140 years of the St John’s Ambulance
Each year, about 100,000 people in the UK are given first aid by St John Ambulance volunteers. We may hardly notice their presence at the events we attend, but let’s celebrate their unsung service now
It was one of those life-changing moments. Tessa Weaver was driving on the motorway when a Land Rover crashed and rolled over just in front of her. She’d pulled over and was hurrying towards the accident, carrying the first-aid kit she kept in the glove compartment, when she heard someone say, ‘Thank goodness, someone who knows what to do...’
‘I remember thinking,
“That’s good...” and then realising they meant me!’ says Tessa who’s 59, and from Surrey. ‘Fortunately, the driver was fine, but I realised I never wanted to be in that situation again, and volunteered to become a St John Ambulance
St John Ambulance became a voluntary organisation in 1887
Over 55 babies’ lives have been saved by people having watched The Chokeables ad, showing how to aid a choking baby. Go to sja.org.uk and search for ‘The Chokeables’.
Around 30,000 volunteers in the UK work for St John Ambulance, in roles including first aiders, nurses, doctors and paramedics.
Community First Responder.’
That was 10 years ago, and Tessa now commits around 15 hours a week when she’s ready to go out and give first aid at a moment’s notice. She also attends public events, from fetes and festivals to cycling contests and mini rugby tournaments.
Most commonly she deals with wasp stings and falls. But three years ago, matters became more dramatic.
‘I got a call from the ambulance service to say that a removal man had fallen while carrying a load upstairs. He was just two minutes from my house and I was asked to attend before the ambulance arrived. The man – Donnie, as I later found out – wasn’t breathing and was being given CPR by someone in the house. Time is crucial in events like these and can make the difference between surviving with a good quality of life or dying. I had a defibrillator with me, which delivered an electric shock to his heart and got it beating again before the ambulance arrived and took him to hospital, where he had a pacemaker fitted. Two days later, the woman who’d given him CPR and I visited Donnie in hospital. It felt fantastic to see him fully recovered and to know we’d been able to help.’
How it all began
In 1877, St John Ambulance (founded by the Order of St John) started training the public in first-aid techniques and provided equipped ambulances in the UK. Ten years later, it became a voluntary organisation offering free medical care. During that year, on 20 June, 50 volunteers carried out its first official public duty, attending Queen Victoria’s Golden Jubilee.
Fast forward 21 years to 1908, and they rolled out
for the London Olympics, beginning the tradition of being on duty for major sporting events. They’re always at Wimbledon – fitting, since the tennis tournament and the charity were both launched in the very same month, July, in 1877 – 71 years before the formation of the NHS in 1948.
Since then, St John Ambulance (SJA) volunteers have dealt with everything from bombs (they were out in force during both World Wars and more recently, in the aftermath of terror attacks) to Beatlemania, treating the group’s hysterical fans during the 60s.
It was long before that, around 1070, that the Order of St John (dedicated to St John the Baptist) was founded in Jerusalem, to care for pilgrims. It later moved to Malta, and its emblem, seen on the uniform of St John Ambulance volunteers, is an eight-pointed Maltese Cross embellished with lions and unicorns.
Today, the charity is active in over 40 countries with a mission ‘to prevent and relieve sickness and injury and to act to enhance the wellbeing of people anywhere in the world’.
A SJA nurse from 1909 and presentday Community First Responder Tessa
Volunteers during the First World War
During the Second World War, the SJA dealt with casualties above and (right) below ground