sprung up opposite it, which was built upon the edge of the Pituance (or Spital) Croft.  This land was acquired by the hospital by way of a charitable gift, the first of many lands, deeds and moneys left to it subsequently by the rich and the aristocratic.




The St. Giles hospital was one of the earliest established for “fourteen lepers, one clerk, and one messenger, besides matrons, the master, and other members of the establishment”.  It was so successful that by 1179, the Council of Lateran decreed that leprous people should be given their own church, churchyard and priest, after which numerous hospitals were built.  The institution was given at first £3 per annum as an endowment for the maintenance and running of it, however this was found to be inadequate and it became necessary to send out the resident lepers on market days with ‘a clap dish’ (a cup or small basket) to beg for corn.  Unfortunately the surrounding population were so put off by the lepers’ appearance that they gave nothing and so this practice was soon ended.  It was therefore decided that the Proctor of the hospital should go out one day a month to the churches and religious houses nearby at the time of service to collect voluntary gifts from the congregations.


A leper hospital church and a parish church

Within the church itself, the leper inmates worshipped in the south side of the building; the north side of it, nearest to the road (St. Giles High Street), was more accessible to the parishioners of the area and set aside for them.  At the east end of the lepers side to the church, sat the alter dedicated to St. Giles which displayed an image of the saint.  By this burnt a great taper, called the St. Giles Light: we know this because in the year 1200, William Christmas bequests the sum of 12d towards it.


On this map of the layout of the old St. Giles Leper Hospital, you can see the present position of the Phoenix Garden (green) within the hospital grounds.  (b) marks the original Leper Hospital church whilst (c) shows the position of the main hospital building or the Mansion House.  It seems that there was a small garden attached to the building itself, where the Phoenix Garden is now situated.  The other main hospital building is marked (g) and this is the Master’s House: Dr. Borde was living here at the time of the Dissolution of the Monasteries (1538), when the hospital was broken up by Henry Vlll.  (d) is the ‘Pool Close’ which was probably the source of water for the entire hospital and was possibly a natural spring - the present Odeon cinema on Shaftesbury Avenue now occupies this site.  The cottages (f) were formerly on the site of, and pre-date the famous and now ancient Angel public house.  ‘Le Lane’ was Monmouth Street in 1822 – this is now Shaftesbury Avenue, whilst Eldestrate, which became Hog Lane and then Crown Street is now the Charing Cross Road



The years passed and by the reign of King John (1199 – 1216) and thereafter, it seems that the hospital “laid out with garden plots; intermixed with cottages and peopled with inhabitants and must have presented the appearance of a considerable and populous village”.  It is also known that shops and services to the hospital were built up around it to supply the inmates.  In late mediaeval times a linen draper, Gervasele Lyngedrap is mentioned in the hospital records as a supplier.  Whilst in the reign of Edward l, the hospital cook, Herbert de Redemere is documented as owning a nearby hostelry called the ‘Croche House’ (the Crossed Stockings).

During the reigns of Henry l – lll (from 1100 until 1272) the hospital was enriched by a great many donations in the form of gifts of land in numerous places and by alms or pensions from premises in Isleworth.  Before the dissolution of the monasteries, St. Giles hospital had become very rich and had amassed an astonishing number of estates within the St. Giles parish and in other parishes and places, some a considerable distance away from it.  The numerous gifts of land, houses and monies all feature in the book of grants of the hospital estates: the details of these occupy many pages in Parton’s, ‘History of St. Giles’ and it makes for very interesting reading.

By the time of Edward ll (1307 – 1327), however, the hospital was no longer the refuge of the lepers or the diseased.  As an institution set up to look after such people, it was now being abused by housing the “decayed domestics” of the court.  This went on until the time of Henry Vlll, who through the formal process of the dissolution or suppression of the monasteries (1536 – 1541), set about disbanding monastic communities.  Under this act the old St Giles hospital was finally dissolved and closed in 1539.



After the Dissolution of the Monasteries in 1538


an oasis in the city