I recently had a day up in London doing some research for a new book that I’m working on at the moment. After my research visit at the always intriguing Victoria and Albert Museum, I had a few hours left to fill with exciting capital-based things. Some might say that rooting around the V and A, finding exciting objects in hidden corners or looking endlessly, tirelessly at the collection of Victorian lace would be reason enough to stay put until time for the train home, but I had another plan. I had always wanted to visit the Herb Garret and Old Operating Theatre in the attic of St Thomas’ Church in Southwark.

You must climb a cold, stone spiral staircase through a door at the side of the church tower to reach the museum. As you climb upwards it is like being transported to a different world through a portal, and although I could describe it in Mr Benn terms, it really felt more like a rite.

Having a herb storage area and especially an operating theatre in the roof of a church might seem like an odd idea now, but there were very good reasons at the time.

When St Thomas’s Church was rebuilt in 1703 it had an particularly large garret in the roof space. At the time and afterwards, this attic space was used by the St Thomas’s apothecary to store herbs away from his main shop, a little further along the road. An attic was a very good place to store herbs within the hospital, as the large timbers in the roof structure absorb excess moisture and allow the herbs to cure.

Today, in the herb garret there are beautiful and intruguing displays with snakeskins hanging from the high rafters and an apothecary’s shop with all of the herbs.

Do you like jars? I do.

It really did smell like you would imagine an apothacary’s shop should.

Walking through a door to the rear of the herb garret, leads on to the steep steps up to the Old Operating Theatre. This room, with all it’s stark, clinical presence really does at first seem out of place, but as the museum’s website explains:

…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. …Before 1822, the women [in the surgical ward] were operated on in the ward – this must have caused some considerable distress.

This is the view from a few tiers back; from where the students would have watched the surgeons perform the operations (mainly amputations and very difficult childbirth, it would seem).

In building the operating theatre in part of the herb garrett in the attic of the church allowed a separation of the operations and the surgical ward. It also helped with soundproofing and had a large skylight that afforded both the surgeons and their many tiers of students a better view of the patient than before.

I’m afraid that I wasn’t able to take any more photographs in the operating theatre, as it was rather bustling with other visitors too. You can see, in the centre of the theatre, to the left one of the tables on which the surgeons would perform their operations. I was struck by how short it was, compared with today’s tables and trolleys. I suppose that people were, on the whole, shorter than today.

There are a lot of older surgical instruments in (rather lovely old fashioned) display cases, and numerous photographs depicting staff, patients and wards at the hospital. The story of children’s medical care in hospital is also told in the herb garret. The first children’s hospital in the whole of Britain, the Evelina was opened as late as 1969. There just wasn’t really thought a need for children to make hospital stays before that, no matter how ill.

Around the corner, to the right of the picture were some replica frock coats that the surgeons wore. The label explains that they changed out of their usual attire into these older, rather battered and worn coats so that they would not get their daily clothes covered in blood. However, hygeine then wasn’t what it was now, and they just left them hanging on a hook, encrusted, ready for the next operation…

…and on that note, if you’re at a loss for what to do in London this weekend, I’d very much recommend a visit to The Old Operating Theatre Museum and Herb Garret at St Thomas’s. It’ll be an eye opener.

Into Another World
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