St John Ambulance Volunteers Have Helped at Countless Post-war Disasters Right up to the Paddington Rail Crash

by Philip Johnston

 BRITAIN’S leading first aid charity, which can trace its antecedents to a medieval bloodbath, commemorates 900 years today of ministering to the sick and injured.

   A service at St Paul’s Cathedral marks the Nona centenary of St John Ambulance, which has 57,000 members in Britain and more than 200,000 worldwide.

   Their familiar black and white uniforms with distinctive badge will again be much in evidence at football matches and other public functions today.

   But the events that accompanied the foundation of the chivalric Order of St John would have taxed the skills of the most accomplished first-aider. On July 15, 1099, Jerusalem fell to the First Crusade after a five-week siege and the victors spent the next three days butchering the city’s entire Muslim and Jewish population.

   However, Godfrey of Bouillon, leader of the Crusade, made some amends by giving land and money to the Hospital of St John of Jerusalem, enabling it to extend work that was to continue nine centuries later.

   The hospital began life in 1048 as a hospice founded by Constantino di Mauro, a merchant from Amalfi. Built to the north of the Holy Sepulchre, it offered care for weary pilgrims, the sick and injured, together with a chapel to St John the Almsgiver.

   It adopted the eight-pointed White Cross of Amalfi and knights of the Crusade took St John as their patron, forming an order of chivalry and taking the vows of poverty, chastity and obedience. They also promised to nurse the sick and injured and set up a string of hospices along the pilgrim route to Jerusalem.

   The Nursing Statutes of 1177 stated that "each bed should be covered with its own coverlet and each bed shall have its own special sheets, each of the sick should have a cloak of sheepskin and boots for going to and from the latrines, and caps of wool".

   As the fortunes of Muslim armies revived, however, the Knights of St John were forced to abandon Jerusalem and move their headquarters first to Acre and then to Cyprus, Rhodes and, finally, to Malta -lending their cross to the island which now claims it as its own.

   Over the centuries, the order accumulated vast wealth, which it used to set up priories and hospices throughout England, with headquarters at Clerkenwell in the City of London.

   But the Order fell into abeyance when it lost much of its land and other assets during the dissolution of the monasteries in the reign of Henry VIII. In the 19th century, however, Victorian interest in chivalric orders saw a revival of the Order of St John and, once again, it focused on tending to the sick and injured.

   The Industrial Revolution had led to a huge growth in workplace accidents, with thousands killed each year in the coalmines, textile factories or the potteries.

   In 1877, the Order created the St John Ambulance Association to teach the principles of first aid to workers. It soon began printing its own textbooks and supplying first aid equipment.

   Ten years later the St John Ambulance Brigade was formed to provide first aid at events where the public gathered and to act as a volunteer medical reserve in time of war.

   The black and white uniform and cross – supported by the royal insignia of lion and unicorn – quickly became a familiar sight and soon expanded into a global structure. In the First World War, St John ran field hospitals in France and nursed the sick and wounded at home. In the Second World War, volunteers manned first aid posts on the home front and cared for city dwellers during the Blitz.

   Today, St John Ambulance has volunteers in 40 countries and in some, such as Papua New Guinea, operates the principal ambulance service. Members in Britain give four million hours a year of their own time to provide first aid and nursing cover at a variety of public and private events.

   This year’s Nona centenary has been marked by a number of events and the start of a three-year fund-raising drive.

   Earlier this week, the Queen paid tribute to St John Ambulance volunteers when she visited the Order’s headquarters in London to unveil a plaque and watch a first aid demonstration. The appeal aims to raise pounds 20 million to boost first aid knowledge among schoolchildren by training teachers to pass on the skills.

   Nic Suggit, head of training at St John Ambulance, said: "This project is all about our charitable mission to train as many people as possible in first aid."

   He added: "We think it is vital that young people leave school with basic first-aid training. In the schools where our training package is already used, we have witnessed young people putting their first-aid skills to the test many times in real-life situations."

   The new funds will also be used to install thousands of portable "heart start" defibrillators in all ambulances, supermarkets, offices and railway stations to treat heart attack victims. A third strand of the appeal will replace ageing ambulances with a new, multi-purpose fleet of vehicles known as Crusader 900s. Each costs pounds 40,000 and is designed to do the work of a mobile first aid unit and an accident and emergency vehicle, as well as providing community transport.

   St John also needs to keep up its recruitment. While there is always a need and demand for first aid skills, the organisation needs volunteer drivers, administrators and even cooks to operate effectively.

   Without volunteers, events that rely on the presence of the St John Ambulance could be threatened. Brigade members have been on hand for some of the worst post-war disasters, including Hillsborough and, most recently, Paddington.

   Then again, they are available to tend to a bee sting at the village fete, a far cry from the blood-drenched ramparts of Jerusalem 900 years ago.