ADVENTURES IN CORPOREALITY
One of the themes that link Clerkenwell EC1 and Borough SE1 is suffering. Both areas were historically home to London’s terrifying prisons – Newgate, Bridewell, The Fleet, The House of Correction in Clerkenwell and The Marshallsea, The Clink, and The King’s bench in Southwark. There are bits of these left: the gate of the Bridewell on New Bridge Street; the wall of Newgate at the end of Adam Court; the cellars of the House of Correction below Hugh Myddleton School and a fragment of the Marshallsea in St George’s graveyard. (This where Dicken’s father and Mr Dorrit the character he inspired were imprisoned for debt).
Even a brief time spent detained at His or Her Majesty’s pleasure in any of these establishments was quite likely to lead to the much longer punishment of a chronic illness and coincidentally both districts housed (and still house) many of those other arenas of suffering: the city’s hospitals. The oldest of these, St Bartholomew’s is in Clerkenwell and Kings, Guys and St Thomas’s are in Southwark.
I’ve spent a fair bit of time around hospitals myself over the last year so the other day, after a visit to the vaults beneath London Bridge, I went to see what has to be one of the most curious museums in London. It is certainly the nicest smelling. The Old Operating Theatre is in an ancient attic reached by a skinny old spiral stair on St Thomas street. Once part of Guy’s hospital, it houses a herb garret (hence the aroma) and a collection of medical curiosities. The various surgical instruments on display are beautifully made but gruesome in purpose – two handed amputation saws, long handled devices for removing kidney stones, pliers for taking out organs and so on. One of the oddest is the operating theatre itself – literally a tiny theatre where the patient / victim / entertainment would be held prone on the stage-bed whilst the learned professors and surgeons would go about their business in front of an admiring and presumably strong-stomached audience.
I recommend it – particularly to anyone inclined to complain about the current state of the National Health Service.