St John Ambulance Brigade at the Coronation of Elizabeth II

Museum of the Order of St John Isobel MacAuslan, Museum Assistant

The Coronation of Queen Elizabeth II, which took place on 2nd June 1953, was a spectacular event. Unsurprisingly, an event of this scale required detailed planning and preparation. Westminster Abbey was closed to the public for five months to allow the preparations to take place. The ancient ceremony was the first to be broadcast on television and was watched by millions of people worldwide. An estimated three million spectators turned out to line the route of the procession.

With such a large number of people packed along the streets of London, it was necessary for security and safety measures to be put in place. In the event of a coronation, detailed plans are developed to coordinate the efforts of the various agencies that are in the position to provide support for the crowds. The Metropolitan Police, Local Ambulance services managed by the newly formed NHS, the City of Westminster, the British Red Cross and St John Ambulance all played an important role in the Coronation and put in a great deal of work in the lead up to the event to ensure that everything could run smoothly. St John Ambulance was given the responsibility of arranging all the first aid provisions for the event. Before the big day had even got started, St John had been on hand to help the Lyon King of Arms, Sir Thomas Innes, after he fainted at a rehearsal in the Abbey.

Eight thousand members of the St John Ambulance Brigade were deployed in London on the day of the Coronation. The majority of these members came from London District. However, fitting for an occasion of national significance, members were also sent from forty counties in England, Wales, Northern Ireland, Jersey, Guernsey and the Isle of Man. St John Ambulance is a global organization with branches in many of the countries and territories that made up the British Empire and Commonwealth at the time of the Coronation. Thus, over fifty members of St John Ambulance from overseas were invited to help at the Coronation, representing South Africa, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Malta and Gibraltar. Most of the overseas officers were stationed in Trafalgar Square.

photograph of a certificate
A Certificate awarded to Private J. Swain for their work on behalf of Birmingham Country St John Ambulance Brigade Contingent at the Coronation or Elizabeth II. It demonstrates how members came from all over England to assist at the event.

The duty began at 5am on Coronation Day and lasted late into the evening. St John lined the route from the forecourt of Buckingham Palace to Westminster Abbey. A special unit was even on duty in the Abbey itself.  Trafalgar Square was the busiest first aid station on the route. As the photograph below shows, the Square was heaving! Following the Coronation, a return procession took place following a longer route. Near Buckingham Palace, a first aid tent was erected in the evening and work continued there as it fell dark, lit by hurricane lamps. On the night of the Coronation, six-hundred St John Ambulance members were on duty at the firework display that took place on Victoria Embankment to celebrate the start of the New Queen’s reign. Up and down the country, units served at the local celebrations taking place to mark Coronation Day.

A busy crowded scene with St John men collecting a casualty
St John Ambulance men deal with a casualty in Trafalgar Square

During the procession, St John Ambulance dealt with nearly 6,000 cases. Of those, 233 were sent to hospital. Thankfully, there were no fatalities. Given that the weather that day was unusually cold for early June, the number of cases was high. However, it was not nearly as busy as the Coronation of George VI, the Queen’s father, in 1937 when 10,000 cases were reported.

The Queen named the St John Ambulance Brigade in her general message of thanks to all the people who were involved with the Coronation and marshalling the crowds, as well as sending a message of thanks to the Commissioner in Chief, Sir Otto Lund. The Grand Prior HRH Henry Duke of Gloucester also sent a message of thanks stating that “This is an achievement of which the Brigade may right be proud. By their competence and public spirit its members have given yet another fine example of voluntary service to their fellow citizens.”

Three-hundred members of St John received the Queen Elizabeth II Coronation Medal. Unlike other coronation medals in our collection, those awarded in 1953, and previously in 1937, were not give to everyone present at the event, but rather as an honour to specific individuals who may or may not have been involved. The medal was given to members of the services, royal household, public officials and public servants in the UK, Commonwealth Countries and Crown Dependencies.

Medal with the queens face on it attatched to a ribon that is red with two small blue stripes. It is tied in a bow shape and has a white trim.
1953 Coronation Medal. This medal was awarded to a female member of St John Ambulance, hence the bow.

A few notable moments for St John followed the Coronation. On 9th June, St John’s Gate received a royal visit from Queen Salote Tupou of Tonga who had been appointed Associate Dame of the Order of St John in 1942. She had been in London to attend the Coronation. The Queen was treated to a tour of Chapter Hall, the Library and the Museum. The Coronation Tour of Wales that took place a week after the event required local St John units to attend to the crowds that gathered to see their new monarch. A special Cadet Coronation Camp was also held that summer to mark the coronation year. It was held in North Ockenden in Essex and attended by over 2,000 Cadets including 40 from overseas. Princess Margaret was due to attend the Camp to inspect a parade of Cadets and tour the site but a case of meningitis at the camp prevented her attending.

Sixty-six years on, the Coronation of Elizabeth II remains the largest royal event that St John Ambulance has assisted at…so far.




The information in this blog comes from the journal First Aid, June 1953 and the Annual Report of the Order of St John for the year 1953.

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