St John Ambulance Nelson 1932 -1945


The exact date when the Order of the Hospital of St John of Jerusalem first came into being is unknown, although it was about 1070, when a hospice - a place of care - was established in Jerusalem by monks from a neighbouring Benedictine abbey to care for the growing number of Christians making the long and dangerous pilgrimage to the holy city.

The English Knights of the Order devoted themselves to charitable activities, which were organised into what became known as Foundations. It was this British group, carrying out very substantial charitable activities, which Queen Victoria recognised and incorporated in 1888 and which became the modern Order of St John. The British Empire was the largest the world has ever known and the Order saw it as part of its role to spread Western medical practice to the colonies. Today St John is still active in over 40 countries across the world.

St JohnSt John Ambulance Association logo
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St John established in Christchurch 1855

New Zealand in the 1880's wasn’t a good place to have an accident or to get ill suddenly. Even though people were highly susceptible to injury because they were mostly doing manual jobs, medical services were scant.

In April 1885 at a public meeting in St Mary's Church, Christchurch, Reverend Thomas Flavell and Dr Walter Hacon proposed that the St John Ambulance Association be introduced to the colony. Their initiative led to the rapid establishment of St John throughout New Zealand.

In 1892 the first St John Ambulance Brigade was formed in Dunedin; in 1895 the first St John Nursing Division was established, also in Dunedin; and by 1905, nearly half of the St John divisions outside the United Kingdom were in New Zealand.

St John has grown to become one of the largest civilian service organisations in New Zealand with a continuing mission to prevent and relieve sickness and injury, and to enhance the health and well-being of all New Zealanders.

St John PhotonewsNelson St John Ambulance service gets the first mobile first aid unit in New Zealand. Nelson Photonews February 2 1963
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St John Ambulance  in Nelson 1932-1945

The ambulance division in Nelson was formed in 1932 after a public meeting in 1931 called by Dr Low and Mr Stedman.  They had met in Marsden Hall in Nile Street and private homes and later in a room at the YMCA.  Superintendent Mr Stedman and Officer Mr H. Ashton were responsible for the first aid instruction.  Various nursing divisions were formed, firstly at Nelson with Mrs Ross as Superintendent, Mrs Black as Officer and Mrs Kerby as Secretary.  A room was used in Wakatu Lane for several years and during this time first aid and home nursing courses were taught and duties covered sports fields, shows and parades, similar to what is done today.

Ambulance group, 312619Ambulance group, Nelson Provincial Museum. Photographic Collection 312619
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The first subsidiary divisions were at Stoke and Wakefield and followed soon after by Tahunanui.  Motueka St John’s Ambulance division was set up by Mr Brough and Dr Green. Over the years Motueka St John’s Ambulance and nursing divisions grew until they owned and ran a free ambulance service, a first aid mobile unit and a large St John Ambulance hall well used by senior and cadet divisions.

In Nelson, Marsden Hall and YMCA were used for activities but St John wanted to find a permanent home. Local service clubs Rotary and Lions helped raise money, as well as the St John’s Brigade members, until £1,000 was available to be used.

A hall was built at Stoke, and eventually the building moved to a site at Trafalgar Park.  Further divisions were being formed at Nelson College and, during 1939 to 1945, first aid enthusiasm mounted until there were 22 divisions including some as far afield as Fox Hill and Takaka.  Nelson City had two ambulance and two nursing divisions at this time. 

As years went by the need for a first aid mobile unit was seen and the combined efforts of members and service clubs meant that one could be purchased and this carried Dr Low’s name in honour of the work he had done for the St John Ambulance Brigade and association.  The association acquired a Land Rover Ambulance named The Ernest Ashton Rescue Unit which was also financed by community effort.

2014. Updated July 2020

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  • My father Moreland Laurence Gibbs was involved in St John for a very long time, becoming Nelson & Marlborough district superintendent. I was a cadet when the 4wd Ernie Ashton ambulance was purchased. Dad was actively involved from sometime during or after the war. Due to flat feet and symptoms of diabetes was unable to serve as a soldier or the home guard, so became involved in setting up St John around the Nelson area. He was later made a brother of the order.

    Posted by Rev Brendan Gibbs, 17/08/2021 7:53pm (3 years ago)

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