The Most Venerable Order of the Knights of St John of Jerusalem stems from the initial establishment of a hostel to care for pilgrims by Abbot Probus in Jerusalem in AD 600. This developed into the Order of St John which was officially recognised by the Pope in 1113.
In response to the Crusades a military arm was established, with Knights, Priests and Lay Brothers from across Europe fighting alongside the other military orders ‘For the Faith’, and building substantial fortifications such as Krak Des Chevaliers in Syria. They always fulfilled the original aim ‘For the Service of Mankind’, establishing hospitals wherever they established a stronghold. They were renowned for the quality of care they gave to ‘their Masters, the poor’.
With the fall of Acre, their last foothold in the Holy Land in 1291, the Knights of the Order moved to Cyprus, Rhodes (1309 – 1522) and finally Malta (1522 -1798). They were well respected by both Christian and Muslim forces, withstanding three major sieges, including the Great Siege of Malta in 1565. Following the Order’s departure from Malta in 1798 the Catholic ‘Order of the Knights of Malta’ continued within Italy and other European countries such as France.
The Order of St John in the Mediterranean was supported by Priories and Commanderies in their home countries. The most notable of these in the UK was at Clerkenwell which remains as the headquarters of The Order of St John today. As a catholic order, all properties in England were seized in 1540 during the Dissolution of the Monasteries by Henry VIII. However Englishmen continued to be members of the Order in the Mediterranean. Most notably, Oliver Starkey was the titular Grand Master of the English ‘Langue’ and played a significant part in the Great Siege of Malta.
The St John Ambulance Association was set up in 1877 by the Venerable Order of Saint John to teach industrial workers first aid so that they could provide on-the-spot treatment in emergencies. Workers rarely had ready access to a doctor in 19th-century workplaces and, since accidents were frequent, death or disability from injuries were common. The St John Ambulance Association set up training sessions across the country particularly in workplaces in areas of heavy industry but also in villages, seaside towns and suburban areas. In 1887 trained volunteers were organised into a uniformed brigade to provide a first aid and ambulance service at public events.
At 5pm on the 2 June 1936 with a handful of volunteers, a second hand ambulance and as part of the old St John Ambulance Brigade Guernsey’s St John Ambulance & Rescue Service responded to its first casualty. From a shed on an old concrete works, and on the same site as the present day headquarters, the fledging ambulance service responded to emergency calls and requests to transport patients to hospital.
Three years later the Guernsey’s local government agreed to support the running costs of the new ambulance service with a grant amounting to £200. It disbanded the less efficient State-run service. In 1940 the Northern Ambulance Division was also established although it did not receive formal recognition by National St John Head Quarters until 1945 at the end of the Occupation. Soon after the start of the Second World War, the Channel Islands were occupied by German armed forces for what became a five year period, under Hitler’s occupation of Europe.
During that time the service continued and, despite severe restrictions on fuel, tyres, night-passes, volunteers and batteries, every emergency call was answered. At one point fuel was so scarce that ambulances had their engines removed and were drawn by horses.
Volunteer members from the divisions also continued to provide caring and first aid services, including helping with guarding and distribution of the Red Cross and St John food parcels arriving on board The Vega.
The organisation was evolving into the only ambulance and rescue service in the British Isles, perhaps even the world.
During the 1970s, St John began hiring and selling medical equipment to patients recovering from illness and injury, and to those with disabilities and restricted mobility. This initiative has now become a purpose built centre for health care equipment – the largest of its kind in the Channel Islands.
Following an inspection in 2014, Guernsey’s 40-year-old Hyperbaric Recompression Chamber was in need of expensive updating work and various tests to ensure that it was in a safe condition to undergo upgrading. St John decided not to upgrade or replace the facility. St John continues to respond to any diver who suffers decompression illness and transfers them to the A&E Department at Guernsey’s General Hospital for further assessment.
Meanwhile, in Alderney, the voluntary St John Ambulance Service has served the local community since 1952. It is the only voluntary ambulance service providing the only source of emergency transport in the UK. A health care equipment department is also manned by Alderney members.
Working in a wooden hut in the back of her garden Divisional Superintendent Monica Scully established what has now become the St John Ambulance Care in the Community Library. The service initially supplied large print books and has developed to include digital formats. Members provide a delivery service for the elderly in the community, visiting regularly to provide books and also social interaction which is important in keeping the mind active in later life. The Library is now housed in purpose built facilities at the main Rohais site. In 2014 the library volunteers were awarded the Queens Award for Voluntary Service.
For many years training for, and participating in First Aid and Caring Competitions has been a popular method of developing and practising skills that could later be used in real-life situations. Teams are regularly seen returning to the island with trophies gained in interinsular, regional and national competitions. The late 1960s and early 70s saw a peak in this success with the Guernsey Nursing Cadet Division being the first Cadet Division to win National Finals on three consecutive years.
Retired members of St John recognised that they could still make a positive contribution to St John Ambulance activities and, in 1983, a ‘St John Fellowship Group’ was established in Guernsey. Members who previously held professional and/or volunteer roles in St John meet socially on a regular basis and also supply valuable support to their colleagues within the organisation.
In 1987 the first Badger ‘Setts’ were established in Guernsey. While the Cadet Divisions had previously had junior sections, this initiative saw the development of specific units for the five to ten-year-old members. They are led by their mascot ‘Bertie Badger’ and members are able to work towards the ‘Super Badger Award’.
St John volunteers have supported the Guernsey St John Ambulance and Rescue Service since its formation; initially by acting as a ‘third man’ on the ambulance, assisting as ‘Air Escorts’ or providing extra personnel in the event of major emergencies. This was formalised by the introduction of the Ambulance Reserve, with many St John volunteers having been founder members. In 2013 St John Ambulance and the Guernsey St John Ambulance and Rescue Service inaugurated the Community First Responder Scheme which provides volunteers who respond and may arrive as the first person on scene in the event of cardiac arrest or other major health injuries. Many of these members are also St John Ambulance volunteers.
There was gradual amalgamation of the volunteer divisions since their original formation and a major reorganisation led to the establishment of the current three divisions. Each meets once a week and includes adult, cadet and badger sections. The previous ‘Northern Divisions’ moved to the Rohais Headquarters site at the same time.
The Gigands building was then available for conversion to a dedicated training centre used as the base for public and community first aid and related courses. The centre was opened by Princess Anne. This saw the development of the training centre into ‘St John Training Services, Guernsey’ which is a joint venture between the Guernsey St John Ambulance and Rescue Service and St John Ambulance Guernsey.
The formation ceremony was conducted in the presence of His Royal Highness, The Duke of Gloucester KG GCVO, who is The Grand Prior of the Order of St John. The service that took place is steeped in history with elements dating back to the 1800’s when the order of chivalry was formally established. After the arrival of The Duke of Gloucester the ceremony started with a procession into the church by senior members of the order, dressed in ceremonial robes and carrying colourful banners and staffs.
All of St John’s activities in the Bailiwick of Guernsey now fall under the banner of the Commandery. They operate as separate companies but work together to provide a unique service to the community.