Doing Your Duty: St John Ambulance at Royal Ceremonies and Celebrations

Museum of the Order of St John Isobel MacAuslan, Museum Assistant

From weddings to funerals, coronations to jubilees, St John Ambulance has been on hand to assist at events relating to the British Monarchy for over 130 years. Public occasions encourage large crowds of people to gather to pay their respects and experience a historic moment. When you get a large crowd of people together, there is great potential for accidents to happen! It is rather useful to have a first aid service nearby. St John’s first royal engagement was the Golden Jubilee of Queen Victoria in 1887. At the time, the service was referred to as the “Invalid Transport Corps” and only 50 men participated. Since then, the service has continued to play an important role at Royal events.

A great deal of planning and coordination goes into making sure that the first aid provision at these events is executed perfectly. Kit needs to be prepared and volunteers need briefing. For the wedding of HRH Prince Charles and Lady Diana Spencer in July 1981, 10,000 copies of a 27 page “Order of the Day” were issued to the volunteers with updates and alterations being issued on a daily basis. It was vital that the wedding was meticulously planned as it was only one event in a very busy schedule of public duties for St John Ambulance in London that summer. Events such as Trooping the Colour, Wimbledon, Chelsea and a Children’s Party on Oxford Street all required kit, vehicles and volunteers in the same few months. Rehearsals took place for the Royal Wedding, the same day as the Children’s Party, 26th July, requiring many vehicles to be out on duty that day.

When a member of the royal family dies, the timeframe between the announcement and funeral is short. Although details of Royal funerals may be pre-planned, the circumstances of the occasion can rarely be anticipated. Indeed, St John must be ready to provide cover under difficult and shocking circumstances. Upon the sudden death of King George VI in 1953, the King’s coffin travelled down to London to lie in state over a weekend.  Their extensive training meant the volunteers were able to spring to action and carry out their duties capably at extremely short notice However, there were logistical issues that made the duty harder. The normal telephone facilities that the St John Ambulance Brigade used to coordinate efforts on the ground were not set up for them given the last-minute nature of the duty, and Cadets were drafted in to help man the switch boards. In reports, it is noted that what would have been an easy duty, was made more complicated by the circumstances. Forty-four years later, upon the sudden death of Diana, Princess of Wales, St John people worked around the clock to provide cover during an unprecedented outpouring of national grief, and to mobilise for a funeral that had not been anticipated.

Although the No.1 District, the London Region, have the greatest involvement with Royal duties given that they cover the capital, they are not the only ones to be involved. 7,000 volunteers from around the country worked at the coronations of George VI in 1937 and Elizabeth II in 1953. At the latter, representatives from all 40 English counties, the Isle of Man, the Channel Islands, Northern Ireland and Wales were also present. There were 50 overseas members on duty representing Canada, Australia, Gibraltar, New Zealand and Malta. For the wedding of Prince Charles and Princess Diana, representatives from across the British Isles were once again invited to support the celebrations. In many instances, support is also required nationwide at local celebrations. Units in the Windsor area have also had their fair share of royal duties to participate in.

On the day of an event, volunteers have an early start. Breakfast was provided at 5.00am at the wedding of Prince Charles and Princess Diana. After eating the contingent was inspected. Uniform had to be immaculate – you even had to fold your rain-mac correctly!

Volunteers headed out to man their positions along the route as crowds gather and those who camped out start to wake. The number of stations vary depending on the event and the route. There were 22 in operation for the wedding of HRH Prince William and Catherine Middleton in 2011 compared to 70 for George V’s coronation. Stations are equipped with the latest kit and manned by a variety of nurses, ambulance men and surgeons.

Some volunteers work very long shifts at these events. 650 of the 2400 volunteers at the wedding of Prince Charles and Princess Diana had to work over 24 hours, assisting with firework displays the night before. In the case of Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee, fireworks took place after the main procession and the volunteers only had time for a quick supper before being sent out again. In some cases, additional duties are required. It was reported that mourners bringing flowers to Windsor following George VI’s burial was a more arduous duty than working the funeral day itself. Even when an event is finished, St John volunteers are always ready to act when their help is needed. On the way home from HRH Prince Andrew and Sarah Ferguson’s wedding, the Welsh contingent had to help a person who had an epileptic fit, a person who suffered a diabetic collapse and someone with a fractured jaw.

Reports of Royal events featured in St John publications often reference the weather in relation to the number of casualties. The “moderate temperature of the air” at George V’s Coronation in June 1911 was linked to the lack of casualties whilst the “oppressive heat” of his father’s funeral a year earlier was blamed for the 6,000 casualties requiring treatment that day.

St John deal with all sorts of casualties. At Queen Victoria’s funeral, several spectators fell out of trees with one fracturing a thigh and another impaling their leg on some railings. Other intriguing cases include a girl having to be “dried out” after falling in the Lake in St James Park and a camera man being treated for mild vertigo whilst attending Princess Margaret’s wedding in 1960. At Prince Andrew and Sarah Ferguson’s wedding, a lady was bitten by a police horse and a royal marine collapsed whilst carrying their bassoon.

At many events, St John has been given special duties. At George VI’s funeral, three ambulances served St George’s Chapel at Windsor where the event took place. For the wedding of Princess Margaret in 1960, the winners of the previous year’s first aid national finals, the Dean and Chapter Colliery Ambulance Division and Spalding Nursing division were located inside Westminster Abbey. They dealt with three cases. Two first aid stations were manned inside St Paul’s for the wedding of Prince Charles and Princess Diana while at the wedding of Prince Andrew and Sarah Ferguson, St John manned the “designated vehicle” which was on hand to treat members of the royal family should they need it.

Large scale public duties such as these occasions have historically helped raise the profile of St John Ambulance. Serving at events is good for public relations, a fact that is not lost on those writing accounts in the first aid magazines. A report in the Daily Herald after the funeral of George V in 1936 called the brigade “The great heroes of the funeral day”. Public duties contributed to the service gaining public recognition and visibility. Reporting on Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee, James Cantlie wrote that “the uniform, now so familiar in London, commands respect even in a crowd clamouring for place”. Their presence is now regarded as a staple of such events.

One Royal event provided the perfect opportunity to aid the spread of St John Ambulance overseas. In December 1911, several members of the Brigade travelled to India for the Deli Durbar which confirmed King George V as Emperor of India. St John helped train up members of the fledgling St John Ambulance India in public duties and worked alongside them for the ten-day event.

Finally, serving at such events helps to enhance and maintain the long-standing relationship between St John and the Royal Family. Thank you telegrams or letters from Royals have been sent to acknowledge the work of St John, many of which have been published in First Aid journal. After the weddings of Princess Anne and Prince Charles, St John were sent a tier of the wedding cake. Princess Anne who is Commander-in-Chief of Youth, invited Cadets to her 1973 wedding and very recently, a few members of the service were invited to the wedding of HRH Prince Harry and Meghan Markle last year in recognition of their work.

If you would like to find out more about the themes mentioned in this blog, why not have a look at the following pieces


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