The 1822 Herb Garret, St Thomas’s Hospital

The Herb Garret, part of St Thomas’s Hospital which was founded in 1552 after the Reformation by King Henry VIII, (it had once been part of an Augustine Monastery) is one of the capital’s most unusual small museums. It is tucked away behind London Bridge station and not easy to find. You enter by a discreet wooden door, climb a steep spiral staircase, remember to duck your head at the top to avoid a low door frame, and eventually find yourself inside what looks like a large attic.

Dried opium poppies hand from the rafters

My first thought was: I’ve stepped into a time warp! All I could see in the dim light was a vast wooden structure of roof timbers, rafters and beams, with a plain wooden floor. As my eyes adjusted to the light, I began to notice crowded wooden shelves containing boxes, vials, bottles and even two baby crocodiles – what on earth were they used for? Bunches of dried poppies, lavender and meadow sweet hung everywhere. The very air smelt herby. This, I thought, is how it must have looked and smelt in 1822 – the date it became the herb garret for St Thomas’s Hospital. And, as a bonus for those of us who write novels set during the Regency period, it was almost exactly in period.

The Cabinet of Curiosities of things once used in medicine: note small crocodiles. 

The Herb Garret which was where the hospital’s herbs were carefully dried, turned into tinctures, pills, etc. and stored. Up here they would be less vulnerable to vermin, and the huge timbers would help to stabilise the temperature and absorb extra moisture.

Cinnamon bark

The plant collection is wide-ranging; for example, there are boxes of willow bark, its anti-inflammatory properties help to relieve pain and reduce fever; cinnamon has been shown to lower blood sugar levels and was used in the treatment of heart disease; and ginger root helps with digestion and reduces chronic pain; and there are numerous other seeds, leaves and flowers. 70% of modern medicine still comes from plants, and knowledge of their medicinal properties goes back hundreds of years.

Herbs and seeds collection

Plants could be prepared as infusions, teas, tisanes, decoctions, tinctures and syrups, depending on what was needed. Tinctures, for example, used alcohol, vinegar or glycerine as solvents. The chosen herb was finely ground and added to 40% proof alcohol, say, and carefully shaken every day. After two weeks, the liquid was decanted, wrung out in a muslin cloth and stored in a dark bottle.

Jar and bandage roller

We were shown how to make a poultice to draw out infection. (Georgette Heyer fans will have come across poultices being used to excellent effect on horses in Sylvester and The Quiet Gentleman, for example.) Here’s one recipe. Take a measure of linseeds and put them in a bowl and add boiling water – leaving plenty of space for the linseeds to swell. After about twenty minutes, the linseeds will have absorbed all the water and the mixture will now be the texture of thick porridge.

Lavender: reduces anxiety, insomnia and fungal infections. 

You then spread the mixture onto parchment, chamois leather or paper – whatever comes to hand, really – and bandage it, as hot at the patient can bear, onto the afflicted place. As the poultice cools and dries, it will draw out the infection.

It is messy and time-consuming but it works.

Pill making

We were also shown how to make pills, another time-consuming job. Even though there was a gadget to cut the pills to the right size, they had to be rolled into balls individually and sprinkled with talcum powder to stop them sticking together. If they tasted particularly disgusting, they would be dusted with icing sugar (which cost more). An apothecary could get through 10,000 pills a week – and usually it was the wretched apothecary apprentice whose job it was to make them. An apprenticeship lasted seven years – and, as we watched, it swiftly became obvious that there was an awful lot to learn.

Leech jars (it looks as though a leech is trying to escape from the jar on the left)

The Herb Garret goes into some detail about how disease used to be treated. For example, there is a leech jar on display. Surprisingly, leeches are still used today as the best option for removing congested blood from a wound, thanks to the leech’s ability to secrete anticoagulants. Also, if you had an accident and chopped off a finger, the surgeon could sew it back on – and the arteries (touch wood) would be fine – they are tough. The veins are another matter as they are fragile and tend to crumble. But a leech will suck blood slowly and carefully which allows a damaged vein the time it needs to reconnect and repair itself and for capillaries to re-form.

Plague mask

 Note the plague mask! The nose was filled with herbal material, including mint, camphor, dried roses and carnations, to protect the doctor from the plague. The glass eye holes enabled one to see and there were two small nostril holes to breathe through.

Apothecary at work

In writing this post, I couldn’t help but be aware how relevant it was to the difficult situation we are in at the moment. Our modern face masks have taken the place of plague masks, for example. And the pills and infusions being made in the herb garret were tackling similarly life-threatening medical problems to those we face today.  I really felt for those 1822 apothecaries.

All photos by Elizabeth Hawksley

Twitter: @Hawksley_E

Elizabeth Hawksley


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16 thoughts on “The 1822 Herb Garret, St Thomas’s Hospital”

    1. Thank you, Jan. I have to say that some of the items there were decidedly creepy – I’m thinking of the leech jar with what looked like a leech climbing out! And what on earth would you use a baby crocodile for? Perhaps it’s best not to know.

  1. This is really useful, thank you. If travelling is ever allowed again, I must visit. Curiously, I’m re-reading GH at present, who isn’t? and I’d wondered about the poultices in sylvester. anne

    1. Thank you for your comment, Anne. I think you’d enjoy the Herb Garret. It’s also attached to the Old Operating Theatre, which is where John Keats would have watched amputations and possibly dissections during his brief training to be a doctor. I could have extended the blog to include that and shown the box of amputation tools etc., but I decided this was not the time to write about it.

      At the moment, I think we are all more in need of our Georgette Heyer shelf!

  2. This post seems particularly apposite for the moment the world is living through. Normally one would nod thoughtfully at the herb garret and pass on; but that plague mask speaks clearly from 1822 to 2020 – no translation is required. I’m glad we haven’t yet come to the point of needing crocodiles though, baby or otherwise.

    1. Thank you for your comment, Prem. I was very struck by how perceptive our forebears were about the value of cinnamon, lavender and the other herbs and spices – and even leeches, if it comes to that. But I suspect that they would have been out of their depth with what we are having to deal with just now.

  3. I had heard of this museum before but your post makes it sound really interesting and I’m going to add it to my must visit list. Regarding leeches, a friend of mine was treated with them a few years ago after modern methods had failed to treat a cut on his leg which had been badly infected by polluted water when he was working on a marine salvage case in India. He said the process felt weird, but the leeches did succeed in doing the job!

    1. Thank you for your interesting contribution, Gail. I’m delighted that the leeches worked for your friend’s infected leg. It’s a win-win situation: the leeches get fed, your friend recovers and I don’t suppose the leeches cost a lot either!

  4. How fascinating! I shall have to visit next time I’m in London.
    I had never really thought about how modern medicine is based on herbal medicines, but it must be true. Modern medicine has simply built on and refined the knowledge from our herbal medicine past.
    For example, you mentioned willow bark. That contains salicylic acid which is the primary ingredient in Aspirin. In fact salicylic acid gets its name from Salix which is the Latin word for willow.
    Thanks again for sharing and stay safe.

    1. Thank you for your comment, Huon, and your Salix-willow point. I’m glad you enjoyed the blog. I think you’d enjoy the Herb Garret, though there are a number of things I didn’t look at which are pretty gruesome. You really wouldn’t want to have a limb amputated in the operating theatre without anaesthetics – even if you were given a glass of brandy first and the surgeon prided himself on doing the job within a few minutes.

  5. Brilliant post! This has to go on my must visit list. Perfect for the Regency murder mystery writer. Thanks for a really interesting look at this extraordinary art. It makes me think of Cadfael, even further back, but he knew a thing or two.

    1. A Regency murder featuring the Herb Garret would be brilliant, Elizabeth. A disgruntled apothecary’s apprentice could go a lot of damage if the wrong ingredients got into some of those 10,000 pills he had to make weekly. I’m sure you’d enjoy the research, too. We were actually shown how to make pills and the assistant talked us through the process. It was fascinating.

  6. What a fabulous find! I would love to go there but unfortunately my days for traipsing round London are long gone! I always enjoy your blogs so thank you for finding such interesting subjects.

  7. This was really fascinating, both for introducing an undiscovered little gem of a museum, and for the insights into herbal medicine. It was lovely to see the lavender – still recognised as very useful for tackling insomnia. I was particularly interested because I worked in the same street as the herb garret, only a few steps away, for six years. I kept telling myself that I must go and see it ‘one day’, and of course I never did. But over ten years later, thanks to you, Elizabeth, I will definitely do it! Many thanks as always for a delightful and illuminating post, Eleanor

    1. I’m so pleased you enjoyed it, Eleanor. My Medieval historian brother pointed out to me that the poet John Keats was himself an apothecary’s apprentice there for a short while! I’m sure that having to hand make 10,000 pills per week must have been a mind numbing trial, especially to a poet!

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