Lazar House

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Lazar House and St Mary Magdalene Chapel

As a Leper Hospital

This building is by far the oldest in Sprowston being in the region of one thousand years old. It is hard to put an exact date on the construction of the Lazar House but the time between the start of the building of Norwich Cathedral in 1096 under its founder Herbert de Losinga and his death in 1119 gives some indication. Herbert de Losinga had decided to erect a chapel and hospital for lepers dedicating it to St Mary Magdalene this being the first of its kind to be founded in East Anglia. It has been suggested that this was a pious act after having paid the Crown for his appointment as the Bishop of Thetford after which he then transferred the See to Norwich. The hospital was built to accommodate lepers from Norwich and it was located well away from the city`s Magdalen Gate in what must have been open country side at that time with very few other people or dwellings in the vicinity. With it also went a generous amount of land from which came revenue to pay for the hospital upkeep. Although isolated it was nevertheless close by to tracks that were used to cross the wide expanses of Mousehold so perhaps its location was not as random as it first appears as there was the possibility of passing travellers and pilgrims making donations. These tracks bearing in mind that there were hardly any roads as such in those days were obviously well known and used.

Life appears to have carried on in much the same way for many years but it would seem that the amount of lepers had diminished over time so the hospital was then used as an alms house for poor widows. A house had been built on land next to the hospital which was known as Magdalen House this was probably built for the Master of the hospital and was surely the main house of what was later to be Denmark Farm.

Changes during the Dissolution

Changes that were to affect the whole country came about under the dissolution of the monasteries during the reign of Henry Vlll. Having dissolved the Norwich Cathedral Priory in 1539 it was only a question of time before the hospital and its lands were confiscated by the Crown this happening in 1547.The hospital was closed and the building then became known as Magdalen Chapel. As in many cases the estate was sold off within a very short period of time. The estate was sold in 1548 to John Corbet he had already acquired Sprowston Manor and its lands. With the sale of the hospital went a considerable amount of land and assets consisting of 64 acres of land 80 acres of heath land and also the rights to the Magdalen Fair which had been a source of income for the hospital up to then and much coveted by the City of Norwich.

The building becomes a Dovecote

John Corbet moved into Magdalen House where he had the chapel converted into a dovecote. In 1549 just a year after the purchase of the estate the Kett`s Rebellion was to take place. After being denied passage through Norwich the rebels made their way to the high ground of Thorpe passing by the site of Magdalen House and the chapel. It seems the rebels were at first intent on burning down Corbet`s house which was spared and in the end all they did was to damage other parts of his property including the dovecote.

After John Corbet had moved to Sprowston Hall little seems to be known of what happened to the chapel and the lands that went with it. There was certainly farming on the land and it is known that the now dilapidated chapel was used as a barn for close on two hundred years. With the increase of population in the early 1800`s anything that could be used for housing was utilised. Part of the chapel was converted into cottages and an extension with two more additional cottages was built on.

Building Utilisation from 1900 0nwards

Land of the adjoining Denmark Farm was eventually sold off along with the chapel and the attached cottages it was purchased in 1902 by Walter Rye which probably saved it from being demolished. Adjoining land was bought by the trustees of the Wesleyan Methodists for the building of their own chapel. In 1906 Walter Rye sold the site to Eustace Gurney of Sprowston Hall, he having agreed to meet the cost of restoring the chapel. It appears that he first intended to make the building into a hall for the community. Many new features were added to the building during the renovation and it was around this time that it became known as the Lazar House. Upon completion of the renovation around 1908 it was soon to be used and known as the St Magdalen Chapel Working Mens Club. In 1921 the now Sir Eustace Gurney having been knighted presented the building and the cottages together with the land to the City of Norwich having decided that he would like the building to be used as a library. After adapting the building the Lazar House became Norwich`s first branch library. It was officially opened on 6 November 1923 by the then Lord Mayor Sir George Morse. In 1965 a new branch library was opened in Recreation Ground Road and it was thought that the Lazar House would cease to be used as a library but it continued in this role for many more years. However after strong opposition closure did eventually take place and on Saturday 3 May 2003 the Lazar House finally closed its doors as a branch library. After the closure the building was to have a new lease of life but in a somewhat different role. It is currently the home of Assist Trust a Norwich based charity that has been in residence at the Lazar House for these past years catering for people with learning difficulties.