Stepping back into London’s past offers hope to the world today

Did you know that top royal residence St James’s Palace is built on the site of and named after a leprosy hospital? Or that St Giles' Church in the shadow of the iconic Centre Point tower was literally ‘in the fields’? The affectionately-named poets' church began life as a leprosy hospital, its then rural location chosen to protect city life.

In fact there were eight leprosy hospitals forming a ring around the emerging medieval centres of Westminster and the City of London. Leprosy was feared in medieval London because of the cruel toll it has on the body, hence the desire for physical separation. Yet it is comforting to learn that the hospitals were built on main routes into the city so those affected could at least beg for alms.

On Saturday 2 July, you can join us for a special Walk of Hope where we'll explore London's leprosy past. Beginning at 10am at St Paul's Cathedral, the leisurely 5km walk will take in many key sites.

The route finishes at St James's Palace, built by King Henry VIII on the site of a leprosy hospital dedicated to Saint James the Less. We'll then picnic together in St James's Park. This will be a fantastic opportunity to learn more about the history of leprosy in London and you can sign up to take part by completing our online form.

A stigma that continues today

Chief Executive Peter Waddup said: "Leprosy is thought to be the world's oldest disease. London has a fascinating and rich leprosy history which is exciting to explore.

"What many people don't know today though is that leprosy remains a 21st century problem when it really shouldn't be. For the past 40 years there has been an effective cure for leprosy and yet there are millions of untreated cases in the world today. These people are needlessly at risk of disability which is just heartbreaking.

"While in medieval London there was a certain amount of compassion for those outcast with leprosy, many people today experience terrible prejudice. This can lead to a vicious circle of hiding early symptoms of the disease for fear of rejection by their family and community. Sadly their fears are all too often realised when they go on to develop disabilities. This includes blindness.

"Leprosy Mission staff and partners work tirelessly to find and cure people with leprosy in its early stages and to help people build new and more prosperous lives.”

Wendy Piccinini, Community Partnerships Manager for London and the South East, is organising the Walk of Hope.

Wendy said: “From what I have learnt from looking at life in medieval London, leprosy was feared because it was incurable at the time. People were scared when they saw people disfigured as a result of leprosy.

"They felt a need to protect Londoners from the disease hence the building of leprosy hospitals in a ring around what was then the outskirts of the city.

"We can be encouraged by London's leprosy past in the fact that leprosy is largely a disease of poverty. It can be wiped out with improved living conditions coupled with the cure we are so thankful to have today.

"Leprosy continues to thrive where there is poor housing, overcrowding, a lack of sanitation and malnutrition. This weakens immune systems, making people more susceptible to leprosy."

Wendy said a decline in the number of leprosy cases in England coincided with major improvements to public health.

Disease thrived in medieval cities like London where there were no sewage systems or fresh water supplies. The last indigenous leprosy case in England was recorded in 1798 following major improvements to public health.

A walk that can transform lives

Wendy said: “A lot of our work today is improving living conditions in vulnerable communities where leprosy hides. This could be providing families with homes and a clean water supply. Or it could mean advocating to government to install electricity to a leprosy colony.

“It is a mammoth task, but we are steadily improving living conditions in some of the world's most marginalised communities.”

Those taking part in the Walk of Hope will money to support people affected by leprosy across Asia and Africa.

Wendy said: "Continuing on the walking theme, I find it incredible that a pair of orthopaedic sandals costing £10 can change a person's life. But the truth is it can! Leprosy causes nerve damage which can leave a person with numb feet that easily become injured. People living in rural communities often have no choice but to farm barefoot to feed their families. This is obviously fraught with danger. So a simple pair of protective sandals is literally life changing.

"Some of our supporters are even challenging themselves to raise £700 which pays for a person affected by leprosy to be fitted with a prosthetic leg. This means they are able to walk again which is just incredible.

"But no matter what people raise from taking part in the Walk of Hope, everyone is welcome. Looking back at our capital's rich history can only encourage us that it is possible to defeat leprosy once and for all globally today."