Europe’s oldest surgical operating theatre is reopening

Forget the London Dungeons and its crew of facepaint-wearing, caterwauling ghouls. One of London’s most genuinely haunting attractions has to be the Old Operating Theatre Museum, which resides in a creaky timber-lined attic above St Thomas’s Church, next to London Bridge Station.

Two hundred years ago, operations were performed up there without either anaesthetic or antiseptic, making them a bloody dangerous business. Surgeons would wait until noon to get the best light they could, and would conduct amputations in front of an audience of medical students who watched the gory action from five rows of bearpit-style wooden benches. And although you can no longer hear the screams of the patients who once lost limbs here, you can still see a fascinating array of 1820s medical paraphernalia, from terrifyingly pointy instruments to mysterious herbal tinctures to arcane texts. 

Since December, it’s been closed, as its cracked 1960s skylight was replaced with something both more modern, and more sensitive to the atmosphere of this historic space, thanks to a £157,230 grant from the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sports. But now, it’s back in action and ready to send shivers down the spines of curious museumgoers once more.

Its newest attraction is a Local Artist Exhibition featuring 20 works inspired by its collections: there’s certainly plenty to draw on, whether it’s the natural beauty of the dried plants that hang from the roof of its herb garret or the more sinister charms of its gleaming poison bottles. 

To celebrate the museum’s reopening, it’s offering free entry on Friday April 21. Just show up (no pre-booking available) and you’ll get a chance to explore this little gem of a space. Or, postpone your trip a little and pay the museum’s highly affordable regular ticket price. After all, Victorian patients often paid for their operations with their lives: the least you can do is ‘stump’ up £7.50.

Old Operating Theatre Museum, 9a St Thomas St, SE1 9RY. Fri Apr 21: free (normal price £7.50).

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