7 unusual historical sites in Britain and Ireland
From Victorian operating theatres to museums filled with curiosities, Britain and Ireland boast a wealth of weird and wonderful historical sites. Here we bring you seven of our favourites…
The Hunterian Museum, London
Winston Churchill’s dentures and the 7ft 7in skeleton of an ‘Irish giant’ are among the thousands of bizarre anatomical, zoological and pathological artefacts found in London’s Hunterian Museum. Filled with unsettling curiosities, biological oddities and slimy specimens in jars, this is not a museum for the faint-hearted.
At the heart of the museum is the extraordinary collection of 18th-century surgeon and anatomist John Hunter (1728–93). Boasting 15,000 human and animal specimens, Hunter's original collection was bought by the government in 1799. It was later donated to the Company (later Royal College) of surgeons, who soon found themselves in want of space for the multitude of artefacts.
During his lifetime, Hunter used his remarkable collection for teaching. As fellow of the Royal Society, he stressed the relationship between human and animal anatomy and undertook a range of bold and bizarre experiments, such as inexplicably transplanting a human tooth into a cockerel’s comb (the strange result of which can still be seen in the museum today). It is believed that he also dabbled in self-experimentation, reportedly injecting himself knowingly with both syphilis and gonorrhoea.
In 1941, during the Second World War, around 6,000 of Hunter’s unique specimens were destroyed when the museum was hit by a bomb blast. Onlookers were reportedly confused to see bizarre pickled body parts salvaged from the scene on stretchers.
Around 3,500 specimens from Hunter’s original collection are still in the museum today, alongside around 2,500 more recent specimens and historic surgical instruments. Highlights (if you can call them that) include kangaroos brought back from James Cook’s very first voyage to Australia in 1768; early carbolic sprays created by surgical antiseptics pioneer Joseph Lister; and a mummy's foot. Visitors should also look out for a prosthetic nose attached to a pair of wire-framed glasses, used by a Victorian syphilis sufferer whose own nose had been eaten away by the disease.
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The Dunmore Pineapple, Stirlingshire
In the middle of the Scottish countryside lies a delightfully eccentric slice of exoticism – an elegant 18th-century hothouse topped by a giant stone pineapple. Built in 1761 for John Murray, 4th Earl of Dunmore (c1730–1809), the ‘Dunmore Pineapple’ is undoubtedly one of the National Trust for Scotland’s most unusual sites.
Located in the secluded grounds of Murray’s Dunmore Park estate, the folly was originally built as a much less whimsical single-story structure. Attached to a walled garden, the building contained a hothouse with a furnace-driven heating system and extensive glasshouses. An extraordinary array of exotic fruit and vegetables were grown there, including highly prized pineapples, which were cultivated in specially designed ‘pineapple pits’. In the 18th century, elaborate hothouses such as this one, required to cultivate pineapples in Europe, were a sign of wealth and extravagance. Pineapples therefore became a highly desirable status symbol and growing them was a popular and competitive aristocratic hobby.
However, the Earl of Dunmore took his love of pineapples further than most. Some time after 1777 he had an ostentatious 14-metre stone pineapple built atop his existing hothouse. It was traditional at the time for sailors returning from the colonies to place a pineapple on their gatepost to mark their return. According to legend, when Murray was forced to return to Britain after serving as governor of Virginia (due to the outbreak of the American War of Independence) in 1776, he decided to mark this tradition in spectacular style.
While the architect of the Pineapple is unknown, it is widely speculated to be William Chambers, who created similarly quirky decorative structures at Kew Gardens. The Pineapple has now been converted into one of Scotland's most curious holiday rentals.
John Murray’s delightfully eccentric ‘Dunmore Pineapple’. (Dreamstime)
Bell Rock Lighthouse, off the coast of Angus
Eleven miles off Scotland’s east coast, perched atop a jagged rock in the North Sea, stands Bell Rock Lighthouse. At more than 200 years old, Bell Rock is the world’s oldest surviving sea-washed lighthouse. Despite being battered over the course of two centuries by unrelenting wind, rain and sea, its original stonework has not been adapted or replaced.
The lighthouse stands on a legendarily troublesome stretch of coast, renowned for claiming many sailors’ lives over the centuries. By the end of the 18th century, the razor-sharp Bell Rock had seen up to six shipwrecks each year. Galvanised by this tragic loss of life, Scottish engineer Robert Stevenson (1772–1850) became obsessed by the idea of building a lighthouse on the rock. However, his ambitious construction plans were dismissed by the Northern Lighthouse Board as too expensive, and, furthermore, impossible.
Yet in 1804, a disastrous event changed attitudes towards Stevenson’s project. The HMS York struck Bell Rock, killing all 491 sailors on board. With the backing of well-respected engineer John Rennie, Stevenson’s pioneering plans were finally approved.
The construction of the lighthouse was a tough battle against the North Sea’s unforgiving elements. The foundation of the tower was submerged by more than 3.7m of sea-water at high tide, meaning that Stevenson’s building team were regularly restricted to working just two hours a day. After four gruelling and laborious years, Bell Rock Lighthouse was first illuminated in 1811. It stood at more than 35 metres to resist the battering waves, and incorporated the latest technology in the brightest lighthouse beacon ever seen.
Stevenson’s relentless determination paid off, as the amount of shipwrecks on Bell Rock dropped dramatically. What's more, his design proved enduring: over the past two centuries the lighthouse has survived two fires, enemy machine-gun fire during the Second World War and even a helicopter crash.
Bell Rock, the world’s oldest surviving sea-washed lighthouse. (Central Press/Getty Images)
Old Operating Theatre and Herb Garret, London
Concealed in the roof space of an old baroque church in Southwark lies an unexpectedly macabre site – a 19th-century surgical operating theatre. A church attic may seem a bizarre choice of location for such a grisly purpose, but St Thomas’ Church once stood at the centre of St Thomas’ Hospital, surrounded by the female wards of the hospital’s south wing. Its attic was in fact well suited to the job: a skylight flooded the chamber with natural light, while the distance from the wards soundproofed other patients from the screams.
Built in 1822, the operating theatre is the oldest surviving in Europe. In order to learn their trade, crowds of medical students and apprentice apothecaries would cram into the attic to watch live operations. It was sure to be a gruesome spectacle, as the theatre was in use before the invention of antiseptics, or even anaesthetics. This rendered internal operations far too dangerous, therefore the majority of procedures carried out in the attic were amputations or minor surgeries on patients dosed up on opiates.
When St Thomas' Hospital moved site in 1862, the old operating theatre became redundant. Its entrances were concealed, accessible only by a ladder. Its location was lost and not rediscovered until 1956, after which a major restoration project got underway.
Restoration work revealed the church attic had also been used for another purpose. Poppies, which were used to prepare medicinal opium, were found in the rafters, revealing that the roof space was also used as a ‘herb garret’. The attic was large, dry and inaccessible to rats, making it the perfect location for St Thomas’ apothecary to prepare and store medicinal herbs and ingredients.
The restored operating theatre and herb garret is today a museum of medical history, which displays historic surgical instruments and hosts live re-enactments of pre-anaesthetic surgery.
Hidden in a church roof in Southwark: the Old Operating Theatre. (Dreamstime)
Kilmainham Gaol, Dublin
A grim yet iconic reminder of Dublin’s chequered past, Kilmainham Gaol has been the site of thousands of incarcerations and countless executions since it opened in the 18th century.
Surrounded by an impenetrable wall more than 30 ft high, the gaol was built in 1796 on the site of the town’s gallows (which were used for public executions up until the late 19th century). First known as ‘the new prison’, it was designed to replace Dublin’s chaotic old gaol, where conditions were dire. Five writhing stone serpents sit atop the ominous entrance, said to represent the five worst crimes: murder, rape, theft, treason and piracy.
Life at Kilmainham was inescapably grim. During Victorian times, overcrowding led to cramped cells, rife disease and poor food rations. Men, women and children were all held together – the youngest prisoner is said to have been just seven years old. The majority of the gaol’s inhabitants were ordinary criminals from the poverty-stricken streets of Dublin and up until the 1850s a total of more than 4,000 prisoners were held there while awaiting transportation to an unknown fate in Australia.
The prison is widely associated with the multitude of political prisoners who were held there, and is viewed as a symbol of the struggle for Irish independence. Nationalist leaders of various Irish rebellions across the 18th and 19th centuries, as well as the key players of the 1916 Easter Rising, were held at Kilmainham, including Henry Joy McCracken, Robert Emmet, Anne Devlin, Charles Stewart Parnell and Patrick Pearse.
By the 1920s, after centuries of use, the prison had become dank and dilapidated. It was closed in 1924 and allowed to fall into disrepair. Yet several decades later a team of volunteers, including former inmates, launched a remarkable campaign to restore and repair the building, which you can today visit as a museum. The distinctive site has also been used as a location in several films including In the Name of the Father (1993) and The Italian Job (1969).
Kilmainham Gaol’s distinctive central staircase, as seen in The Italian Job. (Dreamstime)
Rushton Triangular Lodge, Northamptonshire
Built between 1593 and 1597 by Sir Thomas Tresham, this beautiful but bizarre triangular folly was designed as a defiant, yet covert, statement of unorthodox religious belief.
Tresham (1543–1605) was a fervent Roman Catholic – a highly dangerous religion to pursue in Elizabethan England. Yet despite Queen Elizabeth I’s brutal persecution of Catholics, Tresham’s faith remained unshaken. His resolute dedication to his religion saw him fined heavily and imprisoned several times. During his incarceration, Tresham began planning a spectacular project to secretly honour his Catholic beliefs. Following his release he set about turning these plans into a reality, constructing a unique triangular monument on his family estate in Northamptonshire.
Incorporating elements of symbolism into buildings was popular in architectural designs of the time, but Tresham instead used religious symbolism as the very basis of his project. His folly’s triangular design is representative of the Holy Trinity, and the number three reoccurs throughout the building. It is an equilateral triangle with three floors. Each wall is 33 feet long, bearing three windows and three gargoyles.
Dates, inscriptions and seemingly random numbers adorn the stonework, including a biblical inscription that reads “Tres Testimonium Dant”, or “there are three that give witness”. This quote has also been viewed as a personal reference to Tresham himself, whose wife’s letters referred to him by the nickname ‘Tres’.
Fortunately for Tresham, the remarkable lodge escaped the attention of Protestant authorities, perhaps because it was hidden away in the private countryside of Tresham’s family estate, or possibly because its Catholic symbolism wasn’t recognised. It is today maintained by English Heritage.
The covertly symbolic Rushton Triangular Lodge. (Dreamstime)
Southwell Workhouse, Nottinghamshire
Intended as a last resort for the poor and desperate in Victorian Nottinghamshire, Southwell Workhouse was an austere and unwelcoming institution. With architecture inspired by prison designs, the imposing redbrick building makes for a forbidding sight.
Built in 1824 and intended to accommodate around 160 of the local destitute, the pioneering workhouse at Southwell was seen by 19th-century administrators as a model example of poor relief in action. The institution was taken as a prototype for a wave of workhouses established under the 1834 Poor Law Amendment Act. This ‘New Poor Law’ restricted state provision of poor relief, meaning the only way the needy could receive help was to enter an institution.
Life inside the workhouse was deliberately unappealing, intended to discourage the ‘undeserving poor’ from relying on state charity rather than supporting themselves. Those on the poverty line spoke of the ‘threat of the workhouse’, while writers such as Charles Dickens (most notably in Oliver Twist) characterised the institutions as harsh, dehumanising places.
In return for uniforms, food and a place to sleep, all inmates able to work were expected to earn their keep and were unable to leave unless formally discharged. They were strictly segregated along the lines of gender and age, meaning that families were split up and forbidden from contacting one another. While the old or infirm poor were considered guiltless and deserving of state charity, those deemed fit to work were branded idle and profligate scroungers. They were subjected to a harsh and monotonous regime of manual labour and moral correction, with little respite or leisure time.
Southwell is the most complete example of a 19th-century workhouse surviving in England, and is now run as a museum by the National Trust.
The imposing Southwell Workhouse. (The National Trust Photolibrary /Alamy Stock Photo)