Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee

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

The first Royal celebration that we have an extensive account of is Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee which was held on 22nd June 1897. The duty is given substantial coverage in the edition of First Aid published in July that year.

First Aid includes reports from several senior figures in St John Ambulance who give accounts of the day from the perspective of their districts. Members travelled from around the country to take part, some losing two days’ pay to be involved in the special event. St John paid for their lodging and rations but the volunteers had to pay for their own travel.

Reports from regional members indicate that it was a busy and exciting day. GS Elliston, deputy commissioner of No. 3 District, reported that “excellent arrangements [were] made for the provincial contingents at the temporary barracks in Clerkenwell Road”. Presumably the members were housed close to St John’s Gate where the Order was based. He reports that many volunteers were so excited, they were awake by 3:15 in the morning! This was far too early for the 6:30 inspection and parade along the Clerkenwell Road conducted by There is a sense in his reporting of this excitement that some members of St John were already well-versed at working special occasions. He notes that the “old hands” knew it was more sensible to stay in bed as long as possible.

In total 40 surgeons, 102 nursing sisters and 700 men with 14 litters (a type of stretcher) and 7 ambulance wagons worked together and manned 95 stations along the route which straddled both sides of the River Thames. Following their inspection, the members marched to their posts where they were stationed for the rest of the day to fulfil their duties.

It appears that they did a good job treating around 1,000 cases over 24 hours. James Cantlie, a doctor who was heavily involved in promoting the use of first aid, reported: “It may be safely stated that never on any occasion of public rejoicing were accidents fewer than on Diamond Jubilee day. No death is recorded, and on enquiry at Charing Cross hospital- usually the most liberally supplied with accidents on public processions- fewer accidents were treated than on any ordinary day, when no celebration is in force”. In such a large crowd there were many “squeezed people” reported and numerous cases of fainting. One reporter remarked that “sal volatile”, used in smelling salts, was the drug of the day.  In accounts, this is blamed on the sunny weather and size of the crowd. High levels of faints proved to be a common theme at all subsequent Royal events. At Edward VII’s coronation only 70 of over 1,300 cases were not faints.

Military casualties were also a common occurrence. One report describes how a lancer was kicked in the kneecap by a horse.

At the Jubilee celebrations, the close relationship between St John and other services was already blossoming. A report from participant Charles A. Sturrock notes that “a highly commendable spirit of cooperation seems to exist between the ambulance officers and the police and military services”. On subsequent occasions, St John would build on this close bond, working with the police, the military, the British Red Cross and later, the London Ambulance Service.

The work of the Brigade at this event had a big effect on how the public perceived the service. There had been suspicion of the St John Ambulance Brigade and they were referred to as “body snatchers” in some quarters. Cantlie remarked that “the public…know their worth, and the uniform, now so familiar in London, commands respect even in a crowd clamouring for place”. Indeed, St John members were even permitted to use rooms in private houses along the route to treat their patients as the tents they had erected became too hot. We can assume his observations were correct because St John Ambulance have been invited back to work at many subsequent Royal spectacles.

The reports also contain notes on how the Brigade could improve next time. One account suggests the need for more water whilst another suggested that a mounted policeman should be stationed with every surgeon to make it easier to get through the crowds.

After the parade, the volunteers were given dinner. Many of them then had to go back out that evening to work at the illuminations where 59 casualties were treated.

Those who served at the Diamond Jubilee were awarded with a Jubilee Medal made specifically for members of St John Ambulance. At her Golden Jubilee, a decade earlier, the men had received a general medal awarded to the police. A bespoke medal was also issued to the 910 St John people who served at the coronation of King Edward VII on 9th August 1902.  The last coronation medal specifically for St John Ambulance was issued for George V’s Coronation on 22nd June 1911. After this event, the criteria for awarding Coronation and Jubilee medals also changed. No longer were they to be given to those who served at the event, but instead they have subsequently been awarded as an honour or souvenir to select individuals or groups. A few representatives from St John Ambulance have been awarded each of the subsequent medals but it does not necessarily mean that they participated in any festivities. These medals have been awarded to members of the military, members of the Royal household, government officials, mayors and the police among others. Around 300 members of St John Ambulance received the Elizabeth II Coronation Medal in 1953 and subsequent awards have been made to individual members on the occasions of her silver, gold and diamond jubilees.

To find out more about the work of St John at Royal events and celebrations, take a look at our blog St John’s other royal duties here or read about the Coronation of Elizabeth II here.

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