St John has been helping Kiwis since 1885, when a reverend and a doctor collaborated to get St John started here.

The history of St John in New Zealand

Established in New Zealand since 1885, St John has grown to become one of the largest civilian service organisations in the country. Our mission today is the same as it was back then – to prevent and relieve sickness and injury, and to enhance the health and well-being of all New Zealanders.

A colony in need of a first aid service

New Zealand in the 1880s 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 1892the 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. Since those early milestones, St John has grown and evolved rapidly to become the well-known organisation it is today.

From the Ashford litter to state-of-the-art ambulances

Patient transport has always been a core service provided by St John. The first ambulance vehicle in New Zealand was ‘the Ashford litter’ – a simple, two-wheeled cart that was pushed along the road by four men. Today St John provides emergency and non-emergency ambulance services for approximately 90% of New Zealand's population –  activity that involves state-of-the-art ambulances, four-wheel drive vehicles, motorcycles and other specialist vehicles.

The spirit of volunteering

In New Zealand volunteering for St John has always been a noble pastime, because the services we provide benefit everyone. The volunteers of the late 1800s got involved by raising funds, attending first aid lectures and helping with the administration of the organisation – three areas of volunteer commitment that remain popular to this day. 

Volunteers were also keen to learn first aid and pass examinations which would allow them to wear the coveted ‘St John medallion’. When first aid training was in its infancy, New Zealand newspapers enthusiastically published reports of successful treatments by first aiders, as well as lists of those who had earned medallion status.

Helping out during and after the war

During World War II, St John volunteers supported the Air Raid Precautions Scheme in New Zealand. They made and rolled bandages and dressings, taught first aid at mass public classes and worked at medical centres. Many St John volunteers also served overseas with the New Zealand Military forces.

Following the war, St John established mobile clinics and provided an efficient blood collection service. St John in New Zealand was also elevated to a Priory in 1946, giving it greater autonomy and influence.

New Zealand’s first telethon aids St John

In the mid 1970s, ambulance personnel were encouraged to obtain formal medical qualifications. The day of an ambulance travelling at breakneck speed with patients tended by personnel holding only basic first aid certificates was over.

To help lift the skills levels of ambulance staff, New Zealand’s first Telethon raised more than half a million dollars to establish a national ambulance training centre. In the same year St John ambulances travelled 2.815 million miles, were crewed by 1,120 personnel and carried 251,000 patients.

New services for the new millennium

Since the year 2000, St John has consolidated and reorganised the structure used to provide services. Our core activities continue to be ambulance services, first aid training and public first aid. We have added to our service offering as new needs emerged – Caring Caller, ASB St John in Schools and Friends of the Emergency Department, Health Shuttles, St John Opportunity Shops, Medical Alarms and the St John Youth programme.

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