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The Restoration of the Old Operating Theatre 2

2012 is the 50th Anniverary of the foundation of Old Operating Theatre Museum and Herb Garret, in Southwark. to find out more about the discovery of the Old Operating Theatre, or the Opening of the Old Operating Theatre museum in1962 . To read the first part of the Restoration story click here

This page is in course of construction - let us know of any errors



The following text is largely from the original guide book of the Museum.


At this time also it was encouraging to find that all the various levels of and curves of the reconstruction mock up were in harmony. It was clear from all the surviving evidence that there had been five rows of standings. This distribution gave a space between each row of some 45 cms which fitted with a contemporary surgeon’s description of the students being ‘packed like herrings in a barrel’

The second stroke of good fortune was the discovery of an inventory of the fixtures and fittings of the old hospital made by the railway company in 1862. Included in the inventory is the female operating theatre. Five rows of standings are specifically mentioned together with the height and number of the iron supports and the length of oak used to form the rails. This invaluable information enabled the greater part of the standings to be completed with confidence. The iron uprights were hand forged after a design in a water-colour of the contemporary theatre at London Hospital. A little experimentation, aided by residual markings and supports, together with the professional knowledge of the carpenters, now enabled the staircase and landing at the back of the theatre to be completed. Difficulty was experienced in the restoration of the lowest and most central part of the standings. Clearly there had to be a door leading down to the operating area. The height and width of the standings indicated that a double door must have been used. About 50 cms in front of the standings are two right- angled slots with screw holes cut into the floor. These were evidently made to receive two metal angled irons that supported two additional iron uprights. These may have been connected by a curved rail marking off another narrow space in front of the standings for visitors. As there is some uncertainty about the exact construction here, no restoration has been made. It would be a simple matter to complete this should precise information be obtained. The match-boarding completing the front of the standings is accurate and there was no difficulty in restoring the match-boarding on the west wall.

colour photo of the Operating Theatre

The 1862 inventory of the Operating Theatre

The 1862 inventory of the Operating Theatre



The double doors between the theatre and the adjacent room were also restored. The attic was now almost restored to its original state, apart from the bricking up of two doorways. One of these was the original entrance which led from the half landing on the main staircase of the old surgical wing. This building now belonged to the Post Office who kindly gave permission for it to be re- opened. A double fire-resisting door was then installed and provides for an effective fire exit. The original entrance has therefore been restored although it can only be used in emergencies.

the fire exit

The Fire exit from the Museum - the Theatre entrance in 1842

the double doors into the Operating Theatre

The double doors into the Operating Theatre


The Gas Lights

An important feature was the survival of part of the gas pipe supplying the central theatre light. This entered near the doorway to the main stairs, penetrated the wall into the theatre and ran along the junction of the west and north walls to reach the skylight.

It had been removed about halfway up to the roof, but its course was clearly visible along the north and east sides of the skylight. The pipe reached as far as the mid-point of the east side where broken plaster revealed the attachment of the central light immediately above the operating area. The inventory of 1862 also mentions two movable gas burners with twelve feet (3.65 metres) of flexible tubing. It is unclear whether these were for lighting or heating, or both, but it is noteworthy that portable burners were used at the time. The gas pipes appear to date from the construction of the theatre, by which time gas lighting was becoming well established in central London. Most routine operations took place under natural light from the skylight which provides a perfectly adequate source at most times. In normal daylight, even modern electric lighting provides no noticeable improvement.

the gas light in the old operating theatre museum

the gas light in the old operating theatre museum


Although the plaster and woodwork were dirty from the dust and stains of nearly 150 years it was possible, after careful cleaning, to reproduce the original colours of light yellow ochre. The only difference is the surface finish of the modern paints and distemper.

Visitors have expressed surprise that the theatre was not painted white, but the concept of a gleaming white operating theatre dates only from the first decade of the 20th century. Lister did not begin his work on antiseptic surgery until 1865, three years after the theatre had closed, and it took another 20 years for his methods to be adopted throughout London. When the theatre closed, nobody had any conception of an operation as anything other than a very unpleasant and bloody affair which generally took place in rather unclean Conditions. The restoration of the theatre, therefore, accentuates the contrast between modern operative surgery and that which took place in the days before Lister. It is a salutary reminder of the considerable advances which have taken place since the theatre was closed. Many of the techniques in use in the mid 19th century had altered little over many centuries and a lot of the surgical instruments were still very similar to those used in Roman times. Trepanning, which originated in prehistory when it was believed that by drilling a hole in the skull it would release the evil spirits, was still one of the most popular operations at this time. It is very difficult for us to realise that most of what we take for granted in a modern operating theatre was introduced either just outside of or within living memory. Techniques which were revolutionary only a have now become common-place. In an age of rapid development it is easy to forget that, as recently as 1862, this operating theatre was one the most modern in the country.

The Antechamber

The small room at the side of the theatre may have been used for the induction of anaesthesia sometime after its successful use at University College Hospital, in 1846, where this procedure was certainly adopted: ‘Patients were wheeled or walked into a side room by a door which opened to it under the stairs. Here they were anaesthetized and wheeled into the theatre where they were lifted on to the table.’

The surgeons at St Thomas’s Hospital must have been equally anxious to spare their patients the alarm and despair of being brought into a crowded theatre full of students and with the table and instruments displayed. Anaesthesia was certainly used at St Thomas’s in 1849, when an inquest was held on the body of John Shorter, who died from the effects of 1 Barton, E. A. University College Hospital Magazine, 29, 1944, p. 42 19 chloroform given in order to extract an ingrowing toe nail. This appears to be the only reference to the use of anaesthesia in the old hospital.


the antechamber of the Old Operating theatre

Looking west towards the antechamber, the Operating Theatre is to the right out of the picture


The first anaesthetist elected to the staff was Samuel Osborn in 1878. Patients at St Thomas’s had, long before the introduction of anaesthesia, been prepared for their operation before entering the theatre. Following the same custom as Sir William Lawrence at St Bartholomew’s Hospital, female patients were sometimes brought blind-folded into the theatre: ‘Soon after the above patient left the theatre another female was brought in blind-folded and placed on to the table for the purpose of undergoing an operation for the removal of the leg below the knee...’ This preparation of patients before entering the theatre may have been the main reason for blocking the original entrance which led directly from the wards.

The Furnishings of the Theatre

All furnishings of the theatre were removed after it closed and no mention of them was made in the inventory of 1862. Contemporary descriptions, however, have enabled these to be re-introduced with relative certainty.

Click here to see all the furnishings of the Theatre

operating table

visitors chairsurgeons chairmop and bucket

The Washstand

Wall Tablets

In the male operating theatre were two inscriptions on the wall facing the standings. These are recorded by Golding in his history of the hospital ~. There is no direct evidence that similar inscriptions were in the female theatre, but it seemed reasonable and correct to include them. First there was a motto: ‘Miseratione non Mercede’ (From compassion, not for gain) This has been placed on a framed board on the west wall. Golding states that it ‘surmounted’ the other tablet and this has been followed.

Operating Theatre sign ‘Miseratione non Mercede’ (From compassion, not for gain)

Operating Theatre sign ‘Miseratione non Mercede’ (From compassion, not for gain)

Painted on another board lower down on the wall, therefore, are the theatre regulations:

Regulations for this Theatre

Apprentices and the Dressers of the surgeon who operates are to stand round the Table.

The Dressers of the other surgeons are to occupy the three front Rows. The Surgeon’s Pupils are to take their places in the Rows above.

Visitors are admitted by permission of the Surgeon who operates.

George Chandler 1822

Benjamin Travers

Joseph Henry Green

Operating Theatre sign listing regulations

The date on the inscription in the male theatre was 1 January 1796 and the three surgeons were then George Chandler, John Birch and Henry Cline. The new date and names displayed are those of the surgeons of the hospital at the time when when the construction of the theatre was ordered in October 1821; Chandler died in June 1822 and was replaced by Frederick Tyrell. Perhaps it might be more correct to give his name, but it was felt that as Chandler’s name appeared on the tablet in the male theatre it should be retained.

1956 - the re-discovery of the Operating Theatre of Old St. Thomas's Hospital

1957-1962 - the Restoration of the Operating Theatre

27th October 1962 - The Official Opening of the Operating Theatre of Old St Thomas's Hospital

1962 - 1989 - The Operating Theatre of the United Borough Hospitals of Guys & St Thomas'

1989 - 2012 - The Old Operating Theatre, Museum and Herb Garret

27th October 2012 - the 50th Anniversary of the The Old Operating Theatre, Museum and Herb Garret



About the Museum and the Museum's Trust

Annual Report for 2003 (PDF)


29/10/2012 kpf