It’s the most unlikely location for anything to do with a hospital. High above the street in what was a herb garrett above a former church sits what was the operating theatre for females of St Thomas’ Hospital.
Built in 1703, the attic space resembles something of a large barn and was likely first used for storing and drying herbs by the resident apothecary at the then newly reconstructed St Thomas’ Hospital (this was largely rebuilt at the end of the 17th century on the same site previously occupied by the hospital as far back as the 1200s).
In 1822, the hospital’s governors decided that part of the herb garrett be converted into a new purpose-built operating theatre for female patients. The addition of windows in what was left of the adjoining garret, meanwhile, suggest it may have been used as a recovery ward.
The first thing that assails you as you enter the herb garrett these days, having clambered up a narrow twisting staircase is the sweet, spicy smell of herbs.
There are plenty of these within the garret, each with a hand written card explaining the curative properties they were renowned for – who knew, for example, that the ash of bladderwrack, dried kelp or seaweed, could be used to treat scrofula and goitre, or that the origins of aspirin go back to 1758 when a Chipping Norton clergyman chewed on a willow twig?
Elsewhere in the space are displays featuring early surgeon’s implements (and all the horror that entails), specimen jars containing human organs, anatomical models, pill and medicine making equipment and a display on nursing (there’s also a display on the poet John Keats who briefly served as an apprentice apothecary at St Thomas’ and St Guy’s in 1815-17).
Through the garret is located the operating theatre itself, complete with the wooden operating table and series of seats for spectators. Information panels nearby speak of such things as the blood box located below the floor into which the blood drained away and the speed with which surgeon’s had to work (until 1846 there was no reliable anaesthetic and it wasn’t until 1865 that Sir Joseph Lister introduced antiseptic procedures). There’s also a panel on the resurrection men – people who traded in cadavers to meet the growing needs of anatomists in the 18th and 19th centuries (and whom were known in London and elsewhere to have murdered people to meet the demand for bodies).
For all the faux-horror of nearby attractions like the London Dungeon, it’s here that you can truly experience the horrors some people have had to face as they prepared to go under the surgeon’s knife.
WHERE: The Old Operating Theatre Museum and Herb Garret, 9a St Thomas’s Street, London Bridge (nearest Tube station is London Bridge); WHEN: 10.30am to 5pm daily; COST: £5.90 an adult/£4.90 concessions/£3.80 children under 16/£13.80 a family (up to four children); WEBSITE: www.thegarret.org.uk.