Dr Emma Wells examines the history of The Leech House in Bedale

in Bedale

As the undulating road veers down from the Wensleydale Railway track and you enter the market town of Bedale in North Yorkshire over the bridge, many visitors overlook the squat square red-brick hut perched on a grassed lawn on the eastern bank of the Beck.

One of the most unusual Georgian buildings in Britain, this castellated structure dating from the late 18th century, though empty now, would once have been filled with ornate jars bursting with bloodthirsty leeches used for medical treatments. In fact, it is the only surviving leech house in the United Kingdom.

The Bedale leechery was designed to store large numbers of leeches to ensure that there was a regular and plentiful supply to meet the demands of local practitioners. Standing proud next to the river, water could be diverted through the small 10×10-foot building and allowed to run back into the Beck. Leeches were then stored in containers of moss and turf moistened by the flowing water. A fireplace survives and allowed the temperature inside to remain above freezing.

Though rarely used after the late 19th century (though the practice continues for some medical treatments), bloodletting is an ancient medical custom. In the medieval era, medical theory was based around the body having four humours, which, when imbalanced, caused disease. Purging allowed for humour “rebalancing”, and this was often done to a patient by bleeding them into a bowl or applying leeches. Monks and priests carried out the practice until the Fourth Lateran Council of 1215, when clergy were prohibited from performing surgical procedures involving bloodshed and thus laymen took over.

The Bedale leechery’s architect is unknown, but an apothecary named Bellamy lived on the banks of the Beck, on land owned by the local Beresford-Pierse family, who owned Bedale Hall. Bellamy then employed a leech gatherer called George Thornton to care for the leeches and supply the apothecary.

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The Bedale Leech House is located next to Bedale Beck, near Bedale Road, near Bedale Train Station. DL8 1AW

Books by Dr Emma Wells

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