Why You Should Visit The Old Operating Theatre Museum

The Old Operating Theatre Museum has reopened, providing Londoners with a hankering for a spot of gore somewhere to investigate. If you’ve previously visited you’ll know it’s nothing like its neighbours; The London Bridge Experience whose rag-clad, face-painted actors hand out leaflets outside the station.

No. This is a real historic gem off the tourist trail, so come have a look around. But I warn you it’s not for those with a nervous disposition.

The museum on St Thomas Street (that’s a historic clue!) is tucked behind hoardings for now, but you’re looking for this red doorway behind some larger wooden ones.

Old Operating Theatre Museum

Then you face a tiny, and particularly vertiginous, staircase.

Old Operating Theatre Museum

Once you’re up and through the shop, you step into another space in time.

The Herb Garret

Old Operating Theatre Museum

The funny smell is from a collection of herbs and medicines used since ancient times. The garret (attic room) of St Thomas’ Church – where the museum stands – was used as the hospital apothecary for St Thomas’ Hospital (remember the street name?)

The hospital was originally part of a Priory on the site of present-day Southwark Cathedral, founded in 1106. It was renamed ‘St Thomas’ in 1173, very on trend in terms of religious names given Becket’s martyrdom was in 1170.

Fun geeky fact: Today the hospital is officially named after St Thomas the Apostle rather than the Catholic martyr St Thomas Becket. It was re-dedicated in 1540 after the reformation.

Old Operating Theatre Museum

The church that you’ll find yourself in was rebuilt between 1698 and 1702 (hence the rickety spiral stairs) but there’s been a church here, closely linked with the hospital, since Medieval times.

Old Operating Theatre Museum

Spices and herbs were common in medicine until modern times and still today we use active ingredients from flora and fauna.

The Hospital had its own botanic garden and apothecary shop within its grounds and the apothecary was in charge of prescriptions for surgical cases and (when there wasn’t a physician) dispensing medicines to patients.

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What Happened to the Hospital?

Today St Thomas’ Hospital can be found further along the Thames in Lambeth, just South of Westminster Bridge. It moved after the 1850 government decision to install railway lines between Greenwich and Charing Cross, creating London Bridge Station. Outrageously, Borough Market nearly also faced eviction, but was saved.

Old Operating Theatre Museum

The rediscovery of the garret was made in 1956 by Raymond Russell who was researching its history, but ended up discovering something else.

An Old Operating Theatre

(Or at least the shell of one.)

Old Operating Theatre Museum

The reconstructed operating theatre as it looks today.

Russell’s find was pretty extraordinary; it was the only 19th century operating theatre to survive in Europe.

Rebuilt with furnishings based on its contemporary accounts, the rebuilt operating theatre still has an eerie feel. Not least when you start to take a look at the surrounding implements and remember the lack of anesthetic.

Old Operating Theatre Museum

Some friendly-looking 19th century obstetrics equipment.

Old Operating Theatre Museum

Case full of amputation equipment and a ‘Male urethral probe’.

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What was it like?

The operating theatre was opened in 1821, complete with large skylight for natural light and standing room for the students (St Thomas’ has always been a teaching hospital).

Old Operating Theatre Museum

The plaque at the top of the room proclaims; “Miseratione no mercede” translated as “For compassion, not for gain”. But i’m not sure that gave the patients much comfort.

“Behind a second partition stood the pupils, packed like herrings in a barrel but not so quiet … The confusion and crushing was indeed at all times very great, especially when any operation of importance was to be performed.” – John Flint South, St Thomas surgeon 1884

Visiting The Old Operating Theatre Museum

The museum is open daily, 10.30-5pm and costs £6.50 (concessions and child rates available). You can find out more information from their website here.

Want more Southwark Secrets?

I run a ‘Southwark’s Saucy Secrets’ tour of the London Bridge area, featuring its history of breweries, bear baiting and brothels. Read more about the walk here, or find a date and book via eventbrite below;

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