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A Family Affair: Queen Victoria’s family and the Order of St John

Museum of the Order of St John Rachel Job, Museum Assistant

In 2019 the Museum is exploring the Order of St John’s unique connections to royalty throughout its 900-year history. 

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© National Portrait Gallery, London

Queen Victoria’s important role in the revival of the Order of St John in England and the establishment of St John Ambulance is well-remembered. However, her children, particularly her eldest son, the Prince of Wales, later King Edward VII, also played important roles, and are perhaps more often overlooked.

Indeed, besides St John Ambulance, another of the Order’s charitable outputs is the St John Eye Hospital in Jerusalem which opened in 1882 and still exists today. It was at the request of the Prince of Wales that the Sultan of the Ottoman Empire granted to the Order the land on which the hospital was built.

As for the advancement of St John Ambulance back in Britain, it was Queen Victoria’s third-born son, the Duke of Connaught, who, at a meeting summoned at the Guildhall by the Lord Mayor of London in 1885, appealed for the nascent ambulance movement to be extended.

It was the Prince of Wales who petitioned his mother to grant the Order a Charter of Incorporation, thereby making it a Royal Order of Chivalry. The petition was signed by his wife, Queen Alexandra, and by the youngest five of his eight siblings: Princess Christian, Princess Louise, the Duke of Connaught, the Duke of Albany and Princess Beatrice. In response, on 14th May 1888, Queen Victoria did indeed grant the first Charter of Incorporation to the Order of St John. In doing so she appointed herself as the Sovereign Head and Patron, and the Prince of Wales as Grand Prior. The Prince of Wales then also became President of the St John Ambulance Association.

Many of Victoria’s children became involved by becoming patrons and presidents of St John Ambulance Association centres. Perhaps most notably, the Duke of Edinburgh became President of the Ashford centre in Kent, arguably one of the homes of St John Ambulance as it was here that one of its founders, Sir John Furley, was born.

In the early days of the Ambulance Movement, members of St John Ambulance had to contend with the contempt and ridicule of the general public, who nicknamed them “Body Snatchers”. It took time for the ambulance men and women to convince the public of the sincerity of their motives. On 24th June 1893, the Prince of Wales got behind them, announcing to the press: “Gentlemen, this is a good uniform. I believe that much good will come of it.” In 1897, he even showed his commitment by dressing up as Renaissance Hospitaller Knight at a fancy dress ball.

Princess Christian, Queen Victoria’s fifth-born child, translated Dr Esmarch’s trusted Lectures in First Aid from German to English and the translation was adopted as a subsidiary manual to the official text-book of the St John Ambulance Association. St John Ambulance had emerged out of a need to provide medical help to those who worked in dangerous industries, such as in mining and on the railways, and it was also Princess Christian who presented the Shields and Other Awards at the first Inter-Railway Competition which took place on 6th May 1897. Inter-railway competitions took part between different railway divisions and centres to encourage members to strive for excellence in their first aid skills. Competitions also took place between other groups within St John Ambulance.

In June 1899, the Prince of Wales, as Grand Prior, approved the design of the Service Medal of Order of St John. The bust of Queen Victoria which appears on the medal was a reproduction of one executed by Princess Louise, Duchess of Argyll, Queen Victoria’s sixth-born child. On 6th January 1900 the Prince of Wales presented the first Service Medals and these medals are still awarded today with the same design.

Just a year after the first presentation of service medals, Queen Victoria died on 22nd January 1901 and so her eldest son, the Prince of Wales, became King Edward VII and his brother, the Duke of Connaught, took over the role of Grand Prior of the Order. In 1909 King Edward VII honoured the St John Ambulance Brigade by renaming No. 1 (London) District Brigade as the Prince of Wales’s Corps.

Sources:

Cole-Mackintosh, R. 1986. A Century of Service to Mankind.

Fletcher, N. C. 1929. The St. John Ambulance Association: Its History, and its part in the Ambulance Movement.

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