The local Branch of the St John Ambulance Brigade is this year celebrating one hundred years of voluntary service to the people of the district of High Wycombe.

In a short series of articles in the Nostalgia column over the next few weeks, we will be tracing the history of St John Ambulance in the district.

Their volunteers have been a familiar sight at all sorts of different functions and activities since 1919; always present, but unobtrusive until someone is taken ill or there is an accident.

Members of the Brigade really are the unsung heroes of the modern world.

Nationally St John Ambulance is a modern charity but its vital work is underpinned by a long and diverse heritage which goes all the way back to 11th century Jerusalem.

It was there that the first Knights of St John set up a hospital to care for sick pilgrims. 

The eight-pointed cross on the uniforms of today’s volunteers is the symbol worn by those knights who provided free medical care in that first hospital in Jerusalem.

The St John Ambulance Association (SJAA) was founded in 1877 as a voluntary organisation to provide free training in first aid in the workplace, so that workers could treat casualties on the spot.

This initiative was in response to the alarming increase in injuries to those working in industry, particularly the factories, railways and coal mines.

For example in 1885 the number of accidents reported were over 8,500. At least a thousand people were killed in railway accidents and the number injured would have exceeded that figure.

The SJAA was so successful that by 1887 over 1,000 people had been trained, especially in areas of greatest need, such as the industrial north.

Buoyed by this the St John Ambulance Brigade was formed in 1887, also as a voluntary organisation.

Their mission was to provide fully trained and uniformed men and women at public events.

Queen Victoria’s Jubilee in 1887 saw the Brigade in action in public for the first time. In the late 1890s over 2000 St John Ambulance volunteers offered medical assistance to wounded soldiers during the Boer Wars.

In 1908 St John Ambulance volunteers performed their first duty for a major sporting event at the 1908 London Olympics, marking the beginning of a long-standing relationship between the charity and the sporting world.

The outbreak of the First World War in 1914 saw St John Ambulance join forces with the Red Cross to form the Joint War Committee, providing medical care for war casualties in hospitals in England and overseas.

The St John Ambulance Cadets were formed in the 1920’s for girls and boys aged 11 to 18, offering first aid training to those who were too young to join an adult division.

During the Second World War, the Joint War Committee once again came together, to provide voluntary first aid to the injured.

In 1948, the formation of the NHS altered the role of St John Ambulance who then began to support local ambulance trusts in times of need.

St John Ambulance, the British Red Cross Society and St. Andrew’s Ambulance Association (the Scottish equivalent) together published a First Aid Manual in 1958. Now in its tenth edition, the guide gives step by step instructions on how to treat over one hundred medical conditions and injuries.

Beatlemania created a new type of casualty for St John Ambulance, as volunteers treated their first cases of hysteria in young women across the country. They have attended major pop events and festivals ever since.

In 1974, the Brigade and the Association were merged to form the present St John Foundation.

In the 1980s the government introduced new first aid regulations for the workplace and St John Ambulance has offered first aid at work training since then.

The assistance provided by Brigade volunteers has continued to grow in recent decades, in response to demonstrations and acts of terrorism.

For example 2005 saw St John Ambulance support the London Ambulance Service during the 7/7 bombings on London’s transport system, providing emergency transport and first aid where it was most needed.

St John Ambulance in High Wycombe

The earliest Branch of the St John Ambulance Association (SJAA) in the district seems to have been formed in Marlow in November 1881, with others following in Wooburn and the Chalfonts.

In High Wycombe the formation of a Branch was first mooted at the AGM of the Volunteer Fire Brigade on November 30, 1882.

It was reported that “the subject of forming a class in connection with the SJAA” was under discussion. It was suggested that “it would be desirable to get the Mayor to become President, and Mr Turner [a prominent local doctor who had been instrumental in the formation of the Cottage Hospital] the Lecturer.”

It had certainly been formed by January 1886 when it was reported that “By the exertions of Mr Pattison, Hon. Sec. of the High Wycombe Tricycle Club, a class of the St John Ambulance Association is about to be formed, a very successful class having been conducted with the local Fire Brigade, and the knowledge gained has, we believe, been found to be extremely useful”.

The High Wycombe Borough police force were also early beneficiaries of the SJAA with a course of six lectures being announced in May 1891, “the class being started mainly for the purpose of giving instruction to the police in first aid to the injured, but several of the young men employed in business houses in the town have also joined”. The lecturer was Dr Ruckley and the classes were held at the “Central Board Schools, Cemetery Hill” [which became known as Priory Road school, and is now Hamilton school]. The Hon. Sec. was Mr W.T.Pycraft who “will be glad to hear of any gentlemen willing to join”.

The following year, in April 1892, the SJAA also delivered a course of lectures to the High Wycombe Company of the Bucks Rifle Corps, as a result of which “six sergeants and twelve men were presented with certificates”. In October of that year three local members of the SJAA, Howell, Gale and Keen were on the Rye and able to give assistance to a footballer, William Lee, who had broken both bones in his right leg in a collision with Charles Jennings.

In June 1899 it was reported that of the Chepping Wycombe police force of fourteen, nine held certificates from the SJAA. Interestingly the report also contains the statistic that there was “one constable to 49 acres, and to 960 of the population”.

On Friday October 8, 1903 at the Guildhall, High Wycombe, a ceremony was held to “present certificates and medallions to members of the Borough and County Police Forces and the High Wycombe Fire Brigade in examinations in first aid in connection with the SJAA”. Some officers received their first certificate, others their second, and those who had already qualified for these, received a medallion, presumably having moved to the third level of certification. (These Officers were named, so if any readers suspect their ancestor may be one of them, they are welcomed to contact me).

In 1913 it was reported that “Among the ladies who have passed in the first aid examination of the St John Ambulance Association at High Wycombe is the Marchioness of Lincolnshire” (otherwise Lady Carrington). The same year an Association was established in West Wycombe, with a course of lectures on “First Aid to the Injured” being held in the Church Loft.

In February 1914 a series of lectures in “First Aid for Men” was organised under the auspices of the Association.

These began on Wednesday February 5 at the Technical Schools in Frogmoor, from 7.30 to 9.30 pm. The lecturer was Dr Bannerman, the Borough Medical Officer of Health, and the fee for the course was 2s.6d.

To be continued, when we will next consider the formation of a Branch of the St John Ambulance Brigade in High Wycombe, and its early years.

Top: Members of the Borough Police and Volunteer Fire Brigade in February 1910 when they played a football match in aid of charity.