St. John Ambulance is an ancient organization. We trace our roots back nearly 1,000 years to the Crusades, and a small hospice in Jerusalem that became famous for caring for all people in need, regardless of their religion, race, or beliefs.
Our modern-day form has seen us expand across the world, with operations in dozens of countries. Here in Canada we have proudly been providing first aid to Canadians since 1882, and to citizens of what is now Greater Victoria since 1911.
While our historical roots lie in ancient Christendom, our modern organization is secular, and we pride ourselves on welcoming all people in our mission to provide first aid to all those in need.
Highlights of Our History in Victoria
We’re proud to have served the citizens of Victoria since May, 1911 when the first St. John Ambulance Association committee was struck. By August of that year, first aid classes were being offered to the public, and in early November, The Daily Colonist reported that our fledgling Victoria branch had trained 36 members of the Victoria Police Department, and 11 members of the public in first aid.
After the start of World War I, a group of our female members formed a Voluntary Aid Detachment and operated a convalescent home for soldiers returning from battle. 1935 saw the formation of our first uniformed St. John Ambulance Brigade: Division 65 – At the time a group restricted to male membership. Over the following years, as interest in first aid grew, Cadet and Nursing divisions were also formed.
Following the bombing of Pearl Harbour in 1941, public concern about the Canadian involvement in World War II became intense. St. John Ambulance expanded, offering first aid classes, and placing first aid posts in strategic locations around the city. By 1942, St. John Ambulance in Victoria had 250 members across Nursing, Cadet, and Brigade divisions – including Brigade Division 176, which continues operations today.
As World War II ended and Canadian soldiers began to return home from incarceration in POW camps, our members were once again called on to assist – hundreds of SJA volunteers provided countless hours of service staffing mobile clinics at dockyards in Victoria and Esquimalt and providing nursing care and transport.
As the post-war years brought the realities of peacetime to Victoria, St. John Ambulance’s focus turned to home nursing care, youth and adult education in first aid, and public service. While the Korean conflict of the 1950s saw our members work closely with Civil Defence personnel during air raid drills that simulated nuclear attack, our peacetime focus has remained one of education and public service.
We continue to work towards the same goals as our ancient predecessors, providing first aid and care to anyone in need.
Our History in Ancient Times
St. John Ambulance has been around for a long, long time – Internationally we trace our roots back to a small hospice in Jerusalem where, some time in the 11th century, a monk named Gerard began offering safe accommodation, food, and medical care to weary pilgrims – Thus began our long tradition of caring for “our lords, the sick and the poor.” It was not long before Gerard and his hospice became known for helping anyone who arrived in need, regardless of their religion or background.
Over the years, the mission of the the hospice expanded to include the protection of pilgrims on the road to the holy land. On the 15th of February, in the year 1113, Pope Paschal II recognized the work of the monastic community’s work in the papal bull Pie Postulatio Voluntatis and the Order of the Knights Hospitaller – The Knights of the Hospital of St. John – became an official entity of the church.
The Knights Hospitaller quickly became involved in the defence of pilgrims in military conflicts, and despite developing themselves into of the fiercest fighting forces of Outremer, were eventually defeated and driven out in 1291. In 1310 they conquered the island of Rhodes, which was to become their home until 1522 when they were again defeated, eventually settling in what is now Malta in 1530.
The Knights Hospitaller occupied Malta for 268 years, defending it, and Europe, from the Ottoman Empire during countless naval battles. During the Great Siege of Malta in 1565, the Grandmaster of the order, Jean de la Valette, successfully led the defence of the island with only 6,000 troops under his command – The Ottomans arrived with 40,000 troops and, by some accounts, suffered over 30,000 casualties before conceding defeat and abandoning the siege.
Throughout their military exploits in the Mediterranean, the Order of the Knights Hospitaller maintained their mission to provide medical care and study the science of medicine. The Sacra Infermeria (Literally “Great Hospital”) in Valletta, Malta, was 155 meters long, and had a normal capacity of 500 patients, and room for over 900 in times of great need. (For comparison – Royal Jubilee Hospital here in Victoria has 500 beds.)
The Sacra Infermeria pioneered the use of personalized sanitation services as well as silver serving-ware to reduce the transmission of disease. Separate wards were created to sort patients suffering the same ailments together, and reduce horizontal disease transmission.
While the order was headquartered in Rhodes and then Malta, commanderies were formed in all corners of Europe – Funds were raised, and dozens of hospitals were built across most of the continent – From Poland to England and Ireland, Navarre, Aragon, Auvergne and Bavaria – The Order’s mission to provide aid and service spread across nearly all of what is now modern-day Europe.
In 1798 Malta fell to a French general – Napoleon Bonaparte – leaving the Order of the Knights Hospitaller greatly weakened and diminished. Without leadership, the international priories of The Order quickly fell into disarray, though many continued operations independently of one another.
In 1877 the remnants of the English langue formed The St. John Ambulance Association in England, and tasked the new organization with educating people in First Aid. In 1882 the St. John Ambulance Association crossed the Atlantic, and began offering first aid courses in Quebec city.
Five years later, in 1887, the formation of the St. John Ambulance Brigade in the UK saw the first uniformed first-aiders take their skills into industrial areas – railroads, and factories – and other areas of the public sphere.
In 1888 the British Order of St. John was formally recognized by Queen Victoria, who established it as The Most Venerable Order of the Hospital of St. John of Jerusalem, and included The Order in the British honours system. To this day the reigning monarch serves as the head of The Order, and their viceregal representatives serve as regional priors. Currently in British Columbia, Her Honour Janet Austin, a Dame of Justice, serves as the Vice Prior of The Order of St. John.
Even with royal recognition, it took nearly 20 years for the work of The Order to spread to Victoria, British Columbia — On January 19, 1911, Lt-Gov. Thomas Paterson chaired the first meeting of what would become St. John Ambulance Association here in Victoria, at the Board of Trade Rooms located at 521 Bastion Square.
Despite the passing of more than a century since that meeting, and close to 1,000 years since The Order’s founding, our work remains the same as that of Gerard of Jerusalem – To provide care and ease the suffering of all those in need.
Pro Fide. Pro Utilitate Hominum.
If you would like to read more about the history of St. John Ambulance, we kindly suggest the following literature and references as a good starting point:
Bradford, Ernle. (1972). The Shield and the Sword: The Knights of Malta. Open Road Integrated Media. New York. ISBN 978-1-4976-3796-2
McCreery, Christopher. (2008). The Maple Leaf and the White Cross: A History of St. John Ambulance and the Most Venerable Order of the Hospital of St. John of Jerusalem in Canada. Dundurn Press. Toronto, Canada. ISBN 978-1-55002-740-2
Rowe, Ernest T.W. (1998). St. John in Victoria. Sidney, BC. Peninsula Printers.