Bedale Leech House
|Bedale Leech House|
|The Leech House|
The Bedale Leech House
|Location||Bedale, North Yorkshire, England|
|Owner||Bedale Heritage Trust|
This late Georgian Bedale Leech House in Bedale, North Yorkshire, England, is a unique example of a building constructed to keep live medicinal leeches (Hirudo medicinalis) healthy prior to their sale by the local apothecary to doctors and private individuals for the purpose of blood letting as a medical procedure to cure or prevent a variety of illnesses and diseases.
The Leech house
The 'Leechery' is a small brick built and castellated structure, just 3.25 metres by 3.07 metres, standing on the bank of the Bedale Beck, was restored by the Bedale District Heritage Trust in 1985 and sits in a quarter of an acre of gardens known as the 'Bedale Renaissance Park' with an information board that explains its history and significance. It was built by an apothecary on the estate of the Beresford-Pierse family of Bedale Hall in the late 18th or early 19th century and was used for storing leeches until the early 1900s.
Special containers of moist turf and moss were used and that a flow of fresh water from the Bedale Beck was diverted through the building. A fireplace provided heat to ensure the containers and the leeches within did not freeze in winter. Specialised and often very ornate 'Leech Jars' with a secure lid pierced small air holes were used for the storage of leeches in the apothecaries shop. Feeding was not usually necessary as leeches can survive for lengthy periods, up to a year, between meals.
The leeches were either collected using horses or frequently the legs of the leech collectors themselves, removing the leech after it had taken a full meal of blood. Bogs and marshes being the best collecting areas. The Lake District and Somerset Levels had particularly suitable sites. Women were particularly associated with collecting leeches and transporting them in small boxes or cages. It was not until 1835 that a method of breeding medicinal leeches was perfected in France, however the British showed little interest in this even though the native stocks were in decline or even nearing extinction.
At Bedale, George Thornton was the leech gatherer who was employed by Mr. Bellamy a local pharmacist or apothecary. Special pewter boxes were developed into which the leeches were placed once sold.
The use of leeches in medicine reached a peak between 1825 and 1850 to the point that supplies became scarce and a secure place to store them before use became desirable. By the 1900s the use of leeches in medicine had dramatically declined and the Bedale Leech House ceased to be used for their storage, surviving however until restoration in 1985.
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- Leech collectors, Science Museum. Accessed 24 September 2016.
- Robinson. pp.54–56.
- Kirk, p.92
- Yorkshire Gazetteer
- Hirudo medicinalis: ancient origins of, and trends in the use of medicinal leeches throughout history
- Kirk, Robert & Pemberton, Neil (2013). Leech. Reaktion Books,
- Robinson, Tony. The Worst Jobs in History. Pan. ISBN 0-330-43857-3
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