Brian Moseley, Plymouth
Webpage created: September 01, 2018
Webpage updated: December 24, 2018




Way back in 1048 there had been a religious nursing order named the Knights Hospitallers of Saint John of Jerusalem, who had been formed to look after pilgrims to the Holy Land.  Unfortunately they got a bit out of control, and soon turned into a military crusading force, capturing extensive possessions in Palestine and Europe.  They eventually lost the Holy Land and moved at first to Rhodes and in 1310 to the island of Malta.  But in Britain, the Order was suppressed by King Henry VIII when he dissolved the monasteries.

Four hundred years later, at the beginning of the 19th century, there was a move to revive the Order of Saint John in England, purely to care for the sick and for those injured during the pioneering years of the industrial revolution.   However, this needed the consent of the Pope and, as there were Anglicans as well as Catholics involved, he naturally refused.

The English are not so easily deterred, however, and so they set up their own, British Order of Saint John.  In those days, a worker injured during, say, constructing a railway, would have more than likely died from his injuries as there was little time or facility to get him to a doctor or hospital.  Doctors were called out, usually, so a lot of time was lost getting to the Doctor's residence, and for him to get to the scene of the accident.  If he was not at home, well, that was it.  At best, they were left disabled, unable to work and support their family.

Members of the British Order of Saint John wanted to do something about this situation.  The first idea was to train people to provide what they called First Aid.  On July 10th 1877 they set up the Saint John Ambulance Association to provide this training and it became extremely popular.  In June 1887 this was taken a stage further by organising the volunteers into a uniformed Saint John Ambulance Brigade to provide First Aid and an ambulance service at public events.  The famous black and white uniform thus came into being.

The first Saint John Ambulance Association formed in the South West of England was at Plymouth.  On Wednesday April 26th 1893 the Western Morning news reported: 'During the last four winters successful classes for the study of first aid to the injured have been conducted in connection  with the YMCA by Doctor W Buchan.  Each of these classes have been under the auspices of the Saint John Ambulance Association, and now, as a further development, a Saint John Ambulance Brigade has been formed in connection with the parent society.  Doctor Buchan willingly consented to act as honorary surgeon, and Mr F  E Jewers has been elected secretary.  Only those are eligible  for membership who hold the Saint John Ambulance certificate or medal.  Drills, etc., will be held at short intervals, and the secretary will be glad to have the names of any gentlemen who may be desirous of joining.  This should prove a very useful organisation, especially in the centre of a large town, as the necessary apparatus for such work will be kept at the YMCA, and more often than not, men also will be on the premises capable of rendering first aid to the injured.  This is the only Saint John Ambulance Brigade in the south-west of England, and all will cordially wish it success'.

An undated photograph of the entire fleet of the
 Plymouth Saint John Ambulance Association in Guildhall Square.
The caption suggests that the Crossley ambulance is missing.
From a postcard.

Not long afterwards, in 1896, the Great Western Railway Company's Association was formed at Plymouth Station (Millbay) and a Plymouth Co-operative Society Association also came in to being.

These units were all combined with the Plymouth and District Ambulance Service in April 1921 to form the Devon County Saint John Ambulance Brigade, with its headquarters in Plymouth.  Mr Hugh Hedley Vicars Miller was appointed Assistant Commissioner for the County, with Lieutenant-Colonel J P S Ward RAMC (Territorial Force) as County Surgeon.  Mr Thomas Hitchcock was appointed Superintendent of the Plymouth Corps, with Captain Harold Fitz Vellacott MC as Corps' Surgeon.  Messrs Bertie H L Fourte, Frederick Marden and William F Pethick were made Corps' Officers, and Mr George A Pike the Corps Sergeant-Major.  Superintendent of the Ladies Corps was Mrs Josephine Vellacott, with Mrs Jessie Minnie Abbot, Miss Minnie Josephine Dumble, and Mrs Frances Mary Underhay as Lady Ambulance Officers.

'Plymouth is now the  head-quarters of the county of Devon', reported the Western Morning News, 'and large white rectangular sign, containing the scroll device of the Order of Saint John of Jerusalem in England, surmounts the premises in Notte-street.  Three large sliding doors form the main entrance to the ambulance garage, which is fitted with extensive repair appliances, cupboards for emergency stretchers, etc.  At the top of the first flight of stairs there is a casualty-room in white enamel, lighted by a large skylight.  Special water-heating apparatus is fitted over one of the troughs, and there is a set of cupboards built in the walls in memory of the first store officer, Mr Walter W Miller.  The casualty-room table was presented by Plymouth Police Force.  Adjoining is an open-air compartment for cases of emergency.  Close handy, on another floor, are the headquarters of the Plymouth Corps.  Next is the general duty-room and control station.  This duty-room is fitted with six beds, four of which are always occupied by night.

'The control station is considered the finest in the country.  It contains a fire alarm system, fitted and maintained by the borough of Plymouth, which provides an automatic call with the fire brigade.  There are also an inter-communication telephone set, alarm bell system, and private 10-line telephone exchange; two lines to the National Exchange, and private lines to the central police station, nursing station, ambulance sub-stations, and directors' room.  p floor are the Devon County Saint John Ambulance Brigade head-quarters, committee-room and district centre office.  The committee-room is nicely fitted up, a life-size photo of the first president of George-street Ambulance Brigade (the Reverend Charles Joseph) gracing the wall.  An officers' room  is also on this floor, and it is here that the shipping, invalid transport, accidents, and public duty are controlled'.

The new Ambulance Station was officially opened by the Mayor of Plymouth, Alderman J F Winnicott, on Wednesday December 21st 1921.  The Service, which was now entirely run by the Saint John Ambulance Brigade, could be reached by telephone in 1932: Plymouth 250 and 251 or 2821 extension 253, day and night.  The site of the Station had been acquired from Mr J R Randall and the contractors, electrical engineers, plumbers and decorators had all worked 'without profit or administrative charges'.

Plymouth Corporation agreed to maintain the Saint John Ambulance as from April 1st 1923 provided that the cost did not exceed forty shillings (2) per week.

A special concert was held at the Gaumont Palace Cinema on the evening of Sunday April 22nd 1934 in aid of the East Stonehouse Saint John Ambulance Association Station Building Fund.  This particular unit had 28 members and in addition to providing facilities in East Stonehouse also ran a first aid hut at Whitsands.  During the summer of 1933 the hut had dealt with 50 cases while during the whole of 1933 the Stonehouse Station had been involved in the removal of 350 cases of sickness and had attended 240 accidents.

By the 1930s the City, as it by then become, was outgrowing the ambulance facilities and a search was started for more suitable premises.  After dismissing the old stables at Pounds House, Central Park, thanks to the close co-operation that had been established between Hedley Miller and the police, the Council donated a site close to the hospitals and police headquarters.

Thus, on May 1st 1935 'The J H Beckly Memorial Ambulance Station' was opened on Greenbank Hill, despite the fact that they were some 4,000 short of their financial target.  This was, after all, a private enterprise.  It has to be said, though, that they probably would have delayed the opening if it had not been for the imminent celebrations for HM King George's Silver Jubilee on May 6th that year.

When World War Two started in 1939 they had the foresight to purchase an old single-deck bus that had been used by the local gas company as a mobile showroom.  This was converted so that it could carry either 12 stretcher cases or 31 sitting patients.  This larger than usual ambulance proved its worth on several occasions, on one carrying large numbers of wounded merchant seamen, on another bringing survivors from a torpedoed vessel that went aground at Hope Cove into Plymouth.  It was also used after the evacuation from Dunkirk, on a dark and snowy night, to go up to the Southern Railway station at Tavistock to collect wounded American soldiers off a hospital train and ferry them to a temporary hospital on Plaister Down.

Things changed after the war finished.  In 1948 the National Health Service was formed and the local authority were now obliged to take control of the ambulance service.  As the City grew northwards, with new housing estates at Ernesettle, Whitleigh and Southway, so it became necessary for a new ambulance station to be built in Crownhill Road.

Two Austin ambulances were sold in October 1949:  DR 9736 went to Plymouth Motors Ltd and DR 9738 went to Mr C H Rowe, also of Plymouth.   The former was probably used by the Devon and Cornwall Private Ambulance Service, which was owned by Mr W J Speare and operated from the Plymouth Motor Company's premises at 14a Athenaeum Street.

Prior to 1951 the crews had to return to their station or find a telephone box to ring headquarters before going to the next call but in that year they were fitted with radio-telephones.

A further two Austin ambulances were sold during 1951.   BCO 34 went to Lammas Motors of London in April and CDR 406 was sold by tender to a Mr Luckhurst of Devonport in June 1951.

Mr W E Beckly, the nephew of Mr J H Beckly, opened a new ambulance station at Crownhill on Friday July 30th 1954.  It replaced the Stonehouse sub-station.  The architects were Messrs Walls and Pearn and the contractors were Messrs J W Spencer Ltd.  It was partly funded by a 7,500 war damage compensation payment in respect of the original privately owned ambulance station in Notte Street.

Built on two storeys, the control room, kitchen, dining room, locker room and drying room were on the ground floor with lecture rooms and rest rooms above.  The station was to be manned by paid personnel during the day but by Saint John Ambulance Brigade volunteers at night and at weekends, for whom the rest rooms were provided.  Adjoining the building was a garage for the six ambulances and a workshop for servicing and repairs.  Beneath the yard was a 1,000 gallon petrol tank.  Thoughtfully, each ambulance had its own heater mounted on the wall in front of it to assist in starting the engine in cold weather.

Among those present at the official opening were the Deputy Lord Mayor of Plymouth, Mr J Folley; the Reverend J C Houghton, who dedicated the building; Miss Christine Short and Miss Dorothy Cornish, daughters of ambulance personnel, who presented bouquets to Mrs Folley and Mrs Beckly; Mr T R Adams, general foreman; Mr S Martin, plasterer; Mr S Strong, carpenter; Doctor T Pierson, the Medical Officer of Health; Mr R Sampson, the ambulance officer; Mr C H P Pearn, from the architects; and Mr S Grinter, representing the contractors.

The station opened for business at 5pm and received its first call at 7.10pm to take a woman to hospital.

Under Local Government reorganisation of 1974, when Plymouth lost its administrative status, its fleet was merged into a new Devon County Ambulance Service, run from Exeter.

The old Station in Greenbank was demolished in February 2004 but the one at Crownhill is still standing and used by the British Red Cross Society.