Episode 12: The Old Operating Theatre Museum

Housed in the attic of the early eighteenth-century church of the old St Thomas’ Hospital, The Old Operating Theatre Museum offers a unique insight into the history of medicine and surgery.

Listen to London Tour Guide Hazel Baker and Marketing and Events Manager Monica Walker discuss its history including the use of the herb garret and the types of operations which were performed there.

The Old Operating Theatre Museum


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Show Notes:


Hazel Baker: Hello and welcome to London Guided Walks London History podcast. In the coming episodes, we will be sharing our love and passion for London, its people, places and history in an espresso shot with a splash of personality. For those of you who don’t know me, I am Hazel Baker, founder of London Guided Walks, providing guided walks and private tours to Londoners and visitors alike.

Many of you would have sampled the delights of borough market. And whilst walking back to London Bridge station, perhaps you’ve walked down St. Thomas’s Street, we’ll pass the lovely old pub and seeing the blue plaque to poet John Keats. But did you notice St. Thomas’s Church there? If you enter the church, there’s a door on the left, narrow but inviting. Step through and you’ll enter a very small narrow spiral staircase. Up you go, 52 steps, holding onto the rope. When you get to the top, you’ll be in a shop. And that shop is to the old operating theatre museum and herb garret. It is one of the oldest surviving operating theatres, and it’s in central London!

Joining me today is Monica Walker, Marketing and Events Manager from the Old Operating Theatre Museum who’s here to tell us a little bit more. 



Monica Walker

Marketing and Events Manager from the Old Operating Theatre Museum.




Monica Walker: Once you pass the front of house and or small specialty shop dedicated to the history of medicine. You are basically taking a step back in time.

And that is something wonderful because you can go to many museums and just see the exhibitions in behind their glass  cases. And  you are being led, but when you come to our space, our space is our main exhibition. It has survived. This very strange garret, which is a very old word for attic.

A lot of people don’t understand what it means to holidays because we’ve kind of lost it. But the garret is literally in the loft of St Thomas’s hospital, which used to be here in London Bridge and used to dry and cure herbs. The actual attic was dry. 

So it was a perfect place to basically store herbs, to cure them, to dry them and then wind up with the cows, took them out of the attic. You took the workshop, they made medicines and they made excess medicines. If unused they would bring them all the way back to the attic.

So they could have them there in storage until they were heated to be passed around the actual patients. So that was back in 1701. The attic was there, on the last reconstruction, like beat reconstruction of the hospital. that took place right after the great fire of London. And, and of course the finalising touches were made in 1701.

And it was wonderful because suddenly you have this amazing space, very open, these beautiful wooden being beams, they’re the rafters more than the ceiling, but, many of the beams were re-used from the previous church that had been there since the 13th century because that’s when also Thomas’s hospital was founded on that site.

Even though the hospital dates a lot earlier than that, all the way to the 12th century, but where it stands now, really churches that basically was established after the great fire of Southwark in 1215. That’s where the new hospital was built back in the 13th century. And the beams are still o are still there. They’re kind of like connecting the past of the hospital today, which is wonderful. And the space, as it stands right now, so that was like the original like function. So when you enter into the space, you are confronted with this kind of like garret, these wooden beams and this beautiful space.

There are windows, but there were not original, they were added later. There’s  the smell of herbs  because we have a lot of actual herbs. It’s a very tactile museum.  You can touch the spices and that herbs. You can look into how things were organised in the past. it’s more of a self-discovery space.

There isn’t a chronology where you can say, okay, do you see where it begins back in the day? And this is where, you know, it actually ends, but that’s not the way that the space is organised. It’s quite immersive, in a way. So there’s a lot of, medical equipment from, the Georgian and Victorian period’s areas.

There are a lot of apothecary bottles because obviously  apothecaries were a very important part of our space and our history, because of the herb garret. And all of that section was just absolutely wonderful. And then of course you actually have the operating theatre. Now, this is a bit of a treat because half of the people that come around, they kind of always ask what is an operating theatre doing in the attic of a church?

But the thing is that the church was part of St Thomas’s hospital. They were all more or less at the same time. And it was integrated. So like,  the hospital was huge. I mean, just to give you some coordinates of like the length of the hospital, it went all the way from Borough High Street to the Shard. And then it went all the way from Thomas’s street to Tooley Street, which is like two streets on the other side, closer to the river. 

It was like quite an extensive space. It was organised around three inter-connected courtyards and the buildings were like three story high and this was the reconstruction of the 18th century. So a very big kind of like new hospital that was appealed at the time. And the thing is that, the hospital was divided as well in sections for men and for women.

So almost the men’s wards were located closer to the shard. And a lot of the women’s wards were located closer to Borough Market. So, literally the third floor of the women’s wards was wall-to-wall with the attic of St Thomas’ church and of course the garret. So once you actually understand the physical aspect of that, which now it’s more or less gone, except for the women’s wards, the women’s sports still exist completely, we are unable to connect the space, but it’s still there for us to, you know, say, okay, so you can still see it from outside, but that’s pretty much it.

But yeah, the idea basically was that, that, you know, with advances that were made in how a surgery was taught in the middle of the 18th century. It turned out to be like a need for a space where they could teach the new, some to be surgeons, how to perform the surrogate procedures by observation.

So the idea was that they needed a space where they could demonstrate, right? And basically that’s how the operating theatre came into being, because they just needed a space that will allow for about a hundred students to be able to stand and watch these, surgical procedures and of course the best, organisation for that.

Well, you have a heavy cycle, you have standards and you have a point if the centre that everybody can see at the same time. 

Hazel Baker: And the, the wood shavings, give me a little bit of Goosebumps every time I see them really the reminder of the reality of it all. 

Monica Walker: It’s very hardcore because, there are a couple of things that people don’t know about our space that when it was rediscovered in 1962, they basically had to do a couple of studies, and a small archaeological dig.

To analyse some of the things that were underneath the operating theatre itself. So they lifted the woods, without damaging them, and also they need to put all the cables because they wanted to open up as a museum and that happened in 1962, they needed to have some sort of electrical work put into place.

So when they opened this up, there was sawdust between the floor or there, the floor, that led into the church underneath it. What they were doing basically was ensuring that the blood from the operations will not slip into the church downstairs. I mean, can you imagine if you are in the middle of mass and then suddenly blood started to poor down?! This would have been a problem.

So what they did was create a false floor. They raised the floor and they placed a lot of sawdust between the actual floor and the raised wooden floor. and the problem with that fast, when they opened it, it was completely naturally congealed, like cement, with all of that blood.

So they literally had to like remove that


Hazel Baker: It is something to give you nightmares! This operating theatre was women only wasn’t it? 

Monica Walker: Yes. The men have had their operating theatres in 1755. So they had no problems. They had a very well established operating theatre on top of the building, closer to the shard. And they had been functioning already for over 50 years, before, actually 70 years before the women had an operating theatre.

And of course that’s exactly when it happened in 1822, where they were having so many more women that are getting heart that need to have an operation. then we need to have a space where we can do this safely and we are missing a teaching opportunity at the same time.

So this is when the operating theatre was constructed because they realised that when they wanted to find a space for it, the women’s ward was. Wall to wall to the herb garret. And so the only thing that they needed to do was to open up a positive way between the ward and the garret to create  a heavy cycle, to open up a skylight because having light was extremely important, for it and for the operations.

And then they opened up the windows in the Garret because they transformed it to another ward. I smaller ward for the operations, that’s what they did. So it would just lead them there for a little while. 

The Old Operating Theatre Museum Blog Header
The Old Operating Theatre Museum. Photo from Monica Walker

Hazel Baker: So before the operating theatre, where were women operated on?

Monica Walker: In the ward with the rest of the patients

Hazel Baker: With all the sound effects.

Monica Walker: Yes, with all the sound effects, they left three beds of one corner and that’s basically where they operated upon them.

In terms of teaching , impossible, you can. fit that many people around a bed inside of the ward. And then you have to deal with all of the other patients who are waiting to have some sort of an operation to have to see and deal with this and the emotional turmoil and the pain and listening to the screams.

It would have been absolutely horrendous,  and in a period with a lack of hygiene this as well would have quite bad. We’re talking about 1822 no anaesthesia, no antiseptics . It was a matter of how strong you were to survive things, sections that you will get, in a space such as that, the operating theatre make things a little bit better, but it still, because obviously, the women did not have to.

A be operated upon in front of the other women so that we’re expecting to be operated upon, but they had to be operated upon, you know, in front of a lot of male students. now what’s an issue because obviously women were not  They were. not supposed to be naked in the space and they never were.

They literally would have been taken into the operating theatre, completely closed. in some cases they would have given them a blindfold, before they got into the operating theatre, because obviously if they can see all of the men looking at them, but they also can see when the knife’s going to reach their member or whatever they’re going to do to that, to them at that point that she can’t flinch, she can’t prepare.

And therefor e she will not be able to move either. There were only a very few types of operations that were actually donning the space. So there were only three and they were the safer for men than women. So these are the ones that they really know how to do. These are the ones that were, that were needed to be done in an operating theatre.

They will do the same to both sexes, no distinction whatsoever. So well,  how they treated them, obviously. But first of all they could actually do reformation. So you get a head injury and they are required for them to actually open up a hole in your skull to allow for the excess fluids to come out.

They could do that with trefines. We have some of those amazing, terrifying tools in our collection, where they were actually able to do that. but they will do these  in the operating theatre. Then of course they could do cholecystectomy which this is the removal of bladder stones. You have to think about this. Some of the bladder stones that we used to have were as big as a chicken egg. Yeah, it was bad. And many of them were more common in men than women. Like men had the largest amount  of, bladder stones, the period. it has to do with the diet with water. so many different reasons, but men were much more, you know, prone to actually suffer from that than the women. But if women also had them, they could also operate upon them for the same reasons. This was an operation that was most commonly done on men than women, but this is the other operation that will take place in the operating theatre. 

And then the last one, of course, amputation. Anything that had to be outside of the body that could be ex extra painted, cut off, then that’s basically what they will be able to do. but that was it. There was no more, three to four procedures that took place on those spaces. and sometimes people think that that the reason why women, You didn’t have access to these before was because they were women.

And I think that that is a very, let’s just say that that’s not the right way of looking into it because women didn’t have answers in it. It’s a simple answer, but the wrong answer. I mean, think about the time period. First of all, who are the patients? The patients are the working poor. These other patients in St. Thomas’s Hospital. And guess what they’re working for that actually worked redressing promises had really, really hardcore jobs. Like especially the men, you know, they were farmers, miners, they they’re working the dogs, their work as sailors, as soldiers, you know, any, and they had like the largest amount of, of.

You know, injuries that required these kind of operations. So they were constantly using the services of the hospital because of all of these different elements. And of course, because they are the working poor, they gave up in a way, their privacy in order for them to be treated by the best, you know, kind of like surgeons.

So, you know, They, they didn’t have to pay a small fee and you should either. They’re the bosses, the masters of the apprentices and things like that, we’ll pay a small fee and their reach will pay for the Fort and things like that. So there was a, there wasn’t an economy kind of like a factor to it, but still part of it has to do with the fact that their operations were basically quite public, because the students will be there learning how the operations were actually being done. Now, of course, this has to do with the men.

What happens to the women? Women were basically. Not getting hurt that badly before, you know, they, their jobs were hard, but there were not like life threatening in many ways. Like the ones that men had. it’s just that in the early 19th century, you have the beginning of the industrial revolution and women started entering more into the workforce, like factories and there was no health and safety measures, more women starting getting really hurt because they got into accidents with heavy machinery. So, we had this story of this lady who actually put her hand into one of this and each shredded her arm. So they had coaches and Thomas’ and they have to walk into her arm, you know, and that was the only way that they could save her life because there’s one thing that you can actually put back together and it’s a compound fracture.

If you have a regular fracture that doesn’t break the skin. Yeah. It will hurt. You can just kind of bone setters existed that they could try to put it back together. As you survive the infection, fine, you may have a limp or you may not have full use of your arms, but Hey, you’re still alive.

It’s all good. But if you have a compound fracture, you are over the debt. You know,  both have splinter. It has cuts through the actual meat and skin of your body. It’s an open wound. You can put that back together. And so your chances are that we will get infected. Do we will have septicaemia or gangrene and you will die a very slow and painful death.

In six days, give or take that was smart as the average. and of course, the only way to actually survive that was to amputate. That was it. That was, that was surgery. Best chance of survival. So you have on the one hand, a slow and painful death because you’re going to die. Regardless. On the other hand, you can get your member amputated, whichever was injured, for a chance to live.

And I always say this, you know, every single one of my talks, you know, never, ever, ever underestimate hope because that’s space as horrendous as it sounds, it’s a space of hope. People didn’t go to the operating theatre because they wanted to die. They went there because they wanted to live.


Hazel Baker: I think that’s a very good message to end on given today’s current situation.

Thanks Monica. If you’ve enjoyed the show and have found it useful, then please do leave a review on iTunes. It’s quick to do, and it would really would mean. The world to me, I’ll see you next week for our next episode. But if you can’t wait that long, then check out our blog, which is full of interesting posts about London’s history, all the way from the Romans who history being made today and that’s at londonguidedwalks.co.uk/blog.

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