IT took the scourge of a terrible illness to encourage the foundation of Colchester’s first hospital in the Middle Ages.

It wasn’t a hospital in the modern sense.

St Mary Magdalen Hospital was a place of refuge and shelter for people afflicted with leprosy.

It is believed to have been founded by a remarkable man, Eudo Dapifer, at the behest of King Henry I in the early 12th century.

Nearly 900 years on, and the St Mary Magdalen Hospital Almshouse Charity is still working to provide shelter to the most vulnerable people in Colchester.

The charity’s clerk Michael Siggs said: “It is alleged by some historians that returning Crusaders brought the scourge of leprosy to Colchester.

“It was this fact which moved the Royal Steward Eudo and his contemporaries to establish the St Mary Magdalen Hospital Almshouse Charity outside the walls of the city to treat locals afflicted by this disease.”

The charity is one of the earliest almshouse foundations in the country, one of 1,750 such groups established across England and Wales.

They all follow a tradition of providing charitable housing for people in need.

Several foundations exist in Colchester, including Winnocks and Kendalls Almshouse Charity, in Military Road, which has just taken on nine new almshouses following investment of £1.3 million.

Colchester Council provided £450,000 of cash collected from Right to Buy schemes.

The council hopes the one-bedroom homes will boost its provision of affordable housing.

Adam Fox, councillor responsible for housing, said: “We are committed to delivering on our ambitious target of providing 350 affordable homes over the next five years and I hope we can continue to build partnerships to help us achieve our aims.”

Mr Siggs said: “These are designed to meet the needs of older people wishing to live independently and will be available at social rents payable under housing benefit.

“Rosemary Almshouse Charity plans to submit a planning application to develop 31 new almshouses on the land they own at Stanway opposite St Albright’s Church.

“St Mary Magdalen Hospital Almshouse Charity seeks to expand its work in providing housing for vulnerable people with a learning disability.”

The charity hopes to celebrate its 900th anniversary in 2020 with a two day festival in Colchester’s Castle Park.

Held across July 18 and 19, the celebration will be held in collaboration with charities including Lepra, St Helena Hospice, Age Concern Colchester, Beacon House and the Rotary club.

Mr Siggs said: “The great tradition of almshouse foundations is that they are community led, they are about people recognising the housing and care needs of their neighbours.”

Eudo Dapifer, who was the Royal Steward to three kings following the Norman conquest of Britain, is not only known for founding the hospital.

He is also responsible for the construction of St John’s Abbey, where he is suspected to have been buried following his death in 1120.

Mr Siggs said: “Significantly Eudo was responsible, according to our historian, for the rebuilding of the Norman keep of Colchester’s Castle.

“This work was carried out 50 years before the start of the building of Notre Dame in Paris.

“Boudicca burned down the town but the Royal Steward Eudo is responsible for the town’s regeneration.

“His memory should be equally respected."