Exploring Southwark and discovering its history
As church attendance has declined over the years, it has become common for church buildings to undergo a change of use, often converted into flats or a single residence. Unusually, St Thomas’ Church in St Thomas Street, off Borough High Street, combined other uses at the same time as functioning as a parish church and must be the only church that has provided facilities for an operating theatre.
The present church building dates from the early 18th century but the church’s history goes back to medieval times and its history is closely related to that of St Thomas’ Hospital. The hospital itself is linked to the Augustinian Priory of St Mary Overie (now Southwark Cathedral) founded in the early twelfth century. In medieval times, the scope of a
hospital was broader than how we understand a hospital to function today and, as well as treating and caring for the sick poor, also provided a refuge for lepers, an almshouse and a place where pilgrims and the poor were offered shelter. Both Priory and Hospital burned down at the beginning of the 13th century and a new hospital was built away from the Priory, at the north eastern end of the approach road to London Bridge. The new building included a parish church, which, in common with the hospital, were dedicated to St Thomas a Beckett.
The Augustinian priory was closed by Henry VIII during the Reformation in 1539, and by virtue of association, St Thomas’ Hospital was also closed but the church remained open for services. Edward VI reopened the hospital in 1551 and, as Thomas a Beckett was not popular with the monarchy, was tactfully rededicated to St Thomas the Apostle. The hospital was placed under the protection of the City of London and the church now came under the patronage of the Governors of St Thomas’ Hospital.
The hospital was rebuilt at the end of the 17th century / beginning of the 18th century and a chapel, for use by patients, was built on the north side of the second quadrangle from main road. The parish church had become structurally unsafe and a new church, the present building, was built on the site of the older one and reopened in 1702. It is Grade II* listed and described by Historic England as “one of the more important survivals of Queen Anne architecture in London.”
The church served those who lived in the narrow streets surrounding the hospital, many of whom worked at the hospital, and there was a small vestry hall at the west end of the church where parish matters were discussed. Nevertheless, the life of the church was very closely linked to that of the hospital, not the least dictated by its physical proximity. The tower of the church has a large garret which was used by the apothecary to dry and store herbs in wooden storage racks but in 1821, the Governors decided to change its use to become an operating theatre. Access was not as difficult as it may at first seem as the women’s surgical ward of the hospital was at the same level. A tiered viewing gallery was included for students and other observers that was always packed when operations took place.
The extension of the railway line from London Bridge Station to Charing Cross Station opened in 1864. It cut across the site of St Thomas’ Hospital and resulted in the hospital relocating to its present site in Lambeth, opposite the Houses of Parliament. Many other streets within the parish that St Thomas’ served were also demolished. As a result, the congregation dropped and in 1889 the incumbent vicar reported that when he took his first service at the church, there was only one old woman present who was known until the day she died as “The Congregation”. Though the congregation increased, still it wasn’t large enough for the church to remain viable and in 1899 it amalgamated with the parish of St Saviour’s. St Saviour’s became Southwark Cathedral in 1905 and the former St Thomas’ Church became the new cathedral’s Chapter House.
When St Thomas’ Hospital moved to Lambeth, the operating theatre in the garret was partially dismantled then closed and remained that way for nearly 100 years until Raymond Russell, who was researching the history of the hospital, decided to locate and investigate the garret. His quest was hazardous that involved a ladder and missing floorboards but he rediscovered what is now the only surviving Victorian operating theatre in the UK. It opened as a museum in 1962 and has undergone a long process of restoration. For more information about the museum, and visiting information, go to http://oldoperatingtheatre.com/
The main body of St Thomas’Church has in recent years been used as offices, a gallery space, and is presently undergoing refurbishment. Duddell’s Cantonese restaurant is due to open November 2017.