The Old Operating Theatre Museum is a museum of surgical history housed in a church attic. Yes, there is so much about that sentence that needs explaining!
The Museum has two parts: the Herb Garret and the oldest surviving operating theatre in Europe.
This London Bridge attraction has been open for 60 years, but 2022 is also 200 years since the first surgical procedures happened here. In the days before anesthetics and antiseptics, surgical procedures included amputations and trepanations (drilling a hole in the skull)!
To mark these anniversaries, the Museum has received a National Lottery Heritage Fund (NLHF) grant and another from the Department for Digital, Culture, Media, and Sport (DCMS).
Climb the Stairs
To reach the Museum, you need to go up the narrow, wooden, spiral staircase (52 steps). There is no alternative access, so be prepared for the climb. There is a traffic light system so you can see if you need to wait for anyone to come down before starting your ascent.
Why Is It In A Church Attic?
That is a great question, and it wouldn’t seem the obvious choice for an operating theatre.
St Thomas’ Church was originally part of the medieval St. Thomas’ Hospital – a charitable organization for poor patients. This Grade II-listed church was completed in around 1703 as part of the rebuilt hospital. The church architect was Thomas Cartwright, who had worked as Master Mason to Christopher Wren on three of his City churches and the Royal Exchange.
St Thomas’ Church was desanctified in 1899, and from 1905 it was used as the Chapter House for Southwark Cathedral.
When new, the church was fitted out with a large garret constructed in the ‘aisled-barn’ tradition. For more than 100 years this entire garret (another word for a liveable attic) was used to dry and store herbs (kept high to protect from water and rats). It is suggested that the garret was used by the hospital’s apothecary to store and cure medicinal herbs. There was an apothecary workshop on St Thomas Street a few doors away within the hospital grounds.
St Thomas’ Hospital
St Thomas’ has been operating in some way since the twelfth century. It was originally part of the Priory of St Mary Overie and was renamed The Hospital of St Thomas the Martyr following the canonization of Thomas a Becket in 1173. At the Dissolution of the Monasteries in 1540, St Thomas’ was closed by Henry VIII, and Beckett was decanonised. The hospital soon reopened but was renamed the Hospital of St Thomas the Apostle.
The hospital was rebuilt in 1709 to accommodate more than 400 patients across nineteen wards. At this time, Thomas Guy founded the nearby hospital, Guy’s, which still stands on the site.
Florence Nightingale opened her school for nurses at St Thomas’ Hospital in 1859. It was on her advice that the hospital agreed to move to a new site when the Charing Cross Railway Company offered to buy the hospital’s land. In 1862, the hospital began the move to its present site at Lambeth (opposite the Houses of Parliament), and the operating theatre was closed.
At this time, the operating theatre was partly dismantled, and the entrance from the Hospital into the Garret was blocked up. And it was then forgotten about it for many years. Only the church and the south buildings were spared when the railway arrived.
It was not until 1956 that historian Raymond Russell investigated a narrow entrance from the church tower and discovered the operating theatre. After 100 years of disuse, the garret space was restored and opened to the public as a museum in 1962.
Inside the Museum, the hefty wooden beams above actually date back to the thirteenth century as they were reused from the previous church building on the site. (This reclamation of building materials was common – you can read of more examples in the Anglotopia column: A Church in Wales.)
The open space here is divided into different themes such as Nursing, and there’s a wonderful Apothecary counter. This was the equivalent of the modern chemist shop, and hospitals used to employ people who had particular skills for mixing and understanding herbal and chemical ingredients. They often used specially-shaped containers for potentially poisonous substances.
There are some exhibits from the St Thomas’ Hospital archives, and the Nursing section has a portable bedside font on display that would have been used to give the last rites.
Unusually, St Thomas’ Hospital had its own carpenter so patients could be dismissed with wooden crutches and prostheses after amputations.
Do pick up the I-spy game sheet to use in the Herb Garret section. If you can check everything off, you can claim at a sticker at the Reception Desk. There really are a huge variety of oddities to see here, including a myriad of herbs plus three pufferfish, two alligators and dragon’s blood.
In 1822, part of the garret was partitioned for the inclusion of a purpose-built operating theatre for women. The location made sense as the church attic was next to the female ward. A skylight was installed (this was before electric lighting) to provide as much natural light as possible to the surgeon. The operating table had operations scheduled one after the other between noon and 1 pm when the sun was at its highest.
Why is it called an operating theatre? The name is because these rooms for surgical procedures were built in a gallery style for public observation. Here, the operating theatre is surrounded by four-tier standings for medical students to watch operations on the unanaesthetised patients.
St Thomas’ Hospital originally had two operating theatres: one for men and one for women. The male operating theatre, which opened in 1755, is long gone leaving this the oldest surviving operating theatre in Europe. (There is one in Boston, USA, that is two years older.)
The patients were the working poor and consent was given for the operations. Once in the operating theatre, a patient couldn’t change their mind. It should be remembered that the operating theatre was not a place of torture or butchery but a place of hope. These patients had no other option. Three types of operation happened here: amputation, trepanation and lithotomy (surgical removal of bladder stones).
Operations had to be carried out quickly and a leg could be amputated in under two minutes. There were at least three operations here each week and some weeks there were fourteen back-to-back operations.
Anesthetics weren’t used until 1847, and antiseptic surgery was not introduced until the 1860s, so you can only imagine the hygiene standards. Following an operation, death may well still happen because of blood loss, shock or infection.
These are the original floorboards and there was a large amount of sawdust under the boards too to deal with ‘spillages.’ When the boards were lifted during renovations, coagulated blood-stained sawdust was found. You can see the box of sawdust under the operating table that was used to catch amputated limbs.
While the operating table in the middle of the room is a replica (used for demonstrations and photo opportunities), the 1830s operating table in the corner of the room is original. To enhance your photos here, you can wear a ‘bloody’ apron and pose with a plastic saw.
Keep an idea on the Museum Events page, and there are live demonstrations in the operating theatre on the last Saturday of each month (10 am–1 pm).
A new government grant will allow for the original Georgian skylight to be replaced soon to protect the fabric of the building. The work is likely to happen in early 2023.
And a replica doorway from the old Dorcas hospital ward has been added. (Incidentally, the old hospital ward room still exists but is now part of the British Transport Police building next door.) Visitors can download an AR (augmented reality) app to meet Mr. Benjamin Travers, a nineteenth-century surgeon who gives a first-hand account of his latest procedure. The Museum has free wifi.
The collection was originally donated by various representatives of the London NHS Hospitals and by private donors to Lord Russell Brock, founder of the Old Operating Theatre Museum & Herb Garret. The original collection comprised of around three hundred items over the years of the Museum’s existence. Acquisitions to the collection have been added from private individuals and staff of St Thomas’ and Guy’s Hospitals.
This atmospheric Museum has a genuinely unique place in the history of medicine and surgery. In the operating theatre, you can walk on the wooden floorboards where sawdust soaked up the blood as the surgeon’s skill or lack of it decided the fate of patients. And the exhibits include gruesome surgical tools and snail water for venereal disease. It really is bizarre and fascinating.
There are limited interactives and there is a lot to read. The Museum could do with some more concise labels; especially for younger visitors. I think it would help to have the themed displays numbered too so a simple visitor guide could be used.
The shop has treats from Hoxton Street Monster Supplies which are both brilliantly funny and delicious. There’s a good book selection. I think they should stock herbal teas and herbal gift soaps as well. Maybe even carbolic soap too although the unique smell might not be appreciated by all. But I do feel more ‘smells’ could enhance your visit.
You’ll only need around an hour to see the whole Museum, but it is well worth a visit.
Address: Old Operating Theatre Museum and Herb Garret, 9a St Thomas Street, London SE1 9RY
Nearest Station: London Bridge
Opening Hours: Thursdays, Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays, 10.30 am – 5 pm
Admission: Adult: £7.50; Concessions: £6.00; Child 6-16 years: £4.50; Children under 6 years: Free; Family (2 adults, 2 children): £18.00.
Important: Access is limited as the Museum is in the attic space of a 320-year-old church. The entrance is via a 52-step narrow spiral staircase.
Official Website: oldoperatingtheatre.com
Nearby: The Museum is close to The Shard, Borough Market and Southwark Cathedral. Have a look at the London Bridge Local History Map to take a self-guided walk of the area.