Miseratione non Mercede



Miseratione non Mercede

From Compassion, not for Gain

Even today, with the London skyline dominated by the Eye, the Gherkin and the Shard, our capital is still full of tiny, hidden historical treasures. One of these is The Old Operating Theatre Museum and Herb Garret, in St Thomas’s Street, only a hop, skip and a jump (or, to be more accurate, an escalator ride and a short walk) away from London Bridge Station and the Shard itself.

Old and New

The garret, in the roof of early eighteenth century St Thomas’s Church, is reached quaintly enough, via a narrow spiral staircase. This leads you up to the museum shop, a tiny room reminiscent of an enthusiastic liaison between an old-fashioned bookshop and a modern child’s Christmas stocking (syringe pens, anyone?) You pay your money, go on up another staircase, and you’re there.

The Herb Garret

The first thing that hits you is the smell of herbs and spices. Bunches of dried herbs hang from the rafters, and there’s a generous helping of cinnamon sticks on the shelves next to a recipe for Snail Water (if there are any actual snails, though, sadly I missed them).  The place is full of displays of surgical implements and specimens in jars, and there’s a poignant children’s corner, with child-sized operating table, hospital cot and a Second World War “Wounded Tommy” doll.

Snail Water

I was keen to see the operating theatre so headed straight in that direction. This was the actual theatre used to operate on female patients from the adjacent St Thomas’s Hospital – the sexes were strictly segregated, although the surgeons, of course, were all male. At least, as far as almost everyone thought…

The Old Operating Theatre

It’s designed with natural light in mind; a large skylight was put in when this part of the garret was repurposed as an operating theatre in 1822. Theatre, by the way, is exactly what it was: there are stands in a horseshoe shape surrounding the central, surgeons’ area, for the use of spectators. One can only imagine what it must have been like to be some poor patient wheeled in to be operated upon by gentlemen in frock coats, perhaps shielded with a reeking apron steeped in blood and pus from previous unfortunates—because if it was washed, it wouldn’t show how experienced your surgeon was, now would it? All around, dressers and students would jostle for position in the stands.  (Apparently, some of them fainted; whether in the crush, or from the grisly spectacle, is a matter of opinion).

Up until around 1846 the patient wouldn’t even have the mercy of anaesthetic; whilst painkilling drugs such as opium were known from medieval times, dosing was an uncertain business and surgeons preferred to do without rather than risk killing the patient with kindness.  Hence the need for “dressers”, a quaint name for someone whose chief role was to hold the struggling patient down during the operation. The most popular operations (with the audience, that is) were amputations—in those days, often the only way to survive a compound fracture—and a good surgeon could whip a limb off in a minute or less. Just a short, sharp shock, sir—it’ll be over before you know it!

Talking about those surgeons, by the way…

A picture hangs in the garret of James Barry, a contemporary of Florence Nightingale. She reportedly couldn’t stand him; perhaps she was annoyed Crimean War soldiers nursed by his methods had higher recovery rates than hers, although admittedly his temper was notorious, leading to him fighting more than one duel.  He also fought tirelessly to improve conditions for the common soldier and the general poor, which brought him into conflict with his more elitist peers.

James Barry

He’s the one on the left; the darker skinned man is his servant and close confidant for 50 years, John.

It wasn’t until Barry’s death that he was discovered to have female anatomy. It’s believed he was born Margaret Ann Bulkley, and that his family—including the artist James Barry—willingly colluded in the deception that allowed Barry to become a doctor at a time when it would have been unacceptable for a woman.

Did Barry truly identify as male? It’s impossible to know. But he lived his entire adult life as a man—and a hugely successful and influential one at that.


JL Merrow is that rare beast, an English person who refuses to drink tea.  She read Natural Sciences at Cambridge, where she learned many things, chief amongst which was that she never wanted to see the inside of a lab ever again.  Her one regret is that she never mastered the ability of punting one-handed whilst holding a glass of champagne.

She writes across genres, with a preference for contemporary gay romance and the paranormal, and is frequently accused of humour.

Find JL Merrow online at: www.jlmerrow.com

Advent Calendar Giveaway!

The herbs stored in the St Thomas’s Street garret were all used medicinally by the hospital’s apothecary. Nowadays, we tend to think more of herbs and spices as being used to enhance the pleasures of life, whether by their fragrance or their flavour. Is there a herb or spice you couldn’t do without? And how do you use it?

All commenters will be entered into a draw for a copy of Dulce et Decorum Est or, if you don’t mind waiting a bit, a copy of each of Poacher’s Fall, which is an expanded re-issue of my 1920s Christmas story Pleasures with Rough Strifeand the all new sequel, Keeper’s Pledge, due out from Dreamspinner on 30th January 2013.


A winner will be drawn on Christmas Day.

Merry Christmas!

The BONUS BUMPER PRIZE QUESTION (don’t answer this – just save them up for Christmas Eve.)

3. Which fictional character was born on Christmas Island in the Indian Ocean?

54 Responses

  1. How fascinating! That’s something to put on the list for the next London visit. I just need to persuade squeamish husband.

  2. Wow, that’s amazing. I do have to go visit that place, thank you!

  3. A really interesting post. Must visit St Thomas’s next time I’m in London. Gruesomely fascinating. Thank you for sharing. 😊

  4. One of the most interesting posts ever. And since I’m currently recovering from a fractured arm (forgive typos–using my left hand) this post makes me REALLY glad I didn’t live back in those days! I’d love to see the places for myself but the pictures are a great substitute. Thank you for adding them.

    • Oh, yes – it’s horrific how what today would be a relatively minor injury could turn really nasty in those days! Hope you’re on the mend soon! 🙂

  5. Damn, I knew I had to visit London, they’d never be able to get me out of the shop!

  6. How extraordinary. I didn’t know about the museum nor about Barry. Thank you so much for this post.

    • My faith in you is shattered. I thought you knew EVERYTHING… *g*
      It was Jo Myles who told me about the place – I’ve no idea how she found out about it. 🙂

  7. Oregano is my must have herb- i stick it in everything, not only all the italian dishes, but omelettes, stuffing – just about everything (don’t put me in the draw though…) thanks for the reat post!

  8. Barry’s story is fascinating! I wonder if Terry Pratchett basd any of Monstrous Regiment on it? I love the little museum too. I’ll see if i can find their website. 🙂

  9. Yikes—I feel a bit queasy just looking at those photos….

  10. Fascinating, thank you. I need to find out more about James Barry / Margaret Ann Bulkley!

    • There’s a fair amount of information online, although you’ll find some of it has definitely been “read between the lines” of the scant historical detail – simply because Barry was so successful at living as a man.

  11. Cool. Another thing on the list of things to see someday.

  12. I forgot all about Barry although I think I knew it at one time. I wonder if Nightingale sensed something different about him/her?
    My can’t-live-without spice is cinnamon and various blends made with it. Here in the US we’ve got blends called “apple pie spice”and “pumpkin pie spice” that are all blends of spices with cinnamon. I put it over my coffee grounds before brewing.

    • Yes, I had a feeling of familiarity when I saw the picture and read the story. I wonder, too, how much of Barry’s famously prickly temper was due to defensiveness and fear of being unmasked.

      You’d love the smell in the museum–there’s a very strong flavour of cinnamon in the air. Cinnamon is my favourite spice, too – in fact I’m drinking cherry tea with cinnamon as I type! 🙂

  13. That was really interesting! Thanks for posting this?

  14. Fascinating story of Dr. Barry! I love those hidden gender tales.
    I’m looking forward to your Poacher’s Fall & sequel!

    • Thank you! Yes, Barry’s is a great story, isn’t it? So glad we don’t live in those times now, though!

      Oh, and I drink herbal tea by the gallon – it’s just the stuff my fellow Brits think of as “proper” tea I can’t stand! 😉

  15. Thanks for the memory! I was there 10 years ago – doesn’t look like it’s changed a bit. And it sure makes me appreciate modern medicine.

    I’ve read that Florence Nightingale was lesbian… wouldn’t it make a great story if the ‘animosity’ she had for Barry was a cover for something more affectionate? Or that their differences were philosophical and Florence thought less of Barry for ‘passing?’

    I’ve done massage since 1984, and I suppose my indispensable herb would be lavender, but arnica is a close second. And there are dozens of others…

    • It’s a little enclave of history, isn’t it? But no, I wouldn’t fancy being a patient in that operating theatre!
      I’ve heard that about Florence Nightingale, too, but while I’d like to think of them being secretly attracted to one another, I just can’t see it! I could believe Florence didn’t approve of Barry “passing”, but I think it’s still more likely they just had an almighty clash of personalities!

      It’s hard to pick just one herb, isn’t it? Lavender always makes me think of church fetes, with handmade lavender bags, corn dollies and crocheted toys. 🙂

  16. I love me some JL Merrow. The operating theatre and surgical tools? Fascinating, and also made me dizzy. Thank you!

  17. Fascinating post – and great pictures too, I don’t think I’ve seen one of the old operating theatre from that angle before (and when they show such things on TV shows it always seems to be from the floor looking up at the audience) – really makes it looks like a lecture theatre, which I suppose was the original reason for having an audience – getting paying audience members also woudl have been seen as a bonus I’d imagine…

    As for spices… I use them a lot in cooking and I don’t think I could narrow it down to one. Getting it down to half a dozen is hard enough, and that’s only possible if you don’t count garlic or chillis! Anyway, here goes: Cumin (seeds & ground), Smoked Paprika (the sweet ‘Spanish’ kind), Allspice, Ground Mace (or mace blades on occasion), Ginger (ground), Pepper (black most of all, but I also use blends containing, white, green, pink as well). I suppose if you made me choose just one it’d be black pepper because it’s so versatile – the flavour it adds to a dish can depend so heavily on the coarseness of the grind (or even of you grind it at all!)

  18. Thank you! I wished I’d brought my camera, but the phone didn’t do too badly in the end.
    Sounds like you really know your spices! I use cumin, on the rare occasions I don’t cheat and just open a jar of sauce, but the recipes I have always seem to call for coriander as well. And black pepper, of course. Where do you get your paprika from? Supermarket paprika is absolute rubbish these days – like my daughter says, it’s just so much red dust with no flavour whatsoever!

    • I get most of my spices from Fox’s Spices (they’re phone/mail order and occasionally found at events like the Royal Welsh). They’re great value – most packets are100g – 200g for the same price you’d pay for 10g – 20g in the supermarkets!

      For smaller quantities (or when I just run out of one spice!), we have a good local greengrocer / “health food” shop.

      Not sure if they do paprika or not, but Tescos often have better spices in their “ethnic foods” aisle than they do in the main “herbs & spices” section.

      Or you could just use the excuse to take a trip to Brick Lane next time you’re in London 😉

  19. Dont get down to London often but next time I’ll be taking the kids to both places!

  20. What an interesting article on Barry.

    I don’t really know how to use herbs in cooking all that well. What I prefer is to grow my own herbs and dry them. I like to keep some and give some away. I mostly grow, Parsley, Tarragon, Chives, Marjoram and Oregano. I guess that Marjoram is the one I use the most in cooking because I love the smell and taste.

  21. I used to experiment with herbs in cooking (I got given a ready loaded spice rack and wanted to try them all), but I’ve got lazy and now use supermarket blends. My favourite ‘pure’ herb is probably mint – I learned to make mint sauce when I was about eight and spent a while putting mint sauce on everything savoury (good with chips not so good with cheese on toast).

    The museum sounds interesting – I think my aunt was one of the first female medical students to graduate from her Uni (around WW2).

    The snow flakes are giving my computer fits. 🙂


    • Sorry about the blizzard-hit computer there!

      Thanks for sharing the story of your aunt. Really brings it home that even in living memory, things were very different than they are today.

      And mmm, mint sauce and chips – must try that! 🙂

  22. Oh, fascinating stuff. My must-have herb is basil.

  23. I love Lavender! I use it’s in essential oil form when making skin and hair treatments.

  24. I love the description of the museum — if I ever get to London again, I’ll have to make sure to visit. And I’ve always loved the story of James Barry. But I didn’t know that Florence Nightingale couldn’t stand the doctor! What a remarkable detail.

  25. And while they’re at it your readers could make a little trip to the fashion and textile museum just up the road, or the Clink museum if they are interested in prisons, the Marshalsea has long gone, though Marshalsea Road is still there, with Joe’s Cafe, where you can get a fabulous fishfinger sandwich….You can potter down to the river and see the fabulous replica of the Golden Hind, have a pootle round Borough Market and buy herbs and spices and other wondrous foodstuffs. You can explore Southwark Cathedral and even go and see Shakespeare in the wonderful Globe Theatre, more or less on its original site, though the stews have gone. (they were the bathhouses of ill repute on the South Bank) London’s only remaining galleried in is just off Borough High Street. It is a fabulous area to explore.

    I am glad that the dreadful London Dungeon is leaving Tooley Street, it’s a blight! I keep hoping that the morons who think it is fitting to use torture and executions as a subject for entertainment will go bust, bu no such luck!

    • Oooh, thanks for all those ideas! I’m not able to get to London often since I moved to Wales but those sound like fascinating places to visit (and, like you say, the polar opposite of the London Dungeon and its ilk which are all you ever see ads for up here)

  26. Always wanted to visit London. Fascinating post.

  27. I love cumin for roasts and stews, but I suppose it’s not as versatile as others. I tend to reach for nutmeg more than cinnamon, but I do like the gentler Ceylon cinnamon for sweet and savory preparations…

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