Tucked away down a street by London Bridge station is a narrow 32-step wooden spiral staircase. The extraordinary experience of visiting the Old Operating Theatre Museum and Herb Garret begins as soon as you walk off the street, on to the first step. The creaky staircase feels a little precarious, but there is a sturdy rope to cling onto as you wind up to the roof space of St Thomas's Church. At the top is an astonishing space containing the Herb Garret, once used by St Thomas's Apothecary, and the 17th century Operating Theatre. A visit to this museum is a hands-on experience that takes you back in time to discover the remarkable and gruesome history of surgery.
The museum is crammed with paraphernalia and a whole miscellany of peculiar oddities. Entering the Herb Garret is like discovering Aladdin's cave, but with treasures of a different kind. Rows of jars, cases of blades and piles of dried herbs occupy every surface. Snake skins dangle from the beams, old photographs hang askew in frames, whilst yellowed paper labels annotate this busy display. You will find no interactives or sleek graphic panels in this museum. The information labels are handwritten and the arrangement of objects is akin to a cabinet of curiosities. From a modern-day museum perspective, this display is haphazard and crowded. But here, in the Old Operating Theatre, it is all the better for it. The display encourages you to smell soaps and spices, and play with pestles and mortars, with not a "Do Not Touch" sign in sight.
There is a great deal of information here to excite your curiosity: for example, the herb Angelica was revealed in a dream by an angel to cure the plague, and a slather of Coleman's Mustard Ointment was known to alleviate conditions from colds to muscle pain. It is equally fascinating to see the beautifully packaged tins and containers that hold these bizarre remedies, such as "Potter's Asthma Remedy" and "Burdall's Marshmallow Ointment for chapped and rough skin". A sure-fire source of entertainment is the large selection of forceps, blades and other unidentifiable tools for probing the body. The sinister metal implements used to examine the more sensitive areas of the anatomy are certain to make you squirm, including an obstetric decapitating hook and a tonsil guillotine. The many photographs on display are unfortunately not clearly labelled. Revealing some fascinating scenes from (presumably) St Thomas's 19th century wards, it would have been useful to see some dates and descriptions for these pieces of historical documentation. There are however several large print guides which, if you dedicate the time, will give you more in-depth factual information.
The atmosphere changes as you walk from the dim, overflowing Herb Garret into the Operating Theatre itself: an open and airy space lined with stalls for students to gather and watch, centred around the wooden operating table. Built at the top of the bell tower, the theatre is positioned next door to what was the women's surgical ward. At the foot of the operating table sits a box of sawdust, once used to absorb the copious amounts of bodily fluids spilled. These were the days of pre-anaesthetic, pre-soap, pre-any-concept-of-hygiene. Everything is made of wood, including the handles on the surgical implements, and nothing would have been properly washed. Looking over the scene from the stalls, it is easy to imagine the horrors and barbarities that would have taken place in this room.
Whilst standing in the Old Operating Theatre is a fascinating experience in itself, the afternoon talks are the best way to get the most out of your visit. There is a huge amount of information to take in, so a concise explanation of the theatre's history and practices is extremely useful. You will hear about James Miranda Barry (a female surgeon who posed as a man in order to pursue a medical career) and stories of patients bolting at first sight of the implements that faced them. The talk was relaxed and the speaker was highly knowledgeable; a very beneficial addition to the visit.
Access is indeed tricky; the spiral staircase is the only way in and out. The staff are very welcoming and it is a fantastic place for kids to explore. You could spend hours probing the displays and you will return home eager to recount a few grisly tales to your friends. If you have any doubts about the NHS, a visit to The Old Operating Theatre and Herb Garret is sure to incite a new gratitude for modern medicine.
Old Operating Theatre
The Operating Theatre (operating or emergency room) is found in the roof space of an English Baroque Church. At first glance this placement seems bizarre. But it makes more sense when it is realised that the wards of the South Wing of St. Thomas's Hospital were built around St. Thomas's Church. Dorcas was the women's surgical ward. Before 1822, the women were operated on in the ward - this must have caused some considerable distress. In 1815 the Apothecary's Act, which required apprentice apothecaries to attend at public hospitals, meant that hordes of students poured in to watch operations.
The Herb Garret
When St Thomas's Church was rebuilt in 1703 it had an unusually large Garret in the roof space. This was used by the St Thomas's Apothecary to store and cure herbs. His main offices and shop were a short distance away along St Thomas's St.
When the Museum was being restored, 4 poppies were found in the rafters. Poppies are used to prepare opium which was a very important medicinal plant.
Storage areas in the hospital were available in basements and attics. For herbs, attics were preferable, we assume because they were less vunerable to rats. In addition, the massive timbers of the Garret stabilise the environment, absorbing excess moisture.
Apart from the poppies we have no direct evidence of what was stored here but the archives contain various references to the use of herbs and so we have an idea of what would have been used.
Old Operating Theatre Museum and Herb Garret9a St Thomas St
London Greater London United Kingdom SE1 9RY
Open Bank Holidays except Christmas day and Boxing Day