St John Archive, Volunteering

Archives Revealed Cataloguing Project-The Progress So Far

Museum of the Order of St John Annie Lord (Project Cataloguer)

In November 2023 I started at the Museum of the Order of St John as a Project Cataloguer in the Archives Revealed project team. I have been tasked with cataloguing the founding records of first aid charity St John Ambulance c.1870-1939 and providing access to the fascinating story of the development of organised first aid in the UK and internationally. In this post, I want to share how the work has been progressing over the last two months and provide a taster of the material we have processed so far. 

Three fanned St John Ambulance Association printed manuals with titles 'First Aid To The Injured,' Aids for First Help to the Injured (Wounds),' Official Drill Manual'
St John Ambulance Association first aid manuals c.1883-1893 

What Have We Achieved So Far?

Since starting my role  in November, I have been immersed in the world of St John Ambulance. After some initial planning on how best to approach the work, I have largely spent the last two months box listing. I have been fortunate enough to be joined by our amazing project volunteers Pat Halpin and Joyce Guillaume who have a wealth of St John Ambulance knowledge and experience. I also have the support of Museum Archivist and Archives Revealed project manager Sophie Denman.

Box listing essentially involves opening every box or volume in an archive (or relevant collection of material) and identifying key information about the material such as the date, title, description, creator, extent and format. After assessing this information we can determine whether it falls into the scope of the proposed cataloguing project. Records in scope for this project include material relating to the St John Ambulance Association, St John Ambulance Brigade and St John Ambulance Brigade Overseas between the years 1870 and 1939. 

A shelf with stacked red and brown bound letter books.
St John Ambulance Association Chief Secretary letter books, 1898-1918

So far, the team has listed nearly 400 boxes! Over 30 percent of these boxes contain material in scope for cataloguing. These boxes contain a range of records including ambulance committee minutes, 1920s-1940s; correspondence relating to Sir Herbert Perrott (Chief Secretary of St John Ambulance Association), 1899; St John Ambulance Brigade orders 1899-1939; nursing division dress regulations, 1930s; first aid manuals, 1870 and boxes relating to St John Ambulance overseas, 1900-1939. Despite the huge progress we have made already, we have many more boxes to list. Therefore, we are aiming for this phase of the project to be completed by Spring 2024.

The advantage of listing every box in the archive is that I now have an insight into the role of St John Ambulance over the last 150 years and their involvement in many world events. So far, I have listed St John Ambulance related records created during the Boer wars, the First World War, the Second World War; the reigns of Queen Victoria, King George VI and Queen Elizabeth II; the rise of industrialisation, railways and mines; and in countries moving out of colonial rule to independence such Sri Lanka (previously Ceylon).  

Over the coming year we will be sharing more material from the archive and some behind the scenes cataloguing content. We will also be exploring the themes and stories connected to the founding years of St John Ambulance. For now, I want to celebrate the first months of the project by sharing some of the teams’ favourite box listing finds.  

My Favourite Box Listing Finds

A collage of St John Ambulance Association and St John Ambulance Brigade railway first aid competition advertisement, a grand fete and demonstration advertisement for the Diamond Jubilee and template judges score cards for first aid competitions.
Assorted St John Ambulance Brigade and St John Ambulance Association first aid competition and Diamond Jubilee fete papers, 1897

Since starting my role, I have been fascinated with the founding years of St John Ambulance and identifying the early examples of activities central to the identity of the charity. In the early stages of listing I came across several boxes containing assorted early St John Ambulance and St John Ambulance Brigade correspondence and papers between 1870 and 1895. The boxes include railway ambulance competition papers, annual fete papers, St John Ambulance Brigade Metropolitan Corps papers, the St John Ambulance Sub-committee reports, letters to the Chief Secretary and more. I was especially interested in the early railway competition papers after hearing from Pat Halpin how first aid competitions are still part of St John Ambulance today.

In the early years of St John Ambulance the charity was heavily linked to the railway industry. The first class to teach first aid to railwaymen was held in Paddington in 1878. Shortly after, first aid competitions for railway companies were developed and by 1913 twenty-six companies took part in annual competitions to win the challenge shield and prizes. Participants would be tested on their ‘all-round ability to deal with cases under emergency conditions rather than to the putting on of splints, bandages etc.’ The records we have listed relating to railway ambulance competitions include scoring cards, judges reports and advertisements.  

Fanned pink and red Indian Ambulance Gazette issues, 1914-1915. The left issue contains an image of a challenge shield. The central item is an instruction leaflet on 'how to organise centre and classes' written in Urdu.
Indian Ambulance Gazette issues and St John Ambulance Brigade India training leaflets in Urdu, 1911-1918

More recently I have been box listing the material relating to St John Ambulance overseas. My favourite records from this listing have been these Indian Ambulance Gazette issues (1914-1915) and this example of a Brigade training leaflet written in Urdu (1911-1917). The Gazette issues, as well as being visually quite striking, include a detailed insight into the St John Ambulance Brigade overseas, its organisation, members and activities. The training leaflets in Urdu include instruction on various subjects such as how to organise centres and classes, the value and objective of ambulance training and the St John Ambulance Brigade generally. These records are great early examples of the St John Ambulance resources being adapted for international centres.  

Pat’s Favourite Box Listing Find 

“I have been fascinated after stumbling across 10 box files related to papers to and from a former Member of Parliament named William Tyssen-Amherst, who later went onto become the 1st Baron Amherst of Hackney. Of particular note in the boxes are “Miscellaneous St John Ambulance Association instructions for the formation of courses, syllabus, Charter of Incorporation and Hospice Committee papers, 1852-1893.” My particular favourite discovery was some letters and envelopes with black edging, indicating a period of mourning. One of the letters is from the Royal Household and has a black seal on the envelope.”

Assorted opened and unopened letters with black detailing indicating a period of mourning. The unopened letter on the right has a black seal.
Lord Amherst Correspondence, 1888-1890 

Joyce’s Favourite Box Listing Find 

“My favourite items so far are 1934 folders marked ‘Top Secret’. There are two folders containing memoranda between Order of St John, the British Red Cross and the government between 1925-1934, concerning air raid precautions and planned first aid responses.  These are my favourite items so far as it was exciting to pick out of the archive documents marked ‘Top Secret!’ and then to discover how already in the 1920s plans were being made regarding how to react to potential air raids. This is in addition to the fascinating insight to 1920s style first aid.” 

Cropped image of a navy ring binder with a note on the cover stating the contents are 'secret'
Air raid precautions planning ring binder, 1925-1934 
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