The Old Operating Theatre Museum

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.

The Freud Museum

Ever wondered exactly what Sigmund Freud’s famous psychoanalytic couch really looked like? Well you can see the real thing at the Freud Museum in Hampstead. This red-brick Queen Anne style building was home to Freud and family after they fled Austria in 1938. Fortunately, all of their furniture and some of Freud’s books made it over as well, so that they could re-create their home – and Freud’s study – here in London.

Freud’s extensive collection of Egyptian, Greek, Roman and Oriental antiques – almost 2,000 items are rather artfully displayed in his study – is also worth seeing. Freud’s daughter Anna, herself a renowned child psychoanalyst, inherited the house on her father’s death and it was her wish that it would eventually become a museum in his honour. The room dedicated to her life and work contains a cute anecdote about local children being shown the statue of Freud located on the corner of nearby Fitzjohn’s Avenue, and expressing concerns that he must find it cold being outside all the time…

And just for the record, the famous couch is covered in a colourful Iranian rug and chenille cushions – Freud would sit out of sight of his patients in the green tub chair placed behind the headrest. It was a gift from an appreciative patient and also made its way over with the rest of the household effects from Austria. Although it’s said to be comfortable it is not long, so patients would not actually fully recline on it.

The lovely garden dates from Freud’s time, and includes some of his favourite blooms. Freud is said to have taken great delight in watching the changing scenes in the garden, having only had a courtyard apartment in Vienna. His architect son, Ernst Freud, re-designed the study area so that it commanded a view of the garden through the French windows – and it is here that Freud spent his last days. He died on 23rd September 1939.

Don’t be put off by the fact that the museum is slightly outside of central London – it’s only in zone two and easily accessible from both Finchley Road and Swiss Cottage tube stations. They also hold a series of art exhibitions, conferences and other events, so check their website to see what else is on that you may like to attend. Don’t miss the video room showing archival footage of the Freud family. The Freud Museum is open Wednesday-Sunday 12.00-17.00, admission is £6 or £3 for concessions.

City of London Police Museum

While presenting yourself at a police station may not immediately spring to mind as the precursor to an entertaining day out in London, think again. For the Wood Street police station is home to the little gem that is the City of London Police Museum. As its name would suggest, this museum focuses on the City police, whose remit covers London’s historic Square Mile, as opposed to their counterparts in the Metropolitan Police. And unlike the Met’s private Crime Museum (a.k.a. the Black Museum), anyone can drop by for a visit.

Although the City of London Police Museum is contained in just the one room – I’m told it may eventually be extended, so watch this space – it is richly furnished with memorabilia and historical items, and is well worth a look. My personal favourites include the top hat originally incorporated in the uniform that was so sturdy officers could stand on it to look over high walls, and their collection of seized weapons, which includes a very low-tech sock-in-a-rock.

Events such as the Houndsditch Murders and the Moorgate Tube disaster of 1975 are also covered, and there is a small section on Jack the Ripper as the Mitre Square killing fell within the City’s boundaries. Many of the museum’s volunteers are former officers themselves and as such have a wealth of information to impart (and can even point out former colleagues in more recent photos). This is what really brings the museum – and the stories it contains – alive. For example, did you know that the City Police significantly pre-date the Metropolitan force, and their Roman-style helmet reflects their early origins?

The Museum is currently open Wednesdays from 10am-4pm and Fridays from 2-6pm (and Tuesdays 10am-4pm from 1st February 2012). Just present yourself at the front desk at 37 Wood Street during these hours. Entry is free.

Keats House by candlelight

Regardless of how you feel about Valentine’s Day, one related event that you may wish to attend is the candlelight opening of Keats House, Every Truly Yours, on the evening of Friday 10th February. This Hampstead residence was the poet John Keats’ home from 1818-1820, and is where he met Fanny Brawne, the love of his life and (quite literally) the girl next door. These days it is a lovely house museum run by the City of London, with a strong series of events related to literature and Regency era history and culture.

Although film buffs may note that this was not the house used in Jane Campion’s Bright Star film about the ill-fated lovers (the celluloid version is predictably much larger and more grandiose), it has the immeasurable benefit of being the real deal. Attendees of Every Truly Yours can expect not only a candlelit tour of the house, but champagne and chocolate, and a creative writing challenge based on Keats’ letters to Miss Brawne. The event runs from 7-9pm, costs £10 (£8 concessions), and requires prior booking on or 020 7332 3868.

After Hours at the War Rooms

The Churchill War Rooms are opening up the bunker doors for an After Hours event on Friday February 10th. In addition to a curator-led tour of the fascinating underground war rooms, this evening event also features dance classes and live music of the time, a bar and a film screening. Visitors will also have the opportunity to have their photograph taken outside the original door from 10 Downing Street.

These secret headquarters of the War Cabinet was originally intended to be a temporary emergency government centre, but were soon commandeered by Churchill – and the hundreds of men and women who worked here during the Second World War. As staff dormitories and more luxurious bedrooms for Churchill and his wife were provided, many also slept in the War Rooms (although apparently Churchill generally slept off-site, and his wife’s room was mostly used by their daughter). You can view these sleeping arrangements – and more – at the After Hours event.

Due to the limited capacity of the secret wartime bunker, advance bookings are essential and cost £16.45. If you can’t attend this one, look out for future announcements as the War Rooms has held this event previously, and last year it was part of the Museums at Night annual event. I’ll keep an eye out too.

And if putting on your 40s finery and having a bop to the sounds of the day is just your thing, you may also be interested in The Blitz Party – semi-regular 1940s party events that are held under the railway arches in Shoreditch.

The Map Room, photograph copyright IWM.

‘Malicious Damage’ exhibition

'Malicious Damage' sign - with public library in background.

It’s true to say that playwright Joe Orton and his partner Kenneth Halliwell were big users of their local public library service. However, the form of use this mostly took not only landed them in prison and kick-started Orton’s career, but led Halliwell down a lost path that culminated in him murdering Orton and taking his own life. So the events covered by Islington Museum’s Malicious Damage exhibition – subtitled ‘The life and crimes of Joe Orton and Kenneth Halliwell in Islington’ – are powerful ones.

Finding the selection of books at their local Islington Public Library Service wanting, Orton and Halliwell took to producing ‘guerrilla artwork’, re-working the cover art with images removed from other library books. Often these images were risque ones, but not always – animals and figures from history and art also adorn their ‘new editions’, many of which are on view in Malicious Damage. Alternative text was also inserted into blurbs and pages ripped from books and used to jot down notes and creative ideas. The two would then loiter around the libraries to watch the reactions of outraged patrons on discovering their handiwork.

When the police finally turned up at Orton and Halliwell’s bedsit in 1962 with an arrest warrant (Halliwell’s classic reaction being, ‘Oh dear’), they also discovered that their home was adorned with collage-style wallpaper created from images stolen from library art books (there is a great photo of this in the exhibition). Of course, there is no happy ending to this story. While Orton thrived creatively in prison, Halliwell struggled throughout the ordeal and long afterwards. Events culminated in the murder-suicide of 1967.

Although the exhibition is only in the one room, I strongly recommend visiting to see the cultural ephemera that is Orton and Halliwell’s fascinating guerrilla artwork. It seems nothing short of a miracle that these rogue books have been preserved! The explanatory panels in the exhibition are also informative, relating the story of the two men’s lives and careers. It’s free and runs until 26 February (not open Sundays). The Islington Museum (ironically) can be found in the basement of the Finsbury Library – part of the Islington Public Library Service.

Go underground at the Brunel Museum

Looking for something different to do on Christmas Eve? Well how about spending it underground. OK, maybe not the whole day, but if you head to Rotherhithe’s Brunel Museum you can be entertained in the Christmas spirit (including stories, decorations and prismatic reflectors) in the underground Entrance Hall to the old Thames Tunnel. This is a massive underground space (half the size of the Globe Theatre) that you enter via a tunnel and staircase.

When the Thames Tunnel was first opened in 1843 it was the first tunnel in the world to travel underneath a river. It was heralded as the Eighth Wonder of the World, and over one million people payed a penny for the pleasure of walking under the river in its first ten weeks. Today it still links Rotherhithe and Wapping via the Overground network. Normally visits to the shaft are only conducted via guided tours run twice a week in partnership with London Walks, which includes a longer tour of the surrounding area.

Thames Tunnel Entrance Hall, photo courtesy of The Brunel Museum

The Underground Christmas event now has the following dates left: Sunday 18th December at 12 noon, and Saturday 24th December at 2pm, 3pm and 4pm, and the £5  ticket also includes entrance to the Museum. No bookings are required, and you can find the Museum directly behind the Rotherhithe Underground Station. The Londonphile has this in the diary for the 24th! This looks to be becoming an annual event so if you can’t make it this year maybe it’s one for 2012.

For Brunel Museum details see:

For details on the London Walks tour mentioned see:

UPDATE: This tour turned out to be a real gem. While the 2pm and 4pm sessions appeared to be quite busy, I attended the 3pm session which was composed of just four people. We were regaled with fascinating stories of the lost world of the Thames Tunnel, from its construction to its heyday and subsequent decline. My understanding of this site as the birthplace of the modern subway system (and hence the modern city) and as the world’s first underwater shopping mall (as well as a bit of a den of iniquity) has been much enhanced! Go down if you can!

And you have just been granted another opportunity to do so as there will be two openings in January 2012. On Wednesday 11th January and Sunday 15th January at 12:00 p.m. you can again descend into the chamber (without the stories this time). £5 including museum entry – no need to book, just turn up on the day.

The Geffrye Museum of the Home

The Geffrye Museum - with installation by Kei Ito in the foreground

The Geffrye Museum is not just a museum of the home, but a sort of ultra house museum: based in eighteenth century almshouses in Hoxton, it features a series of rooms displaying domestic interiors. The focus is on the urban English middle class living room from 1600 to the 1990s, whose development you can follow right up until modern warehouse conversions (complete with mezzanine level!). I’m personally a little torn between the 1935 art deco lounge room and the very retro g-plan-esque one from 1965, but on balance I think the latter has my final vote.

The museum itself is free (some temporary exhibitions have a charge), but on certain days you can pay £2.50 to visit the restored Almshouse 14 in the building’s south-west wing, to see how London’s elderly and poor once lived. And it’s not as grim as that makes it sound! I promise.

And don’t forget to visit the gardens around the back, which are also divided into periods depicting the development of the town house garden from the seventeenth to early twentieth centuries. Although these are only open to the public from April to October, they can be glimpsed from the lovely garden reading room (and yes also from the East London overground line, right next to Hoxton Station!).

Now is a good time to visit though as the Geffrye is holding its annual Christmas Past installation, in which all the rooms are decorated in period Christmas decorations. On the afternoon of January 6th 2012 (4-5pm) they will hold that year’s traditional Farewell to Christmas burning of the holly and the ivy event in the garden. For more details visit their website:

Dennis Severs’ House

Dennis Severs’ magical house is one of the Londonphile’s top London picks and one of London’s most evocative little gems. American artist Dennis Severs created a mini time capsule in this listed Georgian terrace house, located near Spitalfields Market.

The ten rooms range in time periods from 1724 to 1914 and follow the varying fortunes of a family of Huguenot weavers who mysteriously appear to have always just left the room when you enter. The experience is a sensory overload, and your sense of smell will be particularly active throughout your visit as you experience the traditional smells associated with the various time periods. As Severs himself noted, “your senses are your guide” in this house.

In keeping with the eras portrayed, there is no electricity in the house and you are asked to remain silent throughout your visit, so as to help fully soak up the atmospherics (and to appreciate the creaking of authentic floorboards). Amazingly, Severs himself actually lived in the house from 1979-1999 – on his death it was opened to the public. This is truly something you have to experience for yourself, so I will keep the description to a minimum!

Check the house’s website below for details of the regular opening hours as well as the Silent Night evening visits. This year’s Christmas installation of period Christmas decorations is currently up (until 6th January 2012) and is well worth a visit even if you have already seen the house. Exclusive Silent Nights are also run in which participants can  have a drink by the fire and meet the curatorial team – this is on the Londonphile’s wish list!

Vintage postcards: British Museum

British Museum

I love Museums and I love old postcards, so you can see how this post came about. Just a short post so I can share with you the British Museum in all its neo-classical finery (not sure which year this one hails from I’m afraid – please feel free to hazard a guess!). Hope you like it – this will be the first of a series featuring old postcards and images from London.