From Sydney House car park two long thin fields can be seen across the river alongside the village of Taddiport. These two strips, or ‘straps’, are examples of the medieval field system, a method of cultivation which was once standard practice across the country. These two particular strips are what remain of between seven and a dozen fields (reports vary) which were reserved for cultivation by lepers who lived in the village from the 14th until the 17th century when leprosy was eradicated from Britain. The Tythe Map of 1838 shows that seven strips were still in use, though the lepers were long gone.
‘Taddy’ is from the Old English ‘taddige’ which means ‘toad’ and the name of the village may have had some reference to the scaly skin of lepers who lived at the leper hospital of St Mary Magdalen. The chapel or chantry is often mentioned in the Registers of the Bishops of Exeter but it is not named as a leper hospital until 1418 when a local man left 4d in his will to ‘the Leper house at Torrington’. Only three lepers could be accommodated at the hospital at any one time. They would go from door to door in Taddiport with their begging bowls, using clapper and bells to warn of their arrival, but were forbidden from going up into Torrington. In 1593 the hospital appears to have had its full complement of lepers but no further mention of it can be found until 1645 when the chapel was provided with a bell. There were no longer any lepers at the ‘lazar house’ by this time.
In 1665 the Magdalen Lands were granted to the corporation for the relief of the poor of the borough. Farmed by the civic authorities over the centuries, the fields gradually began to lose their distinctive appearance as the closely spaced hedges fell away. The fields were made larger during the Second World War to fit in with wartime food production. The remaining strips were rescued in 1970 by a local benefactor and public subscription and are now administered by the Great Torrington Almshouse, Town Lands and Poors Charities.
A programme of works to rebuild the traditional Devon banks and the hedgerows returned the leper strips to their former glory. Using local rural craftsmen to restore the land to its condition when the strips were first created in medieval times, a fascinating piece of history has been preserved.
To remember the lepers of Taddiport, local artist Shan Miller organises an annual event to raise money for the leprosy relief charity, LEPRA. Local people dress as lepers and take part in a torchlight parade accompanied by the racket of clappers, bells and drums. The chapel of St Mary Magdalen is visited, street performers provide entertainment and mulled wine is served. Participants enjoy a Beggars’ Banquet and listen to music by local bands.