The Inaugural London Marathon – 29th March 1981

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

Perhaps predictably, London drizzle set the scene for the inaugural London Marathon which took place on 29th March 1981.

The event had been organised by the Greater London Council with sponsorship from the razor producer Gillette. Out of 20,000 applicants, 6,700 runners were selected.

First aid and medical care at the event was organised by Derek Fenton, Commissioner for St John Ambulance’s Greater London Region, and his deputy John Gerrard. It was a large operation with 528 runners being treated through out the day. The vast majority had minor conditions such as headaches, blisters and exhaustion and fourteen were taken to hospital for treatment.


photograph of a runner being carried by two St John men
Photograph taken from The Review, May 1981


Over 600 members of St John Ambulance worked to provide first aid relief for the runners and the spectators that day. Thirty-five mobile first aid units were deployed along the course which led from Greenwich to Buckingham Palace. Fifty ambulances were on hand to deal with any casualties. At the finish line, members of St John Ambulance handed out hot drinks  and foil blankets to help stabilise the body temperature of competitors. There were two recovery tents located in the park with 150 mattresses laid on top of straw beds. Volunteer physiotherapists, twelve doctors and forty professional brigade nurses were on hand to care for the runners’ tired muscles. The commissioner kept TV and radio commentators up to date with progress reports and casualty figures through out the day via radio link.

In the May 1981 edition of “The Review” it was remarked that “as a national and international public relations exercise, the London Marathon was perfect for the Brigade.” It was yet another opportunity for the service to showcase their excellent care giving work to the wider public.

The Marathon was only the start of a very busy summer for St John Ambulance which culminated in the Royal Wedding of Diana and Charles on 29th July.