Exploring Early St John Ambulance Equipment

Museum of the Order of St John Annie Lord (Project Cataloguer) Immie Meade (Collections Inventory Assistant)
St John Ambulance Association Equipment advertisements with text and illustrations relating to horse ambulance carriages and the Ashford Litter, 1880s.
St John Ambulance Association Horse Ambulance Carriages and Ashford Litter equipment advertisements, 1880s.

If you found yourself in London around the late 19th century and in need of urgent medical attention you might have relied on a member of the St John Ambulance Association, their equipment and transportation devices to help you.

Founded in 1877 by the Order of St John, the primary function of the St John Ambulance Association was to train men and women in first aid and ambulance work. However, they also were essential in creating and providing first aid equipment including litters, stretchers, bandages, first aid hampers and splints at various first aid stations in London. Some of these stations had a permanent staff of trained men and some stations just had the equipment stored for public use. For instance, the St John Ambulance Association headquarters at St John’s Gate in Clerkenwell had ambulance wagons, litters, stretchers and was manned by paid officials and volunteers. Whereas the Borough Market district had a stretcher, small hamper accessible during business hours to the public with no men on duty.

St John Ambulance Association equipment was also used by the Invalid Transport Corps after being formed in 1882 and the St John Ambulance Brigade after being formed in 1887.

Who invented Early St John Ambulance equipment?

The equipment element of St John Ambulance Association can largely be linked to a man called John Furley, 1836-1919. He was a founder of the St John Ambulance Association and the first director of St John Stores. The Stores Department of the Association was designed by Furley to invent and distribute first aid equipment including stretchers and ambulances for use in civilian first aid, industrial accidents and international conflicts/relief. Two of Furley’s inventions include the Furley Stretcher and the Ashford litter and records such as patents, advertisements and correspondence linked to these inventions can be found in the archives at the Museum of the Order of St John.

St John Ambulance Association Equipment advertisements with text and illustrations relating to first aid kits, a Furley stretcher and a two wheeled ambulance litter, 1874-1887.
St John Ambulance Association equipment advertisements including first aid kits, a Furley stretcher and a two wheeled ambulance litter, 1874-1887.

How was St John Ambulance equipment distributed?

The sale of first aid equipment was organised through the production of equipment price lists and catalogues.

As well as first aid equipment, the products sold by St John Stores extended to uniform, badges, buttons, books/first aid handbooks and diagrams. St John Stores equipment could also be purchased by Association Centres and Brigade Divisions internationally. However, the equipment designed for London terrain did not always translate to international climates and certain adaptations had to be made. For instance the Canadian St John Ambulance Brigade had to adapt their uniform to include snow shoes!

Equipment sales are still an essential feature of St John Ambulance today where you can buy first aid kits, PPE and training equipment on the St John Ambulance website.

Left image shows fanned St John Ambulance Association Canada equipment order forms and invoices including lists of items and prices. The right image shows a colalge of photographs from a magazine showing St John Ambulance Equipment being used internationally including a Canadian member using snow shoes as part of his uniform, 1930s.
St John Ambulance Canada equipment order invoices and St John Ambulance Brigade Overseas publication relating to international equipment, 1930s.

What early St John Ambulance equipment can be found in the Museum collections today?

As well as equipment related paper based records in the archive, the wider collections at the Museum contain some examples of early St John Ambulance Equipment. The Museum’s Collections Inventory Assistant, Immie Meade, has selected some examples to share:

The Museum has a wide range of equipment that was produced and used when the St John Ambulance Association was first founded. Although more difficult to precisely date than the records from the Archive, these objects help to further develop our understanding of the beginnings of St John Ambulance and the type of equipment they used on duty. 

Invalid Carry Chair 

This chair was used to transport patients and probably dates to around the First World War. Different types of stretchers and carry chairs were developed during wartime, with this chair, made from wood with a cane backing, being specially made by the Hospitals & General Contracts Company based in London. This chair would have been used to transport injured patients over short distances. According to the July 1915 edition of the First Aid Journal, a similar chair with a canvas backing was described as being an ‘ideal acquisition’ for nurses when transporting patients. 

Ashford Litter 

The impact of mechanised warfare and industrialisation in the late nineteenth century meant an unprecedented increase in severe injuries, and the need to transport patients safely and quickly was even more important. Developed by humanitarian and equipment manufacturer, Sir John Furley, the Ashford Litter was an improved version of the ‘St John Ambulance Wheeled Litter’ with the original design of a two-wheeled litter which combined the stretcher with the undercarriage. This new design enabled patients to be transported safely and easily and was an important step in the modernisation of first aid equipment. 

Named after Furley’s hometown of Ashford, Kent, it was first distributed by the St John Ambulance Stores Department in 1882. It is mentioned multiple times in the first editions of the First Aid Journal from 1894, listed among equipment lists and noted when new divisions first acquired one.   

Left image: wooden invalid carry chair with cane seat and back support and carry handles at front and backRight image: Ashford Litter with two large wooden wheels either side of stretcher and brown canvas hood above, standing in room with black and white checkered floor
Invalid carry chair, 1910s; Ashford Litter, 1880s

Triangular Bandages 

Bandages continue to be a staple of any first aid kit today, but during the late nineteenth and early twentieth century illustrated triangular bandages were created to show their various different uses, with as many as 116 different applications to use. First developed in 1869 by Dr Esmarch from Kiel University, Germany, the bandage was produced to be carried by soldiers going into battle so they would be able to dress their own wounds and the injuries of their peers. Originally printed on calico from a copper plate engraving, these first illustrated triangular bandages featured detailed illustrations of how bandages could be applied to the body. 

[Image of: light yellow calico triangular bandage with German text at top, illustrations of six male figures wearing bandages on different parts of their body]
Triangular bandage, 19th century


During the First World War the St John Ambulance Brigade Hospital was set up in Étaples, France in 1915. Run by 241 St John Ambulance trained staff and volunteers, the hospital was the largest voluntary hospital that served the British Expeditionary Force in France, treating over 35,000 patients during the First World War. The hospital was run primarily at the expense of the Order of St John, with some support from the War Office, and therefore it was important to secure donations to ensure its running. Organisations and individuals were able to support the running of the hospital through sponsoring equipment, wards and even beds. A £100 donation was able to cover the cost of providing and maintaining a hospital bed for a whole year, with plaques such as this created and placed above each bed in thanks to the donor.  

First Aid Kit 

First developed by Sir John Furley in 1879, the ‘ambulance hamper’, a precursor to the first aid kit, is described in the 1879 Annual Report of the Order of St John as having been ‘met with the approval of many members of the medical profession.’ This example is thought to date to the late nineteenth century and has been recently acquired by the Museum. This style of hamper was still being featured in the 1931 St John Ambulance Association equipment price list, as shown in the image above. The ambulance hamper from the Museum’s collection, which consists of a wicker basket and canvas cover, contains a variety of first aid items including: bandages, splints, tourniquets, dressings and forceps. The kit also includes two metal tins which are unable to be opened, but may have held boric lint and other similar materials.  

These kits have developed over time but even modern First Aid kits today contain a similar array of items such as bandages, plasters, dressings and scissors. 

See this Instagram reel to find out what’s inside an early St John Ambulance Association first aid kit.

Left image: metal plaque with yellow eight pointed cross and red shield superimposed in centre with yellow painted text reading ‘St. John Ambulance Brigade Hospital Donors Nursing Division Prince of Wales Corps Etaples 1915’Right image: page from the St John Ambulance Price List of the ‘No.12 Small Ambulance Hamper’, black and white image of fabric covered wicker hamper with contents including bandages, splints, scissors and dressings, contents list on right hand side
St John Ambulance Brigade Hospital Nursing Division plaque, Etaples, 1915, No.12 St John Ambulance Stores small ambulance hamper catalogue ad, 1931.


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