St Thomas’ Church, the Herb Garret, and the Operating Theatre

The Old Operating Theatre Museum and Herb Garret is situated in the roof space of St Thomas’ Church. 

The Church was dedicated to St Thomas Beckett and it probably originated as a chapel of the medieval hospital, but it is not known when it was first built on the present site. There was certainly a medieval church and it is known that one Richard Chaucer was buried there. Additions were made to the church in the early 17th-century, including the bell tower. By 1697, however, the Governors of the Hospital reported the church was so decayed that people were afraid to go inside. 

St Thomas’ Church.

St Thomas’ Church was rebuilt between 1698 and 1702 in a more Neo-Classical style, with the first sermon recorded in July 1703. 

The new church was a small structure built of red brick and white stone dressings with a single nave and a flat roof. It was fitted out with a large garret constructed in the ‘aisled-barn’ tradition. 

The church shows many similarities to two other London churches: St James’ Piccadilly (1684) and Saint Benet Paul’s Wharf (1685). 

Both of these churches were designed by the brilliant architect of St Paul’s Cathedral, Sir Christopher Wren. Wren was Governor of St Thomas’ at the time the Church was built, and had given £500 to the Hospital rebuilding fund. It seems highly probable his team was involved in its design, in any event, it was to be built by his master mason Thomas Cartwright, who had worked with him at the Church of St Mary-Le-Bow.

The church is the oldest surviving part of St Thomas’ Hospital’s Southwark site. The adjoining buildings on St Thomas’ Street, houses for the Hospital Treasurer; the Receiver of the Rents; the Apothecary and the Minister of the Church, were begun in 1704. 

The Church was renamed in the Reformation and lost its designation to Thomas Beckett in exchange for St Thomas the Apostle. Clearly the authorities were keen to end any association with a pro-Catholic Martyr but were unsure that the local population would take to a radical renaming. The change to St Thomas the Apostle was therefore convenient.

In the 19th-century the church was made redundant and became the Chapter House of Southwark Cathedral. Nevertheless, the garret which had been used by the apothecaries of St Thomas’ Hospital to dry herbs and store medicines, was transformed into an operating theatre for the women’s ward in 1822.  

At first glance this placement would seem bizarre, but the wards of the South Wing of St. Thomas’ Hospital were built around St. Thomas’ Church. Dorcas was the women’s surgical ward. Before 1822, the women were operated on in the ward, which must have caused considerable distress. The governors of the hospital decided then that a new operating theatre had to be constructed. 

The Dorcas Ward, Old St Thomas’ Hospital.

The herb garret of St Thomas’ Church was approximately on the same level as the women’s surgical ward and it was large enough to hold a small operating theatre. Placing the Theatre in the Herb Garret of the Church provided a separation from the ward. It gave a separate entrance for students, and afforded a measure of sound proofing. Because it was at the same level as the women’s surgical ward, it aided the transportation of patients to the theatre. 

The operating theatre was constructed to maximise the light from a large skylight that was built purposely for this space. Although not heated or ventilated, it provided an ideal, albeit small, area for demonstrating surgical skills.

The Women’s Ward Operating Theatre, 1822.

In 1862 St Thomas’ Hospital moved from its ancient site, eventually ending up in Lambeth. The Operating Theatre was partly dismantled and the entrances from the Hospital into the Garret were blocked up. It was not completely forgotten, there were references in academic publications in 1936 and 1954, and the skylight could be seen from the eastern end of St Thomas St. Following the departure of the hospital from St Thomas St in 1862, the only access to the roof space or attic of the church was through an opening in the north wall of the first floor chamber of the tower. 

This opening was about 15 feet above the floor level of the chamber which further served to aid the concealment of the old operating theatre. The opening could be reached only by means of a ladder and, after some difficulty and discomfort, any visitor would climb into a completely dark attic. (This opening is now the main entrance into the Herb Garret from the Belfry Shop).

In 1956, Raymond Russell was researching the history of St Thomas’ Hospital and decided to investigate the opening into the attic. He found a ladder and climbed up into the Garret. It was dark because the glass in the old skylight above the theatre had been replaced by slates and the dormer windows in the rest of the roof-space were black with a century of dirt. In addition, the attic was thickly covered with dust and some floor boards had been removed which made access even more hazardous. Part of the operating theatre had been removed at some time, including all the standings, but most of the shell had survived.

The passageway to the staircase, which led to the standings of the Theatre, was intact, and also one whole side of the staircase but not the treads. All the plaster work of the walls and ceiling was untouched, as was the greater part of the flooring. Inspection revealed that a false floor had been laid on to the true floor and that the space, of around 7 cms, had been packed with sawdust, probably to soak up water when the floor of the Theatre was mopped.

The Herb Garret, ca. 1962.

It is probable that the theatre was partly destroyed when wiring for electric light was installed in the new Chapter House, some 50 years earlier. The floorboards had needed to be exposed and most of the standings were in the way; the disturbed floorboards could still be seen where access had been obtained to the space above the ceiling of the church to lay the wires.

A rather freer clearance was made than was necessary for installing the wiring and this may have been due to the presence of dry rot. This appears to be the only explanation for the tearing away of the panelling of match-boarding on the west wall of the theatre. Fortunately, the untouched ceiling plaster showed the exact upper limit of this match-boarding and, on the bare bricks of the wall, could be seen the fixing details of the vertical boards and their dimensions.

Similarly, many details of the construction and method of fixing the standings were also visible. The semicircular shape of the theatre remained, even though studs that supported the south side had been saw away.

The removal of the panelling had also exposed the original entrance into the Theatre from the adjioning women’s ward in the Hospital.

Raymond Russell’s find was extraordinary: no other 19th century operating theatre in Europe had survived.