The Old Operating Theatre: Hidden London
Just down the road from my flat, there’s a dark, thin, winding staircase without any bannister (did you sing that bit? If so, we’re friends)… leading to an operating theatre in a London attic. Sound terrifying? How appropriate. It’s Halloween after all.
The dark, thin, winding staircase. No, there isn’t a bannister.
I walk past a little celebratory sign every day that says “The Old Operating Theatre…Celebrating it’s 50th anniversary!” Yesterday, I stopped and took good look at the entrance. I knew the NHS was strapped for cash, but this little house of horrors looked especially bleak.
Herb garret, aka “lab”
It turns out that through the muddling of architecture in the 1700s, St Thomas’s Church and St. Thomas’s Hospital shared the occasional space. The church conveniently had a very large attic (garret) and the hospital needed a place to hang herbs and cook potions.
“Oh, oh, honey. The frog is laying eggs again.”
After too many wild nights in London Town
Legal in the 1800’s and Washington State.
Thus, the church attic became hospital apothecary, aka cooking lab.
…and then you bled to death.
For the ladies who just couldn’t get it done.
In 1822, part of the herb garret was converted to an semi-soundproof operating theatre, primarily for women. Previous to having surgeries in front of a live audience, women underwent surgery on the ward, or if you were wealthy, at home on the kitchen table (lucky devils). Mind you, anesthesia and/or antiseptics didn’t exist. I’ll let that sink in for a minute.
For the lucky few…
The new operating theatre was adjacent to the women’s hospital ward AND in the roof space of St. Thomas’s Church. This was very convenient as patients were close to God, whom they often met soon after leaving the operating theatre. The sawdust filled box beneath the table, you ask? That’s to catch the blood. The builders also put multiple layers of sawdust under the floorboards to prevent any “overflow” from dripping onto the heads of the prayerful congregation below. Thoughtful.
Thankfully, time marched on and the hospital moved to a new, and supposedly more modern facility. The operating theater was closed up, sealed off and left relatively hidden until 1956 when an enterprising man decided to have a look in St. Thomas’s Church attic. He found two things…a fully intact operating theatre and “herb garret” once associated with St. Thomas’s Hospital.
Things to Know When Visiting The Old Operating Theatre
As always, check times, maps and information before you go.
The experience is as gruesome (or not) as you want it to be. They have “information trails” for both kids and adults with weird proclivities.
If you enjoy medical museums, science and odd things, you should consider a visit to the Hunterian in Lincoln’s Inn Fields. You won’t be disappointed.
I love the hidden, weird things you find around every corner in London! Do you have any favorites to share? Tell me!
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