Changing London

Born out of an abbey on Bankside – from historic hospitals to Southwark Cathedral

The name ‘Southwark Cathedral’ may not roll off the tongues of tourists in the same way that St Paul’s cathedral and Westminster Abbey do, yet it still pulls in a sizeable number of visitors each year. On hot sunny days in the summer, people pour over from neighbouring Borough Market to enjoy their tasty food purchases in the church’s gardens, where crowds are often entertained by lively music. Heading inside is equally pleasant – and extremely fascinating.


Inside Southwark Cathedral

While St Paul’s has been a cathedral since 1708, Southwark Cathedral is relatively new, having only been consecrated in 1905 when the Anglican Diocese of Southwark was formed. But as a religious building, the history goes back centuries to when St Swithun, as Bishop of Winchester, is said to have founded it as a college for priests between 852 and 867. In fact Southwark Cathedral, under various guises, is believed to be the second oldest church in London after Westminster Abbey.

And entering Southwark Cathedral today you are walking into somewhere that would have been familiar to those living in medieval times. The imposing 19th century nave is built on the footprint of a much earlier structure, harking back to the time when it was the priory church at the centre of a sprawling Augustinian abbey called St Mary Overie.

There’s a fascinating scale model on show in the cathedral today, dated to around 1540, revealing the extent of this religious complex. St Mary Overie’s priory church, with its attached side chapels (St John’s Bishop’s and Lady Chapel), sits at the centre of the walled compound. You can also see the chapter house, dormitories, a refectory and the stepped access to the river Thames.

While one half of the model is devoted to St Mary Overie and its precincts, on the other side of St Mary Overie Dock (where today the replica 15th century Golden Hinde can be found), there is Winchester Palace. This was home to the Bishops of Winchester who paid for the priory church to be re-built between the 13th and 15th centuries and were for over 400 years overlords for a large swathe of Southwark.

The abbey, as an institution was founded in 1106, and thanks to a recent archaeological dig ahead of construction work beginning on the cathedral’s new wing, visitors can see some very old remains. Not far from the gift shop, there are traces of 12th century foundations that formed the Norman priory church. From around the same time, you can see part of the original east wall of the chapter house, an early English arch and a stone coffin where one of the priors is likely to have been buried.

Many of the side chapels are Gothic, dating from the reconstruction works paid for by the Bishops of Winchester from 1220 to 1420. There are tombs from this period of the likes of John Gower, a poet and friend of celebrated 14th century author William Chaucer, who died in 1408. Gower was both someone who was a great benefactor to St Mary Overie, but also a critic of the excesses of church officials. The oldest part of the cathedral is the Retro-Choir, at the back of the church, which dates from 1215.

Health pioneers

Augustinian monks were focused very much on outreach, so it perhaps not surprising that this religious institution gave rise to St Thomas’s Hospital in the 12th century, which was dedicated to the martyred St Thomas Becket. Before effective medical treatment, this is where the sick and poor would seek help. Patients needed to put their faith in spiritual guidance because staff lacked medical training.

Following a disastrous fire in 1212 St Thomas’s left the main priory complex and moved to a new location on the opposite side of Borough High Street. The medieval hospital included a chapel – where Richard Chaucer was buried – which would, in time, become St Thomas’s church.

The priory was closed during Henry VIII’s dissolution of the monasteries in the 1530s, much to the annoyance of the City of London. But the hospital re-opened in 1552 thanks to a charter from Edward VI and was re-dedicated to Thomas the Apostle.

By the end of the 17th century the buildings were in urgent need of repair and so Thomas Cartwright, Master Mason to Christopher Wren at St Mary-le-Bow, was commissioned to complete a major re-building project at a cost of £3718. Compensation had to be paid to the owners of two small houses which were pulled down as part of the scheme. The large-scale refurbishment meant that the numbers admitted each year increased from a few hundred to thousands, housed in some 20 wards. And 1859, Florence Nightingale became involved with St Thomas’s and founded her famous nursing school here.

The hospital was forced to move from its Bankside home in 1862 to make way for the construction of a new viaduct for London Bridge Station and, after being temporarily being housed in Walworth, its present site near Lambeth Palace opened in 1871. St Thomas’s church – the only surviving part of the early 18th century re-built hospital – became redundant however and after being used as the Chapter House of Southwark Cathedral it was bought by property developers.

In addition to the church, traces of the old hospital survive in Borough, including the women’s ward, built in 1842 and now used as a post office on the ground floor. There is a plaque here remembering that the first complete translation of the English bible was made in the hospital’s grounds in 1537. And in the roof of the early 18th century St Thomas’s church, you find today the country’s only surviving 19th century operating theatre, which lay abandoned until it was rediscovered in 1956. It is a fascinating place to visit.

The operating theatre was built in 1822 when part of the Garret (a place created in the roof space of St Thomas’s church in the early 18th century for use by the St Thomas’s Apothecary to store and cure herbs) was converted into a purpose-built place for surgery (previously operations had taken place on the ward). Female patients were operated on here without anaesthetic while large groups of medical students stood watch.

Today, it forms part of the Old Operating Theatre museum, which contains furniture acquired from a number of different hospitals (the operating table, for example, came from University College Hospital) in the original shell. With tiered wooden seating surrounding the platform where the operations would have taken place, it feels like you are walking into a courtroom. There is a fascinating sign on the wall, dated 1822, explaining the regulations for the room, noting: “Apprentices and the Dressers of the Surgeon who operates are to stand round the Table. The Surgeon’s pupils are to take their Places in the Rows above. Visitors are admitted by permission of the Surgeon.”


St Thomas’s church – the home of the Old Operating Theatre museum

No anaesthetics were used for operations (they existed, but doctors thought it was safer not to use them because they were deemed unreliable), so they were carried out as quickly as possible – an amputation might be over in a minute, while removing a bladder stone might take up to an hour. The procedures were potentially lethal because of the risk of infection (and the death rate could therefore easily be 20 per cent).

But while visitors today have to climb a spiral staircase in the bell tower to reach the operating theatre, when it was in use in the 19th century patients would merely have been wheeled in from the neighbouring women’s surgical ward (the building which has today a post office on the ground floor) which was on the same level. The old church was used as offices for the property developers and own of the overall building, but they moved out last year and the space is currently being converted into a restaurant which will serve Hong Kong cuisine. Meanwhile, the two upper floors of the bell tower will be residential accommodation.


Inside the OId Operating Theatre

During restoration work at the museum, four poppies – used to prepare opium – were found in the rafters, but there is no direct evidence of the herbs kept here (although it is possible to guess from surviving lists kept by the hospital). Curators believe that the attic was used for storing these because it was less vulnerable to rats and it absorbed excess moisture. Today, this room displays a range of such as surgical objects, such as knives and saws, as well as leech jars and other artefacts from London hospitals. It’s like walking into an Aladdin’s cave, with every inch of space crammed with exhibits.

Opposite the old operating theatre, at number 8 St Thomas Street, there is a plaque on the house – one of a number of surviving Georgian properties on this stretch – noting that the poet John Keats lived at the site while he was a student Guy’s and St Thomas’s hospitals for a year from 1815. During his time in Borough he managed to contract venereal disease from a local prostitute. He would go on to concentrate on his poetry, rather than furthering his medical career.

New Borough hospital

While St Thomas’s should be applauded for the vast number of patients it admitted and treated, by the beginning of the 18th century it had clearly been overburden by those seeking its care. One of the governors named Thomas Guy, a Southwark-born printer and publisher who made a fortune in the South Sea Company before the bubble burst, therefore decided in 1721 to establish a new hospital, behind the original one, to cater for the “incurables’ discharged from St Thomas’s”. Rocques map of 1741 shows them on either side of St Thomas’s Street.

Guy, who lived frugally (“he dined on his counter, with no other tablecloth than a newspaper”), used his wealth to build the hospital for “four hundred poor PERSONS or upwards, LABOURING UNDER ANY DISTEMPTS, INFIRMITIES OR DISORDERS THOUGHT CAPABLE OR RELIEF BY PHYSICK OR SURGERY; but who, by reason of the small hopes there may be of their cure, or the length of time which for that purpose may be required … and or may be adjudged or called Incurable and as such not proper Objects to be received into or continued in the present Hospital of Saint Thomas”.

John Howard, the prisoner reformer, visited Guy’s in 1788 and praised the new bug-free iron bedsteads, as well as the ventilation and sanitation arrangements. Over time the hospital grew dramatically, helped notably in 1829 by a generous benefactor called William Hunt who enabled its capacity to be doubled. And it became a pioneering facility in many respects. In 1799 Guy’s became the first London hospital to appoint a dental surgeon. The first blood transfusion using human blood was also carried out here.

Unlike St Thomas’s, Guy’s remains in Borough. While the site has been expanded over the years, you can still glimpse the 18th century buildings surrounding a courtyard facing St Thomas Street. On the east side was the hall, while on the west side was the Matron’s House, Surgeon’s House and Chapel. The latter remarkably remains intact despite being hit during the Second World War and boasts the tomb of Thomas Guy with a marble sculpture by John Bacon. Pevsner has praised the memorial as “one of the noblest and most sensitive of its date in England. It still has the compositional flourish and the technical mastery of the Baroque and Roubiliac, and yet shows the genuine warm feeling of the new age.”

The inner quadrangles include a statute of Lord Nuffield, a major benefactor and a long-standing chairman of the governors. There is also, somewhat bizarrely, on display a Portland stone niche from the old (1176) London Bridge which was bought for 10 guineas and installed in 1861. This area is often bustling with students heading through to Guy’s campus of King’s College London, which neighbours modern Guy’s hospital.

Today, the two hospitals founded on Bankside are administered together as Guy’s and St Thomas’ NHS Foundation Trust which employs around 15,000 staff and boasts an annual turnover of £1.3 billion. It supports around 2.3 million people every year, including 86,000 inpatients and 1.15 million outpatients. The hospitals deliver more than 6,961 babies every year and they provide community services to 800,000 individuals.

Parish church

After the Dissolution of the Monasteries in the 1530s, when Henry VIII seized large amounts of church property, the cannons surrendered St Mary Overie and its buildings with little resistance. The priory church was re-named as St Saviour’s and it was rented out to local worshipers.

The parish was home to famous playhouses like the Globe and the Rose, in essence the birth place of commercial theatre in the modern world, so it’s no surprise that actors and playwrights like William Shakespeare appeared in church registers. Indeed half of the actors mentioned in Shakespeare’s First Folio (1623), the first collected edition of his plays, had connections with St Saviour’s.

Relationships between the actors and the clergy at St Saviour’s were mixed, the latter seeing the former’s profession immoral. Indeed, in 1616 the chaplain preached a sermon criticising those who “dishonour God….. by penning and acting of plays”. But still the church was happy to take their money! For example, when William Shakespeare came to arranging a service and burial for his brother and fellow actor Edmund, he paid a premium for a morning service, presumably so the mourners could still perform at the playhouses in the afternoon.

By the 1820s Saint Saviour’s was in a poor state of repair and, when the new London Bridge was being built, some even suggested that it should be demolished. It was of course saved and eventually restored, becoming Southwark cathedral in 1905. But today the church is scarred by the industrialisation of the 19th century when part of the Lady Chapel was demolished to make way for a railway development. Even nowadays the tracks obscure the wonderful 16th century tower.

Over the years portions of land owned by Southwark Cathedral have been sold off, and in 2001 a shiny new wing with educational and visitor facilities was opened by Nelson Mandela, but it is fitting that at the core is what is essentially the priory church and something that would have been familiar to the likes of Chaucer and Shakespeare. With Christmas carol concerts just around the corner, it is definitely a place that’s worth visiting if you haven’t been before.


Guy’s Hospital


Old St Thomas’s Hospital women’s ward


Inside Old Operating Theatre museum


Artefacts at Old Operating Theatre museum


Chapel at Guy’s Hospital


Memorial housing Thomas Guy’s remains

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