I’m willing to wager that the Old Operating Theatre Museum and Herb Garret is the only museum in the world that you enter via a 32-step spiral staircase designed for bell-ringers, and which features a main attraction that was hidden for almost a century in the roof of a church. Two things are for certain: what you will be seeing here is Europe’s oldest surviving operating theatre and one of London’s most unusual museums.
The operating theatre was built in the garret of St Thomas’ Church, itself constructed in 1703 by Thomas Cartwright, and was attached (both literally and figuratively) to St Thomas’ Hospital. The theatre was created in 1822 – before the advent of anaethetics and antiseptic surgery – and contained tiered viewing areas for students of surgery to watch and learn. It was closed in 1862 when the hospital moved to Lambeth and was promptly forgotten about until researcher Raymond Russell rediscovered it in 1956 via a mention in the hospital archives. It’s rather horrifying to learn that prior to its creation, operations were carried out on patients in the ward directly next to the garret – yes, in their own beds (although this was in fact common in the era, and more wealthy people had their surgeries conducted at home).
This is essentially a museum of two main spaces: the operating theatre and the herb garret, where medicinal herbs were prepared. The herb garret is wonderfully atmospheric; the timber-framed attic is full of old bottles and jars and the delightful smell of herbs. From an olfactory point of view, this part of the museum reminds me of the magical Dennis Severs’ House somewhat. And in case you’re concerned that the museum may be a little too gruesome for you – I think you will cope. While there are indeed organs in jars and some scarily-named surgical implements on display (scarificators! amputation saws! decapitating hook! Smellie’s perforator &c), I have a fairly low tolerance for the more gruesome side of life and was just fine.
If you visit on a Saturday at 2pm you can see a demonstration of speed surgery (maybe not for the fainthearted this), while on Sundays at the same time a talk on the museum’s history and medical heritage is held. The museum is conveniently located just around the corner from London Bridge Station, and is open every day from 10.30am-5pm; adults are £6, concessions £5. And for the record, no the patients were not dragged up the spiral staircase, but simply brought through from the ward which abutted the operating theatre.