Where: Old Operating Theatre, St Thomas Street, SE1
Price: £6 Adults (£5 conc, £3.50 children)
Living in the shadow of The Shard, we’ve seen the finishing touches being applied to the latest addition to London’s iconic skyline. Yet tucked away on the very same street as that glass mountain is a much less understated structure: St Thomas’s Church. When the Baroque church was rebuilt in 1703 a garret (attic space) was added to store the herbs used by the apothecary of St Thomas’s – the height thought to have offered protection from the capital’s rodent army.
The loft is also home to Europe’s oldest surgical operating theatre. Whilst the attic of a church may seem a peculiar choice to perform operations, the plan below shows that the Church used to sit directly alongside some of the hospital wards allowing easy access (note how the Shard now sits towards the site of the old hospital’s Washhouse and Bathhouse). After the hospital moved locations the theatre lay dusty and forgotten until it was rediscovered in 1956.
Today you can visit the restored theatre for yourself between 10:30 and 17:00 every day including Bank Holidays. The Museum is closed 15th December to 5th January every year. To gain access to this once neglected gem you must first climb 32 steps of a creaky wooden staircase where you encounter the ticket desk and a shop piled high with treasure (I picked up a really good book on 19th century New York).
Once you make it into the garret you’ll find your experience split into two sections: the collection of medical paraphernalia and the Old Operating Theatre itself. The collection of surgical equipment from yesteryear is both fascinating and scary; one look at the obstetrics area is enough to make your eyes water! Two thirds of the collection is available to view online if you can’t make it down to St Thomas’s Street yourself.
After taking in the collection, wander next door to the Theatre where you’ll see for yourself the conditions under which the pioneering surgeons of the Victorian era demonstrated the latest techniques to their students. With anaesthetics a fledgling field, amputations often occurred in less than a minute. The exhibition is well appointed with interesting information to supplement your wanderings. You can also take an online panoramic tour of the Theatre.
A fascinating place to spend an hour or two and it is probably possible to squeeze everything in to an hour’s lunch break if you work in the area. We often takes things for granted in the modern world, whether it is our ability to build 308 metre glass monoliths or perform amazing feats of medicine. It is easy to forget what life was like in our city 150 years ago and this marvellous little place, hidden in an old church, is a wonderful way to transport yourself to the past.