Posted in Places to visit, Tudor Medicine

St. Thomas’ Hospitals dark past…

There are many fascinating museums in London which are dedicated to the history of medicine. My favourite has always been the ‘Old operating theatre and herb garret museum’ which is located near the south side of London Bridge. It displays historic surgical instruments and hosts live re-enactments of grisly pre-anaesthetic surgery.

The museum website says:

Concealed in the roof space of an old baroque church in Southwark lies an unexpectedly macabre site – a 19th-century surgical operating theatre. A church attic may seem a bizarre choice of location for such a grisly purpose, but St Thomas’ Church once stood at the centre of the ancient St Thomas’ Hospital, surrounded by the female wards of the hospital’s south wing. Its attic was in fact well suited to the job: a skylight flooded the chamber with natural light, while the distance from the wards soundproofed other patients from the screams.


Built in 1822, the operating theatre is the oldest surviving in Europe. In order to learn their trade, crowds of medical students and apprentice apothecaries would cram into the attic to watch live operations. It was sure to be a gruesome spectacle, as the theatre was in use before the invention of antiseptics, or even anaesthetics.  When St Thomas’ Hospital moved site in 1862, the old operating theatres entrances were concealed and were only accessible only by ladder. Its location was lost until 1956, after which a major restoration project got underway.

Poppies, which were used to prepare medicinal opium, were found in the rafters, revealing that the roof space was also used as a ‘herb garret’. The attic was large, dry and inaccessible to rats, making it the perfect location for St Thomas’ apothecary to prepare and store medicinal herbs and ingredients.

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St Thomas’ hospital today

Saint Thomas’s hospital was founded in about 1106, it was named after of Thomas Becket was made a saint in 1173. Becket was extremely popular, who people believed had miraculous healing powers. He was born in Londoner in 1118. Becket was murdered in Canterbury Cathedral in 1170.


The early medieval hospital was staffed by Augustinian monks and nuns. St Thomas’s hospital performed three important functions. Hospitality was given to poor travellers and pilgrims, a home was provided for the destitute and aged, and the sick were nursed. Catholics believe that when they treat those who are despised by society they are in reality showing God their love for him. This is based on the teaching of Jesus in Matthew 35-40:

For I was hungry and you gave Me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave Me something to drink, I was a stranger and you took Me in, I was naked and you clothed Me, I was sick and you looked after Me, I was in prison and you visited Me… Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of Mine, you did for Me.’

The hospital community was shattered by Henry VIII’s policy of the forced dissolution of the monasteries. In 1538, Thomas Cromwell’s deputy, Richard Layton, visited the ‘bawdy’’ hospital. The master, Richard Mabott, was accused of immorality, selling the hospital’s silver and exacting excessive fees from patients. On 14th January 1540, the hospital was surrendered to the King and the monks were pensioned off.


The City of London petitioned the king to allow the hospital to continue under secular management. The king refused; In 1538 Henry VIII issued a proclamation that Thomas Becket was to be unsainted, and his shrine in Canterbury cathedral was to be torn down, broken up and his bones burnt, as he had been a traitor to his king, and had defied his honour. Henry took a ruby from the shrine which had been donated by Louis VII of France and had it made into a thumb ring. (Weir :2001)

NPG Conservation Image, Making Art in Tudor Britain - Year Two
The hands of Henry VIII

For hundreds of years Thomas’ tomb had been the third most important site for pilgrimage in Europe, after Rome and Santiago de la Compostella, in Galicia.

The dissolution of the monasteries by Henry VIII provoked a crisis in London for the sick and infirm poor men lying begging in the public streets. On June 26th 1553, Letters Patent were issued by King Edward VI incorporating the three Royal hospitals of Christchurch, Bridewell and St Thomas the Apostle, and transferring to them the estate of the Savoy hospital. The three hospitals were designed to provide a complete service to the destitute: Christchurch for orphans, St Thomas’s for the sick and aged, and Bridewell for the ‘undeserving poor’. When St Thomas’ re-opened, it admitted 250 patients and had a staff led by the hospitaller (£10 p.a.) assisted by a clerk (£10 p.a), a steward (£6 13s p.a.), a butler (£5 p.a.), a cook (£8 p.a.) and six surgeons (£15 p.a.). An apothecary was added to the complement in 1566.

A matron was in charge of ten sisters – one for each of the six general wards and four for the so-called ‘foul’ wards for sufferers of venereal diseases. Sisters were not formally trained and were often recruited from amongst the patients. They were dismissed if they became engaged or married, but otherwise had a good chance of promotion to the job of butler, cook or matron.

St.Thomas’s on the Agas map

The wages were low and were supplemented by perquisites (perks): fuel, candles, or beer- the hospitaller commanded an allowance of one gallon a day. Extra funds could be made by moon-lighting; the porter made money on the side with his own out-patients department for ‘scald-head’ , and the cook was, in 1583, earning extra wages by grave-digging (a reflection on his culinary skills perhaps?).

Patients, if they were able, were expected to pay for their upkeep. But the destitute were also admitted and supplied with smocks, shoes, and bedding. Not all patients were ill for,

Syphilitic Patients 1498 (Mala Franczus, Bart Steber) St. Thomas’s probably gained its reputation as a bawdy’ hospital as it administered to the many prostitutes and their clients in

until the 17th Century, one of the wards was a Nightlayer’s lodgings providing overnight shelter for the homeless. This was the final example of the institution providing ‘hospitality’ in the original sense.

Pilgrim badge from the shrine of St Thomas Becket at Canterbury Cathedral: 14th Century © Museum of London

Food consisted of a breakfast of gruel or porridge, a dinner of bread, meat and beer, and a supper of broth. Three pints of ale per person was also allocated.

The regime was strict and those guilty of immorality could be punished at the whipping-post or in the stocks. Those who had acquired venereal disease ‘by immorality’ were punished in the stocks before they were released.

In 1962, after 100 years of disuse, the garret and operating theatre were opened to the public as the current museum.

The museum consists of:

  • The oldest surviving operating theatre in the UK (dating from 1822), used in the days before anaesthetics and antiseptic surgery.
  • The herb garret used by the hospital’s apothecary to store and cure herbs used in healing.
  • A collection of artefacts revealing the horrors of medicine before the age of science. Includes instruments for cupping, bleeding, trepanning, and childbirth.
  • Displays on medieval monastic health care, the history of St Thomas’s, Guy’s Hospital and Evelina Children’s Hospital, Florence Nightingale and nursing, medical and herbal medicine.



References 13:18 11/07/17

Alison weir pg393 2001 Henry 8 king and court assessed 13;34 11/07/17

Pilgrim badge from the shrine of St Thomas Becket at Canterbury Cathedral: 14th Century © Museum of London



I love Tudor history and my bookshelves seem to groan a bit more every year...

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