London’s wacky and unusual attractions are guaranteed to capture the imagination of those who are brave enough to find them. Adam Bennett follows the footsteps of murderers, surgeons and pathologists to discover some truly bizarre objects across the city.
Grant Museum of Zoology
The Grant Museum of Zoology boasts over 1000 separate species of rare and extinct animals, the largest collection in the United Kingdom. Among its exhibits, visitors can see the flightless Dodo, a Tasmanian tiger and a Quagga, a half-striped relative of the zebra – all of which have been hunted to extinction.
A strong contender for the strangest object at the Grant Museum is a collection of eighteen moles, preserved in formaldehyde and stuffed into a jar. Interestingly, the moles even have their own rather amusing Twitter account.
We have overheard too many inane conversions today. Argh.
— Glass Jar Of Moles (@GlassJarOfMoles) March 22, 2014
Other weird and wacky objects inside the Grant museum include a collection of stomach-churning brains preserved in alcohol and the Negus Collection of bisected heads. The latter is one of the world’s most impressive collections of preserved mammal heads, including ones from a chimp, a rabbit and a sloth.
Bart’s Pathology Museum
A truly unique place, Bart’s Pathology Museum was established in 1879 and houses over 5000 of the oddest specimens from the human body and runs quirky workshops for the non-squeamish (try “Taxidermy for Beginners” if you dare). Among the collection are a few famous faces: visitors can go head-to-head with the skull of John Bellingham, the only man in history to assassinate a British Prime Minister.
The museum also features in the history of Sherlock Holmes. Creator Sir Arthur Conan Doyle visited the museum as part of his medical training and it is said that he wrote some of his short Sherlock stories in one of Bart’s main offices. Incidentally, the roof of Bart’s is the same roof that Benedict Cumberbatch jumped from in the episode named Reichenbach Falls in the hit BBC series Sherlock.
The Old Operating Theatre Museum and Herb Garret
Photo by the Old Operating Theatre
The oldest surviving operating theatre in Britain, this piece of medical history was lost during 1800s when St Thomas’s Hospital moved, and only rediscovered in 1956 when Raymond Russell decided to explore the attic of the church it was attached to. The opportunity to step back in time to the blood-curdling screams of nineteenth century medicine makes this one of the creepiest museums in London.
Visitors can gaze into glass cabinets containing various gruesome medical instruments from contraptions essential for restraining patients to tools used for amputations. As there was no source of anaesthetic at the time surgeons depended on using a swift technique and experts were able to remove a limb in under a minute. You can see the stick would be placed in a patient’s mouth to stop them biting their tongue and there’s even a pair of preserved lungs blackened by the Victorian smog.
Clink Prison Museum
Set on the once busy red light district of Bankside, the Clink Prison housed those condemned as heretics, drunkards, vagabonds and vagrants. The place dates back to 1144, and the Clink Museum covers over 600 morbid years of damp, death and decay, telling the story of crime and punishment throughout the ages.
Displays include horrific instruments of torture and restraining devices, used to cause pain and discomfort to unfortunate inmates. Visitors can inspect for themselves the deadly apparatus wielded by jailers upon ill-fated convicts whilst learning about famous residents of the Clink, before they met their end at the Tower of London.
The Royal London Hospital Museum
Set in the crypt of St Philip’s Church, with exhibits chronicling the lives of celebrated war-time nurse Edith Cavell and matron Eva Luckes, the Royal London Hospital Museum in Whitechapel is another intriguing endeavor. The hospital was a temporary residence for one of London’s most controversial “curiosities”: Joseph Merrick. Better known as the Elephant Man, Merrick resided at the hospital for a number of years during the 1800s.
Photo by the Royal London Hospital Museum
Four separate films in the museum document Merrick’s deformity and a number of items of clothing are he wore to disguise his unusual disfigurement are on display.
At the height of the infamous Whitechapel Jack the Ripper murders in 1888, hospital curator and surgeon Thomas Horrocks Openshaw helped Scotland Yard with investigations and the museum has acquired some of the original forensic material from the case.
The museum also features a selection of surgical instruments, medical and nursing equipment, uniforms and written archives of the history of healthcare in the East End – a fascinating way to discover another side of London’s dramatic history.
Explore more quirky corners of this city with the Rough Guide to London and the Rough Guide to Vintage London. Books hotels for your trip and don't forget to purchase travel insurance before you go. Featured image by © Matt Clayton.