I was recently listening to a podcast, on the remarkable story of Princess Caraboo, which had an epilogue to the story which I hadn’t heard before. When Mary Baker retired from impersonating a Princess from Javasu, she settled down as a supplier of leeches to Bristol Infirmary (a ‘respectable and genteel’ occupation, according to the Dictionary of National Biography.)
Now it is leech gathering (and not the impersonation of princesses) that is the lost occupation. Medicinal leeches were used as a method of bloodletting, taking blood from person to cure a disease, indeed they were probably a safer alternative to having an incision made with a dirty lancet, as medicinal leeches aren’t known as a major source of infection.
Leeches are native to Britain and although rare now were once widespread, a pond near where I once lived on the New Forest is called Leechey Pond, and were collected from the wild for doctors to use. A woman would walk, bare legged, in shallow water where leeches lived. As they attached themselves to her skin she would remove them and put them in a container. Women were considered better at this as their softer and hairless skin was thought to attract the leeches.
But woman’s involvement with leeches didn’t end there; Anne Lister (Gentleman Jack) describes a doctors visit to her aunt.
Sunday 19 September 1819
Mr Sunderland [the doctor] called to see my aunt and staid near ½ hour. She is to have 2 leeches set on each foot to ease the noise & swimming in the head.
Monday 20 September
My aunt had the leech-woman from Northowram this afternoon. 2 leeches on each foot. Her charge, 6d. each leech as is common, & my aunt gave her a shilling over, for which the woman seemed exceedingly obliged. They seem to have done, my aunt says. She fancies she felt her [head] relieved immediately after the bleeding.
But what to do if you didn’t have a leech-woman in your area, why you would send to the local apothecary, who would supply you with leeches. They would come in small glass jars, always with a broad lip for a cover to be tied over it, as they were notorious for escaping.
You might get a leech or two if the doctor prescribed them, or you might keep some in the house, as we keep a few medicines today. For example Jane Austen wrote to her sister on Thursday June 23 1814;
We had handsome presents from the Gt House yesterday, a ham & the 4 leeches.
But when you had your leeches, who was to apply them – the women of course. It was considered the duties of any well brought up young woman to care for the sick. If there was sickness in the house, the women cared for the invalids, if you lived on your own, and were believed to be unwell, then you could almost guarantee that some young female relative would be dispatched to oversee your care – whatever you, or the young woman, wanted.
Guides to young women’s behaviour detailed how they should handle leeches, the ‘Young Lady’s Friend’ first dismisses any squeamishness;
If you have been with persons who were foolish enough to feel any disgust at leeches, do not be infected by their folly; but reason yourself into a more rational state of mind. Look at them as a curious piece of mechanism; remember that, although their office is an unpleasant one to our imagination, it is their proper calling, and that when they come to us from the apothecary they are perfectly clean, though slippery to the touch. Their ornamental stripes should recommend them even to the eye, and their valuable services to our feelings.
Then explain how to use them;
To make them take hold in the very spot required, you have only to take a piece of blotting-paper, and cut small holes in it where you wish them to bite; lay this over the place, and put the leeches on the paper. Not liking the surface of the paper, they readily take hold of the skin, where it appears through the holes, and much trouble is thus saved. When they are filled, they will let go their hold, and you have only to put them on a deep plate, and sprinkle a little salt on their heads, and they will clear themselves of blood; then wash them in water with the chill off, and put them away in clean cold water.
I don’t know what you think, but I am glad that this woman’s activity has disappeared.