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WHO Goodwill Ambassador's Newsletter For The Elimination Of Leprosy

MUSEUM PIECE: CLAY HORSEMAN

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In 1914, a group of doctors, clergy and other concerned individuals decided to get to grips with a problem that successive British governments, hospital boards and local authorities had failed to tackle: what to do about the few people who contracted leprosy overseas with nowhere to turn once they came home to a country where the disease had long been eradicated.

With a legacy of £5,000 from Lord Strathcona, the group set up a charitable trust to be used for the benefit of British subjects, resident in Great Britain, who were suffering from leprosy. A religious order—the Society of Divine Compassion—took over an old farmhouse, called ‘Moor House’, in Bicknacre, Essex, and work began to convert the ramshackle outbuildings into a proper center to care for their charges.

For much of the 20th century, the “Homes of St. Giles” was the only facility of its kind in Britain. It had been opened in great secrecy and when news of who would reside there became known locally, there was great fear that a ‘leprosy pandemic’ could sweep through England. An intense public information campaign and Royal patronage eased tensions; also, the onset of World War I gave local people far more immediate things to worry about as Essex was exposed to enemy bombs and burning aircraft.

In 1936, responsibility for the Homes was taken over by the Community of the Sacred Passion, a religious order whose main work was with leprosy in Tanganyika (now Tanzania). In 1969, the institution was renamed the “Hospital and Homes of St. Giles” to indicate a new role and function. A skilled and dedicated physiotherapist prepared selected patients for specialist surgery available at nearby hospitals.

Many of the patients developed considerable skills in pottery, painting and other handwork. At several county exhibitions, their entries gained high awards against competition from able-bodied entrants.

This clay horseman was given by its creator (sadly unnamed) to the late Ron Fairman, lay chaplain to the Homes, in 1976. It was made in the crafts workshop there in the 1950s. When Fairman died, his daughter gave the figurine to Lepra, believing it to be the most suitable home for it. Today it forms part of the international charity’s informal collection of leprosy-related objects. (Irene Allen, Lepra)