St Thomas’s Church attic was once part of the old St Thomas Hospital that houses the Herb Garret and Britain’s only surviving 19th century operating theatre.
There is little information about operating theatres at Old St Thomas from its foundation till the 18th century. The church that contains the Old Operating Theatre Museum was built at the end of the 17th century, when the hospital and church were largely rebuilt by Sir Robert Clayton.
The museum consists of:
- The oldest surviving operating theatre in the UK (dating from 1822), used in the days before anaesthetics and antiseptic surgery.
- The herb garret used by the hospital’s apothecary to store and cure herbs used in healing.
- A collection of artefacts revealing the horrors of medicine before the age of science.
- Displays on medieval monastic health care, the history of St Thomas’s, Guy’s Hospital and Evelina Children’s Hospital, Florence Nightingale and nursing, medical and herbal medicine.
The Herb Garret was so called by the Grand Committee of St Thomas’ Hospital when, in 1821, they ordered that an operating theatre be built in the garret of the church to serve the patients of the hospital. In 1862, the hospital began the move to its present site at Lambeth and the operating theatre was closed. Little is known of its function beyond its name and the discovery of poppy heads in the rafters. It was presumably used to store and dry herbs for the hospital’s apothecary. At about the same time as the operating theatre was built, the garret was reroofed and dormer windows inserted. It has been conjectured that this may suggest the garret changed use, perhaps becoming a recovery ward. The theatre lay undiscovered until 1957.In 1962, after 100 years of disuse, the garret and operating theatre were opened to the public as the current museum.
I loved the quirkiness of the Old Operating Theatre. It is a horrible 52 steps upto the garret but when you get there. You can just imagine how this worked all those years again. It is so unique and an amazing place to visit in London.