Photo: MykReeve

The Old Operating Theatre is located off St. Thomas’ Street in Southwark and is an unusual and memorable family attraction. Ticket holders entering The Old Operating Theatre are in for a spellbinding if somewhat unnerving journey into the medical procedures of a bygone world, before the introdcution of anaesthetics and antiseptic surgery.

Enclosed for a century in the garret of the imposing St. Thomas’ Church, the semi-circule Old Operating Theatre was uncovered in 1956 and is reached by a narrow spiral stairwell. After the 1815 Apothecary’s Act, students were obliged to practice in public hospitals, and so studied operations in-theatre. A part of St. Thomas’ Hospital, The Old Operating Theatre was built in 1822 after the ‘aisled-barn’ pattern. It was housed in the oak-beam Herb Garret close to the female surgical ward and was kitted out with wooden storage racks and windows. The three centuries old garret had been used by the hospital apothecary for storing and curing medicinal herbs, and the heads of dried-out opium remained in its rafters till the 20th century.

Most patients were poor women who had to contribute to the costs of their care and the running of the institution, which was equipped with a wooden operating table and tier seating and observation posts, where up to 150 male students observed operations. The Old Operating Theatre had no heating or ventilation, but there was a skylight to better illuminate proceedings, a false floor covered with sawdust to soak up blood, and it was separated from the wards and reasonably well sound-proofed – just as well given the activities conducted without anaesthetics other than alcohol and opiates.

Among the other items on display at The Old Operating Theatre are instruments for cupping, bleeding, trepanning, obstetrics and anaesthesia, along with amputation saws, sputum cups, nipple shields, suppositories and stomach pumps. Equally macabre are specimen jars with a kidney, heart, lung tissue, brain, and even a hernia. Not something you’ll see on your average family day out!

A ticket to this jaw-dropping family attraction is not all stomach-churning, however, one exhibit featuring a beer bell that announced the distribution of bread and beer to patients, with between two and eight pints dispensed to each patient every day! Hence, there was an upside to unsanitary water, and just the ticket to escape reality!

Florence Nightingale founded her nursing school at St. Thomas’ in 1859 and recommended moving the facility to Lambeth, which was done in 1862. The Old Operating Theatre fell into disuse and was forgotten. The The Old Operating Theatre’s wall and ceiling plaster was untouched for a century, as was much of its flooring. When electric light wiring was installed in the Chapter House in 1906, however, dry rot damaged some parts of The Old Operating Theatre, and refitting was needed to produce the stunning family attraction seen today.

The Old Operating Theatre now caters for up to 60 visitors and can even be pre-booked for meetings, presentations and performances in the amphitheatre, nearby ante-chamber or Belfry, where the small shop can be turned into a reception. ‘After Hours’ Talks with wine are held for clubs and societies, while school groups can view mock operations, and members of staff provide a history of herbal medicine, utilising a mortar and pestle for pill-making and poultices. Walking tours are available too, as detailed at The Old Operating Theatre website.

Address: 9a St Thomas’ Street, Southwark, London, SE1 9RY
Telephone: 020 7188 2679
Opening Times: Daily, 10.30 – 17.00