Taddiport and the leper fields, from Castle Hill
From Castle Hill in Torrington there is a fine view over the Torridge to the parish of Little Torrington. In the bottom of the valley, on the Little Torrington side, by a fine mediaeval bridge, is the hamlet of Taddiport. A little further upstream are two narrow strip fields, popularly known as "leper fields", all that remain of a larger number which were there in living memory.
The name Taddiport means "Toad-gate".
There are many early references in the Registers of the Bishops of Exeter to the chapel, or chantry of St Mary Magdalen, but not till 1418 is it actually named as a Leper Hospital. There were other chapels of St Mary Magdalen in the Diocese, and they were all Leper Hospitals. It is said that leprosy (and the term may have covered various skin diseases as well as eastern leprosy) was brought into England by the returned Crusaders, but it may also have been caused (as in modern times in Scandinavia) by the excessive use of salt meat and no vegetables. In the Bishop's registers of the 13th and 14th centuries, we find instances of parish priests who were lepers and had to be separated from their flocks. At Exeter the Leper Hospital of St. Mary Magdalen was outside the walls, and the inmates were forbidden to enter the city to beg on market days, because the citzens could not brook their ugly faces and diseased bodies.
The first mention of the chapel is in 1311, when Sir Richard de Brente, priest, was instituted chaplain "to the chantry of St. Mary Magdalen, juxta porta de Chepyngetoritone", on the presentation of Robert de Hortone. In 1396 Thomas Verlegh, priest, was instituted, the patron being John Hankford, in the right of the lands of Joan, his wife.
The chapel was being repaired in 1400, and the Pope offered relaxation to penitents helping to the repair and conservation of the chapel of St. Mary Magdalen, by Torrington. (Cal, Papal Registers, Vol. iv, p270).
St Mary Magdalen, Taddiport
On Thomas Verlegh's death in 1421, Sir John Suddone was instituted as chaplain on the presentation of Joan, formerly wife of John Hankford. By this time the foundation of the charity as a Leper Hospital was recognized; in the will of Thomas Reymond, dated June 8th, 1418, he leff 4d. to the Leper house at Torrington.
Through Joan, wife of John Hankford (whose maiden name is not recorded), the patronage of Taddiport came to the Hankford family, of whom the most notable is Sir William Hankford, Lord Chief justice of England, in the reigns of Henry IV. and Henry V.
His son, Richard, married Thomasine, the heiress of Sir Richard Stapledon, of Annery, in the parish of Monkleigh. Richard, their son, married Anne, daughter of John Montacute, Earl of Salisbury; their only child was another Anne, who married Thomas Butler, Earl of Ormonde. This rather perplexing pedigree with its succesion of heiresses, brings us to the Lady Anne Butler, wife of Sir James St Leger.
Westcote tells us "At Taddiport is a hospital of St. Mary Magdalen said to be built by Anne, daughter of Thomas Butler, Earl of Ormonde, and wife unto Sir James St. Leger, knight, which she endowed with sufficient maintenance for a minister allowed to say divine service there in the chapel."
Taddiport was not exempt from the enquiries of Edward the VI's commissioners; in the chantry rolls of 1554 are the following entries :-
"TADYPORTE The hospital there for ye releife of three poore folks, the yerelye value of ye landes and possessions imployed for ye relief of one poor man now remayning there until the nombre of three be completed. The free chapel there founded by the awncestors of John Seyntledger, to th' intent that a pryst should say masse one day in ye weke to ye poore folks of ye sayd hospital and vyste thern in sickness."
The commissioners could not assert that the hospital and chantry had been founded for "superstitious purposes," Anne St Ledger made no stipulations about prayers for the dead, she was a sensible, practical woman, who employed her energies in care for the living.
St Mary Magdalen's Church: the interior
The hospital at Taddiport seems to have been a recognized local charity in North Devon. In the Wardens' Accounts of Clawton, this entry occurs in 1593: "Item, paid to the hospital of Taddyport by Torrington iijd." This suggests that the hospital then had its full complement of three inmates, and that Clawton contributed a penny for each of them, a more generous subscription at that date than now appears.
Fifty years elapse before there is another record of Taddiporte. In 1645 the chapel was provided with a bell. The date is worth noting, for this was not a period when much attention was paid to ecclesiastical affairs, but the bell, (as bells do) speaks for itself. It is a Pennington bell, with the initials of J. P. of John Pennington, the Exeter bell founder, the date 1645, and two names which are illegible.
Ellacombe, in his "Bells of Devon," notes it as being hung in a cot, and provided with a half wheel. Probably it not only rang for Sunday service but called the inmates from their field labour to meals. It was a successor of this John Pennington who in 1804, recast the bells of Little Torrington.
In 1665 Tristram Arscott, of Launcels, Cornwall, who had purchased Annery, and other estates belonging to the Hankfords, was styled in right of these properties, "Hereditary, sole, and perpetual guardian of the Hospital of St. Mary Magdalen, Taddiport."
He conveyed the hospital with its profits and revenues, "in the vacancy of Lazars and Leprous people", to the Mayor and Burgesses of Great Torrington, and the Church Wardens and Overseers of Little Torrington, to be equally divided for the relief of the poor of those parishes. It was specially stipulated that the decays and ruins within and without the said hospital, and also the chapel should be kept in good repair, and that a "Fit person should be nominated as rector in the chapel, to read service once every Sabbath day, in vacancy of Lazars, and twice every Sabbath day in the continuance of Lazars".
Evidently it was considered necessary that the hospital should be maintained, at least nominally, for its original purpose, but the authorities of both parishes pleaded that for some years there had been no Lazars in the house, and Tristram Arscott consented to grant his benefaction for the use of the poor. William Arscott in 1693 leased a dwelling house in Taddiport, this lease, still extant, bears the seal of the hospital, but the impression is so much blurred that the design is unrecognizable.
Copies of a rental, dated 1729, mention the Lazar House, and "Syncocks House called the Mansion House", but their situation cannot now be identified.
During the 18th century, the chapel and some of the houses were kept in repair, but the greater part of the money was spent on clothes for the poor, and the rent of Chapel Field was paid to the rector of Little Torrington on condition that he had divine service in the chapel twelve times a year.
In 1894, and again in 1909, enquiries were made by the Charity Commissioners into the maintenance of the benefaction. The Lazar and Mansion house had disappeared, the names of Chapel Field and Magdalen Lands survived. The Charity was divided between the parishes of Great and Little Torrington. The rents of such properties as remain provide an annual dole, which in the absence of lazars or even paupers, is distributed among invalids and old age pensioners at Christmas.
The little chapel of St Mary Magdalen is still clearly a mediaeval building.
There is a small embattled tower at the west end and a transept to the north east which is thought to be the oldest part of the building. The east window is modern but entirely in keeping. The south doorway is of later date, the original one having been further west, and a mullioned domestic window has been inserted over it in the 17th century. There are two other square-headed windows, and on the south side an 18th century circular headed window. The whole chapel is tiny, the tower measuring only five feet square.
On the south wall there is a verse of Scripture painted in 18th century style:-
"Woe to them that devise iniquity and work Evil upon theyr beds: When the morninge is come they practice it, because it is in the power of theyr hand: And they covet feilds and take them by violence, And howses and take them away: Soe they oppress A man and his howse, Even a man and his heritage: Micah: the 2nd. cap."
This presumably refers to some misdealing with the Magdalen Lands, but there is no record of what actually happened.