Archives Revealed Project: The Halfway Point

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

Over the past seven months the Archives Revealed Project Delivery Team consisting of Sophie Denman (Archivist), Annie Lord (Project Cataloguer), Joyce Guillaume (Project Volunteer) and Pat Halpin (Project Volunteer) have been busy box listing, repackaging and cataloguing the founding records of the St John Ambulance Association and St John Ambulance Brigade, 1877-1939. So far, we have competed a full inventory of archive records held in over ten spaces in the Museum of the Order of St John, and we have catalogued 65 boxes and 18 volumes consisting of St John Ambulance Association annual reports, committee minutes and letter books, 1860s-1920s.

Project Spaces

The Museum of the Order of St John consists of many different spaces. Over the past seven months we have been working in the Museum Basement, in the Library, in the Priors Dining Room, in the Museum offices, the Museum Galleries and in the Archive Centre. Over the years archive material has migrated to many of these spaces and it has been the job of the project team to identify relevant archive records in these spaces so we don’t miss anything important. For instance, we recently identified an ‘missing’ Order of St John annual report in the Reference Library which will now be catalogued as part of the full sequence of annual reports.

As well as identifying archive records in these spaces, we have also had the job of transferring records back into the Museum’s Archive Centre, meaning many trips over Clerkenwell Road to the St John Priory Church!

Project Processing

In these spaces we have identified a range of records relevant to our project including nominal rolls, newspaper cuttings, first aid handbooks, photographs, lecture books, service cards, annual returns, letter books, correspondence and more! To process these records ready for cataloguing, there were a number of steps we needed to take. For instance, we have captured the essential information contained within these records including the date, title, extent and creator. We have also captured information relating to the condition of the records. Some of these records are very fragile such as our copy letter books but the more we process and repackage the more we stabilise the condition of these important records.

Project Cataloguing

The records we have identified as in scope for the Archives Revealed Project currently form part of our archive arrangement and they will be catalogued over the next seven months. The records we have catalogued so far include early St John Ambulance Association annual reports, committee minutes and letter books (1870s-1920s) which offer an in depth insight into the founding, governance and structure of SJAA. We have also catalogued early Order of St John annual reports (1866-1930) which offer insight into the decisions to create SJAA. These records will sit within our collections management system and in November our catalogue will be available to search publicly. The remaining records will remain on our master inventory and can be searched by the museum team. The progress made so far has been amazing and we are thrilled to see so many catalogued boxes on the shelves of the Archive Centre.

Reflecting on the Halfway Point

Whilst there is much more to catalogue over the second half of the project, the Team wanted to share some project reflections and highlights. Catch up with our other project blogs and social media to find out more.

What has been your best moment from the Archives Revealed Project so far?

Sophie: My best moment is actually multiple moments (I know that’s a cop-out!) – every time the team come across something interesting or cool and tell the rest of us about it! It’s really lovely for me to see the Archive’s records being looked at and examined by people who haven’t previously experienced the St John Archive and to see them get excited about the information and stories they contain.

Pat: (I like Tuesdays!!) Learning about the work of the Museum team; they are really a dedicated team and we have a lot to be thankful for as they have maintained so many important documents and objects for us to look at in years to come.

What has been your favourite type of record to work with?

Annie: I have loved working with the early St John Ambulance Association newspaper cuttings books. They are arranged by county and contain hundreds of newspaper cuttings relating to the work of St John Ambulance Association and Brigade all over the country. There are stories of first aid intervention in a range of settings including the workplace, in towns, on ships, tramcars and the railways. The amazing stories of SJAA members assisting in real life scenarios demonstrates the impact of teaching first aid to the public prior the introduction of a National Health Service. I often reflect on how many lives were saved due to the work of the St John Ambulance Association.

Sophie: For me it has to be St John’s earliest first aid manuals, First Aid to the Injured. These pocked-sized manuals were first published in 1878 and replicated the syllabus of first aid that was taught by the St John Ambulance Association in its classes across the country. Small enough to fit in your pocket and packed full of contemporary practical first aid guidance, many many millions of copies over the 70+ years they were published, which shows just how valuable and sought-after St John’s first aid training was. I love the illustrations that accompanying the information, providing visual demonstrations of how to implement a particular process and bringing the historical training to life. It’s fascinating to see treatments that are no longer used and to be able to compare them to today’s practical guidance.

To celebrate the Archives Revealed project, the St John Historical Society generously funded the digitisation of an example of each edition of this manual, and I’m delighted that we can now provide free, public and searchable access online here:

What have you learnt from being involved in this project?

Joyce: The extent of how quickly SJAA and SJAB became a common presence in communities and workplaces (factories, mines, railways, police force) across the country. The seemingly huge fund-raising events that involved whole towns; with parades, opening ceremonies, galas, bazars, dinners etc.  The celebrations for the opening of a St John Ambulance Brigade station in the early 1900s at Accrington seemed to be a particularly grand affair.

Pat: As an experienced and long serving member I now realise how little I know of the organisation, I know that this is work in progress and we owe a debt of gratitude to the people up and down the country who maintain our history in local collections and museums.  I am fortunate to work in St John Gate and the Priory Church as part of this project, every day I walk past the gates that have the name Docwra on them, I never released that he was the Grand Prior of the Order of St John when St John’s Gate was built. I have also been fascinated by the story of Sir John Furley who was the first Director of Stores for St John Ambulance. Amongst many a distinguished career and achievements, invented the Furley stretcher, the Ashford Litter and designed a train for moving patients during the South African War.

Are there memorable stories you would like to share about the founding years of the St John Ambulance Association or St John Ambulance Brigade?

Joyce: There has always been concern at different moments in time about the dangers of certain activities.  Bravery award records indicated the dangers that first aid training aimed to mitigate. Many of these involved industrial accidents, particularly in the coal mines and railways. Other dangers seemed to come in waves, such as runaway horses and rampaging bulls. There was even the odd case of a marauding chimpanzee!

Annie: I recently catalogued St John Ambulance Association letter books, 1890-1918. One of the letter books relates to the St John Ambulance Association Red Cross Fund for aid to the sick and wounded created during the South African War, 1899-1903. The fund was set up to send comforts to those involved in the conflict including the St John Ambulance Brigade members serving in South Africa. I was interested to learn from these letters that the comforts send to the soldiers included soda water and many many cigarettes!