The Old Operating Theatre Museum and Herb Garret

One of the things I love about London is its long and varied history that is retained in some form or another in the most unusual of spaces. It feels like looking for history in London is a never-ending experience. 

It was a chance encounter with a colleague at a conference in Bangkok that led to my visit to The Old Operating Theatre Museum and Herb Garret just a short walk from London Bridge station and the London landmark called the Shard. The foundations of the building that houses the museum date to a medieval church. But decay led to the rebuilding of the St. Thomas’ Church between 1698 and 1702 which was part of the St. Thomas’ Hospital. By the nineteenth century the church structure had become part of the Chapter House of Southwark Cathedral, but the garret in the church attic which had been used by the apothecaries of the hospital to dry herbs and store medicines remained. Before 1822 women at St. Thomas’ Hospital were operated on in the ward. But in that year the governors decided to establish a separate operating theatre for women in the herb garret. When the hospital was moved to Lambeth in 1862, the entrances to the theatre were blocked out and it was almost forgotten. The operating theatre was rediscovered in 1956, having survived the blitz. No other nineteenth century operating theatre in Europe has survived into the twenty-first century.

Medicinal herbs
PHOTOGRAPH BY Clifford Pereira

The sign of a good museum or art gallery is in its use. Despite its awkward entrance by a spiral staircase, the museum does have a steady flow of people from all over the world. Local London school children love the Dickensian character of the garret as they view, ponder and imagine the various dried herbs and curiosities, as well as some scary surgical instruments. They are amazed by the guides stories of the operations in the theatre and no doubt have interesting stories to tell their parents when they get home. By the way, for people less able to manage the spiral stairs, please contact the museum who will assist you and answer any questions. This is certainly a London museum that proves that museum size and modernity and not prerequisites for an unforgettable experience.

Museum Information: Tel +44 20 7188 2679

Website: oldoperatingtheatre.com

Location: 9a St. Thomas St, London SE1 9RY. England. UK.

Admission: Due to COVID the museum is presently offering a six person “bubble” visit for UK£20:00 to be booked on-line.

Opening Hours: COVID restrictions require opening from 10:30am to 5:00pm on Saturday and Sunday only.

Note – Normal access is by a 52-step narrow spiral staircase and please check the website as COVID restrictions are currently in place.

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Clifford Pereira FRGS

Hailing from Mombasa, Kenya. Cliff's research interests began in 1982 when while working in “the Gulf” when he first travelled Asia following the routes of the epic voyages of the Fifteenth century Chinese admiral Zheng He. He later graduated with a BA(Hons) in Geography with Asian Studies in Northern Ireland. After a career in tourism Cliff became a fellow of the Royal Geographical Society (with IBG). He returned to historical research in 2001 on a variety of themes leading to an exhibition at the Royal Geographical Society on the Bombay Africans (2007) and is regarded as the world specialist on the subject. Cliff was Honorary Research Assistant to Royal Holloway's Geography Department (2011-2014) and Visiting Research Assistant to Dalian Maritime University, China (2011-2015). He was researcher-curator on the Bait-Jelmood Museum, Qatar (2013-2016) and research-curator for the National Museum of Qatar, specialising in the Portuguese presence in the Indian Ocean (2016-2018). He is presently distance-working on the African collection of the Museum of Anthropology at Vancouver, Canada. Since 2016 Pereira is Visiting Research Assistant at the University of Hong Kong (HKU). He describes himself as a historical geographer and his life interest in Zheng He has led to talks and lectures on the subject in China, Malaysia, Canada, the UK and on the cruise liner Silver Muse. He has numerous papers and chapters in publications around the world.