#788: Close to the Bone at the Old Operating Theatre Museum


Skeletal hands down, the Old Operating Theatre Museum & Herb Garret is my new favourite small museum in London. To enter, pull yourself along the worn rope that snakes up the steep, creaking spiral staircase to find a church attic where Victorian medical students learned how to perform amputations, a hidden space rediscovered only 58 years ago.

Despite all of medical technology’s advancements, assurances of only a few seconds of pain and the promise of unicorn Band-Aids, I’m still a complete wimp when it comes to something as medically minor as getting a shot.

I squirm, I squeal, I cry. At least until the unicorns make it better.

So I can’t even begin to imagine how I would have survived any medical procedure 150 years ago, either because of my crying or because of the procedure itself.


London Thing 788: Shiver at old medical instruments in the Old Operating Theatre.

As part of Open House Weekend, I visited the Old Operating Theatre Museum & Herb Garret, concealed in the upper reaches of an old church tower since the 1820s. As all of the nearby buildings were bulldozed to make way for London Bridge station in the 1860s, the space was sealed off and not seen again until 1956.

It’s not just ‘old’ — it’s Britain’s oldest operating theatre.


You won’t find any desks in the Old Operating Theatre, just a single table at the centre of attention with a box of sawdust underneath to collect the blood. All the patients at this operating theatre were poor women, presumably surrounded by all male students in the tiered viewing platforms.


And then out come the torture devices amputation saws. You’ve always read about these things in books, but I actually gasped when I saw them hanging in front of me. These ‘instruments’ should be used on tree limbs, not human ones.

Surgeons used these saws before anaesthetics existed (liberal alcohol consumption was the way to calm the nerves then), and they were praised for their ‘swift technique’, meaning that a good surgeon could perform an amputation in a minute or less.


It’s only apt that I’m sitting at home feeling like rubbish while writing this post. This time, fortunately, I don’t think my vocal cords need to be amputated to cure me, but now I know just the spot if they do…

Visit: Old Operating Theatre Museum & Herb Garret, 9a St. Thomas’s St. London SE1 9RY. Tube London Bridge. Entrance fee £6.50.

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