Museum of the Order of St John


Anyone who has walked through the Tudor gate on St John’s Lane in Clerkenwell must have wondered just what it is and what treasures it might house. The answer is that – following a number of different incarnations over the years – it is now home to the Museum of the Order of St John and is the property of that order, whose history on this site can be traced back to the eleventh century. And if you visit the museum on a Tuesday, Friday or Saturday at 11am or 2:30pm and take a guided tour, you can gain admittance to the upper chambers and see for yourself what lies above.


The tours are a must as they also gain you entry into the Norman crypt and priory church across Clerkenwell Road – once part of the monastery that was locked away behind this entrance gate. Once upstairs in the gatehouse you get a good look around the Chapter Hall (pictured below), the Old Chancery and the Council Chamber (which sits in the middle of the gate), before descending a lovely Tudor spiral staircase to the Malta Room.


Not to take anything away from the fascinating history of the Order of St John, but I was personally more interested in the gate’s (relatively) more recent history and its literary connections. Following the dissolution of the monasteries it served time as Henry VIII’s personal storage unit before becoming the office of the Master of the Revels in the sixteenth century. As no less than 30 of Shakespeare’s plays were licensed here it’s likely that the Great Bard himself was a frequent visitor.


In the eighteenth century the gatehouse was transformed into a rather idiosyncratic coffee house run by one Richard Hogarth, father of William. His Latin-only rule probably accounts for its fairly swift demise. The gateway also played home to The Gentleman’s Magazine – which gave a young Dr Johnson his first taste of employment – and by the nineteenth century had become the somewhat disreputable Old Jerusalem Tavern, frequented by one Charles Dickens.


The gateway was bought back by the Order of St John in the late nineteenth century and restored to its former glory. The museum benefitted from a major restoration on 2010. Its new galleries (which are on the ground floor and can be visited for free Monday-Saturday 10am-5pm) are well designed and blend in nicely with the old structure. I highly recommend timing your visit to coincide with one of the guided tours, which are also free though a donation of £5 is suggested.

Museum of the Order of St John




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.

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!