The Leech House: Why this building is the most blood-chilling in Bedale

The Leech House in Aiskew, near Bedale
The Leech House in Aiskew, near Bedale
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This small, unassuming building in Bedale belies its gruesome function.

The 18th-century Leech House is Britain's only remaining leechery.

Its original use seems barely comprehensible today.

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When it was built in the village of Aiskew during the Georgian period, blood-sucking leeches were used for medical treatments. It was believed that patients needed to be 'purged' of blood in order to recover from numerous ailments - and leeches were ideal for the purpose.

It could be difficult to procure the creatures, which were often collected by women who used their own legs or a horse to attract them while standing in marshy, boggy areas. They would then sell them to apothecaries, an earlier forerunner of a pharmacy.

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 doctors.

The small house was built by an apothecary called Bellamy on the banks of Bedale Beck, on land owned by the Beresford-Pierse family, who owned the Bedale Hall estate. It is surrounded by gardens and a public park.

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The leeches were kept in special containers with turf and moss inside, and there was a water supply from the beck. A fireplace was installed to provide heat. Leeches were then transferred to special storage jars to be taken to the shop, from where they would be sold. They were not usually fed, as they can survive for up to a year without food.

The French figured out how to breed medicinal leeches to avoid the need to collect them from the wild, but this method was never adopted in Britain, despite declining stocks.

Bellamy employed a leech gatherer called George Thornton to care for the leeches and supply the apothecary.

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Use of leeches declined after the 1850s as medical science advanced and the treatment was found to be useless, and in many cases harmful. The Leech House was emptied in 1900, although unlike other examples around the country, it was never demolished. It fell into disrepair, but was restored in 1985 and has since been listed.

The Leech House has been in private ownership since 2003.