A surprising location for The Old Operating Theatre and Herb Garret, Southwark, London

Read about my visit to Southwark and a trip back in time to the Old Operating Theatre and Herb Garret, housed in a surprising London location.

October 2016. I had a rare trip up to London on my own, meeting up with my aunt and uncle in St. Thomas’ Street, Southwark.  I took the tube direct from Euston to London Bridge station and took the exit on to St Thomas’ Street. You come out right underneath the Shard.  It’s one of the best place to take a photograph straight up from the corner.

The Shard

Turn right and after just over 100 yards walk, you see a small church on your right. Rebuilt in the 1600’s, the church is part of the original footprint of St Thomas’ Hospital.  It reopened in 1703 and holds a special secret in its attic.

St. Thomas's Church SE1
St. Thomas’s Church SE1. Used with permission ©SE1.

Enter into the doorway under the tower and you find a little door in the left hand corner.  Go through and walk up the 32 wooden steps in the spiral staircase and find the entrance to the Herb Garret of St Thomas’ Hospital.
You find a small shop and ticket office with a blocked up window displaying information about the site and the fact that the operating theatre predates Lister.

You’ve got some more steps to climb and then you enter the attic space and suddenly everything changes! You’ve gone back in time by 200 years.

The Herb Garret.

Suddenly you are back in the 1800’s or before, when surgery was rudimentary and herbal medicine and the Apothecary were the norm.

There are orange and blue glass bottles, herbal medicine, gory looking surgical instruments, some pathology items and more, pill making equipment and  apothecary items too.Once of the more unusual finds is the infamous Snailwater recipe from Dr Mead.

Snailwater recipe

Another is the story of the discovery of Aspirin, using Willow or Meadowsweet and extracting the active ingredients to make a new painkiller.  (Apologies for the photo, it was difficult to get a good photo.)

The Story of Aspirin
The Story of Aspirin

On the opposite side of the garrett to the entrance, there is another doorway. Go through here and suddenly you have advanced 100 or so years.

The Old Operating Theatre
The Old Operating Theatre

This part of the Garret was given up for the Ladies Operating Theatre to be constructed next to the ward.  The reconstructed theatre is complete with table and auditorium with the students watching from the stands, learning from the surgeons while they operated.  There is also a box of sawdust under the operating table, necessary to cover the floor and soak up all the blood!

In 1862 St Thomas’ Hospital moved from the ancient Southwark site, making way for the new Railway.  The operating theatre and garret were stripped and sealed up, laying hidden and undiscovered for 94 years. Thankfully they were rediscovered in 1956, restored, and opened as a museum six years later with loads of interesting artefacts.  Add in plenty of herbal medicine too, pill making equipment, apothecary scales and surgical equipment, medicines, all sorts of things and it’s an absolutely fabulous place to spend an hour or so.

Further information:


For more information on eateries etc check out http://www.london-se1.co.uk/places/old-operating-theatre Scroll down to the bottom of the article.

St Thomas’s Church photo used with permission ©SE1.

All other photos ©Travels With Flip Flops and Walking Boots and may not be used without permission.

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