10 Minute Talks, World War Two, Collection Highlights

10-minute Talk & Tea: What’s In Store? Discover Collections Hidden Behind-The-Scenes

Museum of the Order of St John Immie Meade, Collections Inventory Assistant

The museum has over 60,000 objects in its collection and less than 1% of these are on display here in the galleries. The three objects discussed below help to tell the story of St John Ambulance and the Priory of St John, and are not normally on display.  

The majority of the museum’s collection focuses on social history, and these examples help to reiterate this. To give some background, The St John Ambulance Association was formed in 1877, with the aim of teaching first aid in railway and mining areas. The St John Ambulance Brigade was then set up ten years later in 1887, aiming to provide First Aid and Ambulance services at public events, and these two organisations joined together to form St John Ambulance in 1974.  

The first object is a seemingly unassuming box, that actually contains a very useful, albeit creepy, piece of 20th century equipment.  

A rectangular canvas suitcase with brown leather trimming around edges and handles.

This is a resuscitation model, used for practicing mouth to mouth resuscitation. It was donated to the Museum by the 357 Finchley Combined Division and dates from the 1960s. It has a rubber inflatable lung and someone has even made fabric ‘clothes’ to cover the tubing!  

We have similar models to this in the collection, with some including extra mouth pieces in order to practice the technique in training sessions. This model was made by Educational and Scientific Products, who are manufacturers and suppliers of anatomical models and equipment for training purposes in the health care industry.  

Although this model is slightly different, many resuscitation dolls are referred to as ‘Resusci Annes’, which references the ‘L’Inconnue de la Seine’ or ‘The Unknown Woman of the Seine’, an unidentified young woman found drowned in the Parisian river. Her face and subsequent ‘death mask became a popular fixture on the walls of artists’ homes during the twentieth century. There is an example of the L’Inconnue de la Seine mask in our St John Ambulance gallery. Resuscitation models such as this were developed in the twentieth century, created in collaboration with Dr Safar (who created the ‘ABC’ method of Airway, Breathing and Circulation when treating a patient) and the Norwegian toy maker Laerdal, to create models in which CPR could be practiced on. It was Laerdal in fact who decided to model the CPR dolls on the famous death mask of L’Inconnue de la Seine, and any of you who have completed your First Aid training may have come across their more modern examples. 

Model of white woman’s head with dark red lips and painted brown eyebrows and hair, back of head is painted in dark green, on plank of wood, two pieces of red and white striped fabric are covering the tubing of the model below the head.

These dolls have been used to teach the lifesaving technique of resuscitation and CPR. CPR as we know it today has its roots in the 1950s, with the technique focusing on the combination of both mouth-to-mouth resuscitation and chest compressions. However, there have been references to it dating as far back as 800 BC. The use of mouth-to-mouth resuscitation or ‘Rescue Breaths’, which this doll was used to teach, has been a life-saving technique for centuries, dating back to as early as recorded history. It was also further developed and publicised in the 1770s and used to resuscitate patients who had drowned.  

Although these objects look slightly alarming, they help to tell the important history of how CPR has been taught and developed and the significant role St John Ambulance has had in sharing this life saving knowledge.  

Looking at another example from the collection, this object focuses more on the commemoration of St John Ambulance and its history. In the museum’s collection there are a wide range of commemorative objects and memorabilia, celebrating the long history of the organisation. This object is a model train and was produced in commemoration of the St John Ambulance electric locomotive that was named in honour of the St John Ambulance Brigade’s Centenary in 1987. 

The history of St John and the railways originates with its foundation at the height of the Industrial Revolution. Industrial work was often dangerous, and accidents often occurred. This was particularly prevalent in the mines and on the railways. The St John Ambulance Association was set up to train people to administer first aid through classes, published books and examinations to help in these accidents. Surgeon-Major G A Hutton, of the St John Ambulance Association, organised a ‘Railway Ambulance Crusade’ in August 1890 and several railway companies introduced First Aid and Ambulance training for their employees, and medals were later awarded for First Aid service and examinations. 

Model of ‘St John Ambulance’ train, on wooden stand with clear plastic case, model inside on railway track. Grey plastic model train with 'St John Ambulance' in red on the side, yellow front and back ends, red details, '86608' in white, white National rail symbol on side.White label in case reading 'Class 86/6 25 kV a.c. Electric Locomotive 86608 St. John Ambulance.

To commemorate the Brigade’s foundations and important work during its centenary year, the St John Ambulance train made its maiden journey on 4th November of 1987. A ceremony took place at Euston Station to name a British Rail Class 86 electric locomotive ‘St John Ambulance’. This was in recognition and acknowledgement of the long association between St John Ambulance and the Railways. Uniformed St John members were also on board the train, reminiscent of the ambulance trains that were a frequent sight during the Boer War and First World War, where war wounded would return home from the battlefield. 

There was a grand ceremony on this day, with the Grand Prior, the Duke of Gloucester, unveiling the train. 50 St John Badgers and Cadets were invited to board the 13:10 InterCity departure for Birmingham, where a clown was on board in a designated carriage to provide entertainment. The event was recorded in the January 1988 edition of the St John Review, which was a monthly organisational magazine produced by St John.  

This model was created to commemorate this historic journey, and the original sign from the train can be found upstairs in our link corridor and is available to view on our St John Ambulance: Victorian Masterpiece tour.

Metal case for bomb, circular piece of metal at bottom and sheet iron tail.

The final object represents another significant event from the twentieth century that impacted St John’s Gate. On the night of 10th May 1941, London was hit by one of the worst air raids of the Second World War. During the raid, 1436 civilians were killed, and over 2000 were injured. Many of London’s bridges were targeted, as well as factories, warehouses and railway lines, and even the House of Commons was hit. The St John site in Clerkenwell was also hit, with an incendiary bomb hitting the Priory Church. Most of the site was destroyed including the roof and interior, as well as the wooden pews and first floor gallery. However, the four walls of the Church survived, including fabric from the 12th, 16th and 18th centuries. Fortunately, the 12th century Crypt below remained intact, with the great hindsight of moving the Church’s stained-glass windows there when war broke out. 

After an extensive period of fundraising, the Church was reconstructed and still stands today. It was rebuilt for a sum of £80,000 by architects Seely and Paget, with a much simpler and more cost-effective design. The Church was then re-dedicated in 1958. 

Black and white image of the Priory Church after bombing with walls and windows intact, but rubble in interior and no remaining roof.

The Church has had many lives during its 900-year history since it was first built in 1144. It has been damaged by fire during the Peasant’s Revolt of 1381, and improvements added by Sir Thomas Docwra in the early 1500s, who also built the Gate where the museum is housed today. The dissolution of the monasteries in the 1540s meant further destruction. It was then rebuilt as a Parish Church in the 1720s after damage caused during the Reformation and the Sacheverell Riots of 1710. In fact, it was only from 1931 that the Church was returned to the Order for use, making the church’s subsequent destruction only 10 years later all the more devastating. This story, however, contributes to the long history the Priory Church has lived through and continues to be a part of, for as long as it stands here. 

These three objects help to show the breadth and depth of stories the collection at the museum is able to tell, and they each hold their own individual histories. 

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