The Old Operating Theatre


Miseratione non Mercede (from compassion, not for gain)

I’m slowly working my way through the Telegraph’s list of London’s most unusual museums. Obviously there are some that are disappointing, some that I’m skipping over (Dentistry Museum) and some, such as the Scotland Yard Crime Museum, that aren’t even open to the public which is incredibly frustrating!

Yesterday I visited the Old Operating Theatre by London Bridge and it was one of the most fascinating museums I have been to in London!


Apothecary Box

Admission is £6.50 but half price (£3.25) if you have a National Trust Card, which I luckily do! The Herb Garrett and theatre are located in the eaves of St. Thomas’ Church.

The original entrance to the theatre is now bricked up as it leads to another building. The only way to access the garett and the threatre now is up the bell tower stairs – a tiny, wooden spiral staircase that you have to cling to a rope while climbing up to make sure you don’t lose your footing! Everything about this museum is exciting!

The herb garrett dates back to 1703 and was used by the hospital’s apothecary to store herbs used in medecines. The herb garrett could still pass as an apothecary today with pestles and mortars scattered among pill makers and a range of different herbs – rose petals, star anise, sugar cane, belladonna and poppy seeds for opium – as well as a strange assortment of animals parts such as deer horn, snake skin and leeches. However the garrett is now also home to a fascinating collection of surgical instruments: forceps of all shapes and sizes, leech jars, scarificators, very early examples of operating tables, chloroform masks, and a nurse’s chatelaine.


Detail of a Nurse’s Chatelaine from St Guy’s Hospital

Operations on women were previously conducted in the ward which was very limiting and also caused much distress; the Operating Theatre was built in 1822 as a remedy. Part of the herb garrett was converted into a teaching theatre and a skylight was built to further specialise the space. This was before surgeons had access to anaesthetics and depended instead on swift techniques and opiates such as alcohol to numb the patients senses, which meant that internal surgeries were limited. However surgeons could perform amputation, lithotomy and trephination. Although a skilled surgeon could perform an amputation in under a minute, young doctors would sometimes hack at bloody, mangled limbs for much longer. Antiseptic procedures were introduced in 1865, after the operating theatre was closed.

When the operating theatre was installed in 1822, new floorboards were laid over the earlier 1703 floor. Between the two floors is a space about 7cm deep packed with sawdust, preventing blood from seeping through to the church ceiling below.

I have promoted the Old Operating to one of my favourite museums in London and I would strongly recommend everyone to stop by. I suppose it does help that I am fasinated by medicine, diseases and surgeries! If I had to pick the one thing I learned that most tickled me, it would be the fact that the surgeons would perform the surgeries wearing frock coats and sometimes even top hats. Neither of these were ever washed and were described as ‘stiff and stinking with pus and blood’. Delightful!


Painting depicting a surgery

  • Jessica
    February 26, 2014

    I see I’m not the only one who’s salty about the Black Museum not being open to the public! I love your pictures; they make me want to revisit the Old Operating Theatre!

    • Sarah Alexandra George
      February 26, 2014

      Thanks! Just taken a quick peek at your blog and love it! So many museums I now have to go to! You could maybe do with having a menu bar though, so people can see a list of the places you’ve visited 🙂

  • Shing
    February 27, 2014

    I’m working my way through the same list Sarah! Coincidentally I stumbled across Jessica’s blog the other week after looking for more information on Pollock’s Toy Museum. It’s nice to see a commonality between all our blogs!

    I’ll have to visit this museum, and it’s so close to me!

  • Sarah Alexandra George
    February 27, 2014

    Haha how funny that you’re going through the same list! We should go to one together! Have you been to the Horniman yet? Lee and I really want to go, maybe we could make a day out of it. I’d also really love to go to the Keats House, maybe when its warmer!
    My comments on the ones I’ve been to so far:

    Cartoon museum – not that exciting and def not worth the money
    Geffrye Museum – lovely building, gardens and cafe, museum itself was interesting but not mindblowing
    Household Cavalry Museum – there are horses. I need say no more.
    John Soane – def worth a visit, it’s a little tresure trove of beautiful pieces. Maybe try for the candlelit tour – first tuesday of every month at 6pm.
    Hunterian – quite interesting, but visually just a lot of dead bodies or body parts in jars. Not as good as the Operating Theatre as far as surgical museums go.
    Foundling Museum – not all that much info but what was there was fascinating, beautifully decorated rooms too.

  • Shing
    March 7, 2014

    I LOVE the Hunterian Museum, but I’m partial to dead things in jars! Another great but smaller museum that is similar is the Grant Museum of Zoology – have you been? I’ve adopted one of the preserved monkeys there – well Alex surprised me with it for Valentines day haha. I like the Soane museum too, but I don’t like how crowded it gets. No, I’ve been meaning to visit the Horniman museum so we should make a day out of it!

    Oh have you been to the Fan Museum? It’s so close to us, so you should go with Lee. It’s worth a visit but the upstairs exhibition area is lacking. However the cafe is extremely cute and affordable which adds to the over all enjoyable factor of visiting the museum!

    • Sarah Alexandra George
      March 13, 2014

      Haha, how romantic 😉 Lee told me that you’re brother is fond of dead birds so I should have guessed it ran in the family!
      I haven’t been there though, nearly went but it has odd opening hours. The Soane museum is much less busy during the day, LSE is super close so I could go in the morning or afternoon and there was no one else there.
      Looking forward to the Horniman day out and I’ll plan a visit to the fan museum! Maybe with Lee this weekend 🙂

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