Bedale Leech House – the UK’s only surviving leech house
Whilst driving up to Bamburgh for a few days break with my wife, we decided to stop in Bedale for a bit of lunch. Looking at a tourist leaflet whilst eating my sandwich, I read about a village trail where one of the stops was a “leech house”.
As a driver guide in my real life, I couldn’t leave Bedale without finding out more, so after lunch we had a stroll around the village eventually coming to Bedale Bridge. Looking over the bridge I spotted a small, one story, castellated Georgian brick building – approx. 10ft x 10ft sitting next to the banks of Bedale Beck.
This it turned out was the “leechery”- once home to hundreds of blood thirsty leeches. Built in the late 1700’s by an apothecary for storing leaches, it was in use apparently until the early 1900’s. Its main purpose was to keep leeches alive and healthy until they could be sold by the apothecary to local doctors.
So why would you build a structure to house leeches?
Leeches are parasitic or predatory worm. They are closely related to the earthworm and have soft, muscular segmented bodies that can lengthen and contract. They attatch themselves to flesh using a sucker and then proceed to feast on the blood. They also secrete a peptide called Hirudin which actually stops the blood from clotting.
Back in the day, it was believed that the medical procedure of “blood-letting” was a cure for a number of ailments, whilst helping to prevent illnesses. The practice of using leeches for blood-letting, apparently had actually been going on for 4,000 years!
The Bedale Leech house is a unique building, being the UK’s only surviving leech house. Its position allowed leeches to be kept in special glass containers, which sat on wet turf and moss. To keep the ground moist and the leeches alive, water was diverted across the floor of the building by diverting it from Bedale Beck.
To ensure the leeches did not freeze in winter, there was a fireplace inside the building to keep the temperature inside at the right level.
Once the leeches were sold to the apothecary, leeches were stored in ornate, china leech jars with small holes for them to breathe, but a tightly secured lid. Leeches were collected in two ways, firstly, by taking horses into wet bogs and marshes, then collecting the leeches from their legs. Or by a leech collector sacrificing his or her own legs by walking through swampy ground in the hope that they became prey for the blood sucking critters.
In Bedale, it is recorded that the local leech collector was called George Thornton and he was employed by a Mr Bellamy from the local apothecary. I wonder what state his legs were in when he retired?
The Bedale leech house was restored in 1985 by Bedale District Heritage Trust and has since been Grade II listed by English Heritage.