Exploring St John Ambulance Overseas

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

St John Overseas Records in the Archive 

As well as records relating to St John Ambulance in London and Kent, the Archive at St John’s Gate contains around 150 boxes relating to St John Ambulance and the Order of St John Overseas between the late 19th century and the 1990s. These boxes are arranged by country and contain a mixture of records relating to St John Ambulance Association (SJAA), St John Ambulance Brigade (SJAB), St John Ambulance, and the Order of St John (OSJ) in over 30 countries including  India, Hong Kong, Fiji, Ghana, South Africa and many more!  

The records in the Archive relating to St John overseas include annual reports, photographs, newspaper cuttings, personnel records, and committee minutes. The Archive contains records created by the members of international centres/districts as well as head office personnel and the St John Ambulance Brigade Overseas (SJABO).  

Whilst a large proportion of the St John Overseas boxes contain material dated in the second half of the 20th century, there are around 50 boxes containing records created between 1877 and 1939 (meaning that they fall into the scope of our Archives Revealed project). We will be arranging the collection in a way that the later overseas records can be integrated into the archive structure when they are catalogued in future years. Some examples of the St John Overseas material due to be catalogued include: 

  • St John Ambulance Brigade India Challenge Cup Competition leaflets, 1911-1917. 
  • Records relating to the St John Ambulance Brigade Calcutta Nursing Division, 1911-1918. 
  • Correspondence, maps, reports, and papers relating to the establishment of St John Ambulance Association centres in New Zealand, 1926-1939. 
  • St John Ambulance Association Hong Kong incorporation papers, correspondence, association reports and meeting minutes, 1932-1946. 
  • Reports of the Chief Commissioner of the Brigade overseas, orders and circulars newspaper cuttings, correspondence, timelines, graphs, and draft papers, 1908-1951.  

The left image includes a newspaper cutting, a photograph of a building and an invitation relating to SJAA Hong Kong and China district from the 1930s. The image on the right includes two SJAB Overseas special order documents on on branches in British Dominions beyond the seas and uniform.

Left image: Papers relating to the opening ceremony of a SJAA building in Hong Kong, 1930s. Right image: SJAB Overseas special orders on on branches in British Dominions beyond the Seas and uniform, 1908-1912.

The Research Potential and Legacy of Our International Records 

The St John Overseas records in the Archive hold great potential for research into the international community of St John Ambulance, the impact of first aid training around the world, as well as a general insight into the socio-political changes of countries over the 20th century. However, the expansion of  St John Ambulance overseas is intrinsically linked to the structures intertwined with empire and colonialism and we need to acknowledge the complexity of these legacies.  

There are both explicit and implicit examples of these links contained within the archive and as we catalogue the records, further understand this material, and begin to provide access to the Archive, we will work to provide both transparency and safeguarding for all people interacting with St John Overseas material. For some relevant resources relating to Decolonisation, cultural heritage terminology and social justice in the Museum and Archive Sectors see the end of the post and for any enquiries relating to this, please contact the museum.  

Early Accounts of St John Overseas 

Not long after the SJAA was founded in 1877, several international Centres were formed. The Order of St John annual reports start including SJAA ‘Foreign and Colonial’ Centres in 1884. Countries who had an SJAA Centre in 1884 include Australia, Bermuda, India, Gibraltar, Malta, France, and the West Indies. The work overseas often replicated the work in England with the introduction of first aid lectures and classes for both men, women, and industry groups such as railway workers; the use of first aid equipment purchased via the stores department including uniform, first aid manuals and first aid hampers; and the organisation of first aid competitions. However, there were some adaptations made to St John equipment and uniform for members overseas including the translation of first aid manuals and texts to languages including Urdu, Gujarati, French and Maltese. SJAB also introduced a tropical climate uniform for SJAB units including a “black and white washing dress, full housmaids skirt…plain bodice with coat sleeve and straight neck band to go under the linen collar” for Nursing Officers (from SJAB Overseas special orders, 1912).

An international SJA presence gradually built over the decades and by 1939 there were SJAA Centres all over the world, with many countries also having St John Ambulance Brigade and an Order of St John presence.  

The left image is the front cover of a publication titled the work of the Calcutta Nursing Division St John Ambulance Brigade Overseas, 1911-1918. The image on the right includes two black and white photographs of ambulance motor loaded with patients for convalescent home and a Nursing Sister receiving patients at Howrah train station.

The work of the Calcutta Nursing Division St John Brigade Overseas, 1911-1918

Someone involved in the early days of bringing first aid overseas is a woman called Annie Brassey, an English travel writer and advocate of the SJAA, 1839-1887. In an article in a St John Ambulance Association annual report from 1884 she recounts how on her voyage to the West Indies in 1883, she distributed St John Ambulance Association first aid equipment to several countries: 

“At Madeira I went on board the “Duntrune” emigrant ship bound for Australia, and found the passengers in anything but good condition, owing to the water having gone bad. I gave the doctor on board one of my ambulance hampers and a packet of pamphlets, and expressed a hope that he would be able to hold some classes on board.” 

“On our arrival at Trinidad I at once commenced ambulance work and met with much encouragement and support… Dr Hudson explained the objects of the association to a crowded and enthusiastic meeting… and before it broke up, I presented one of my hampers containing surgical appliances.” 

“We now went up the Bahama Channel… Here on board a small fishing boat I found a poor man lying with one foot crushed and the toes broken by the fall of an iron stove…our doctor remained on board his boat with him and treated the case while we went ashore. Of what value a little St John’s knowledge would have been here!” 

In 1887 Annie Brassey died of Malaria during a voyage on her famous Sunbeam but her amazing St John Ambulance legacy lives on! 

The image on the left is a page of Annie Brassey's article in the 1884 OSJ annual report on the SJAA work in the West Indies. The image on the right is a portrait of Annie Brassey.

Left image: Annie Brassey’s article in the 1884 OSJ annual report on the SJAA work in the West Indies. Right image: portrait of Annie Brassey (source from University of Sussex website)

We will continue to understand how the St John Ambulance and St John Ambulance Brigade operated internationally as we process our founding records. We hope to bring you more stories of amazing St John people, places and first aid in the future!  

The International Order of St John

It is not only SJAA and SJAB records that feature in our international collections, but also records relating to the Order of St John overseas. We are fortunate to have Order Librarian Todd Skilton on the project’s Steering Group to provide an international insight into our project. He has kindly answered some questions about the Order in New Zealand and internationally:  

What is your role within The Order of St John New Zealand and OSJ internationally? 

I have a couple of different roles – I’m the Librarian for the Order Internationally and I’m the Priory Librarian for New Zealand. Both roles are effectively to champion heritage and get folks enthused! 

When was The Order of St John formed in New Zealand?  

The Order was officially formed in New Zealand with the establishment of a commandery in 1931. It was elevated to Priory status on 16 September 1946. Before the establishment of the formal Order structure in New Zealand the administration of the Order’s work was undertaken by a Dominion Executive from January 1910. The structure of how the affairs of the Order have evolved over time, but upon formalisation of the Order governance of the Orders affairs have fallen under a Commandery and later Priory Chapter. 

How is OSJ New Zealand connected to St John Ambulance New Zealand (both historically and today)?  

The first New Zealand Centre of the St. John Ambulance Association was formed in Christchurch in 1885, followed later in the same year by Wellington. The Dunedin Ambulance Division, formed in 1892, was the first St John Ambulance Brigade unit organised in New Zealand and the first to be established outside the United Kingdom. The first Nursing Division in New Zealand (and only the second outside the United Kingdom) was formed in 1895, and in 1904 the first Brigade District was constituted. The first Cadet Division was formed at Wanganui in 1927. Because the foundations established their presence in New Zealand prior to the Order itself, the foundations have always been at the forefront of the activities of St John. It remains this way today, with St John running the majority of New Zealand’s emergency ambulance service, alongside a range of other outputs. 

How would you describe the international community of the Order of St John? 

The international community is really diverse, who are all working on a wide range of initiatives depending on their local context. Due to this, it can be challenging to identify colleagues and those who have similar heritage interests. One of my focuses as Order Librarian has been to try and identify folks in the various Establishments around the world who have a heritage role or interest and bring them virtually together or make them known to one another. As a result of this I’ve been able to meet some wonderful people and have some amazing discussions and collaborate on a range of activities. However, I’m always looking for others who are keen to get involved and want to make international contacts, particularly in establishments where we don’t currently have links.  

As the Order Librarian, do you have a favourite item from the collections you work with? 

I think one of the best items that the Museum holds in the collection is the Annual Reports. These reports contain an amazing amount of detail and plug a lot of gaps in terms of being able to research and understand our history. I recall years ago lamenting the fact that the reports were so hard to access outside of the Museum with one of the Curators and how great it would be if they were digitised. The fact this has occurred has been an absolute game changer, opening up research opportunities for everyone with an interest in St John internationally. In terms of physical items, I’m a numismatist (aka medals geek), so I’m always excited to see any collections that hold medals or insignia of the Order. These always represent long, outstanding, or brave service, so are always very interesting to me personally.  

The image on the left is photo of a shield which is held in the Dunedin Area Archives which has the insignia of George Barclay, the father of St John Ambulance in New Zealand. The image on the right is a map of SJAA and SJAB Centres/Divisions in New Zealand.

Left image: Dunedin Area Archives shield containing insignia of George Barclay, the father of St John Ambulance in New Zealand, 1892-1943. Right image: SJAA and SJAB Centres/Divisions in New Zealand, 1926-1939.

Resources and articles relating to Decolonisation, cultural heritage terminology and social justice:





All images used in the blog have been sourced via the Archives at the Museum of the Order of St John apart from the portrait of Annie Brassey which was sourced via a University of Sussex news item on https://www.sussex.ac.uk/broadcast/read/49933 and the image of Colonel George Barclay shield sourced by Todd Skilton.

For access to the digitised annual reports follow this link

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