INSPIRED by our recent stories which have told how the 17th Century Black Death ripped into places like Darlington, Hurworth and Richmond, and how traders in places like Teesdale and Swaledale turned isolated landmarks into market places, Jennifer Allison has written a note about how Northallerton was affected.

It was particularly struck in 1604 when, between January 18 and May 28, there were 54 burials in the churchyard, and the following year when, between July 16 and November 21, 90 were buried, victims of what the vicar described as “the great plague”.

“Among the burials were at least three children of a Cuthbert Metcalfe,” says Jennifer. “Their baptisms appear in the earliest register in the 1590s and, intriguingly, beside his name is written “hospitalis”. It seems likely that the family were living at what later became Spittal Farm, which was the site of the great St James’s Hospital.”

The Northern Echo: The churchyard where the plague victims were buried in Northallerton.The churchyard where the plague victims were buried in Northallerton.

St James’s was founded by Philip de Poitou, who was Bishop of Durham between 1197 and 1208. It placed in a self-isolationry position on the A168 Northallerton to Thirsk road beyond the southern boundary of the town – even today, Spittal Farm is noticeably beyond the edge of the expanding town.

St James’ essentially treated lepers – victims of a pandemic of a previous age – and the lepers were treated by three sisters until they recovered or died.

Each evening at the hospital gate, 13 paupers were given bread and pottage to relieve their suffering.

St James’ was financially supported by thousands of acres of land bequeathed to it by local people, and it is now regarded as a well developed and pioneering healthcare provision.

However, its riches attracted the attention of Henry VIII, and it was dissolved as a “lesser monastery” in 1540. Henry gave its lands to Christ Church College at Oxford University, and even to this day the college owns land in the area.

It rankled with Northallerton for centuries that the wealth which had been used to benefit the local poorest was now being used to educate the sons of the richest down south.

Apparently, there is much medieval stonework from the ancient hospital built into its replacement, Spittal Farm.