St John Ambulance celebrate 80th anniversary

Albert Smallwoods. INLS0614-103KM
Albert Smallwoods. INLS0614-103KM

It is 80 years ago this year that the Foyle St John Ambulance Nursing and Ambulance Divisions were created, inspiring many of it’s members to choose careers in the medical profession.

The organisation celebrated the milestone recently with a gala dinner and a reception was hosted in their honour by the Mayor, Martin Reilly, at the Guildhall.

Albert on the left after his introduction to Princess Margaret, centre, during one of the many camps that the Cadets enjoyed in his career with the Order of St John.

Albert on the left after his introduction to Princess Margaret, centre, during one of the many camps that the Cadets enjoyed in his career with the Order of St John.

The members of the Order have very busy schedules, and a lot of their energy of late has gone into not only providing cover for the UK City of Culture events, but also to work for their new Headquarters at Sprintown - their first purpose-built premises in their eight decade existence.

Knight of the Order, Albert Smallwoods, who joined the Order in 1950 revealed that much of the spare time of late had been devoted to fundraising activities: “It really has taken precedence, getting fundraising done, because the new headquarters is quite expensive. It opened in September last year. We were originally in the old Wesleyan Church on Hawkin Street, but parking was bad and there was nowhere for the ambulances, so Springtown offered us a big industrial building where you can put two ambulances in and we were able to convert it into a lecture room, a committee room, an office and kitchens as well.”

In the old church building, before the St Johns bought it in 1986, it was owned by the Irish Order of Good Templars and St John ‘rented’ it every Monday and Tuesday evening from the 1940’s until they eventually purchased it.

It was once known as ‘The Slate Club’ because in some way it was a place where people had gone to save. According to Albert, people went there every Saturday afternoon to save.

Albert, lieft, with the Commissioner in 1965 at an Inspection night in Hawkin Street.

Albert, lieft, with the Commissioner in 1965 at an Inspection night in Hawkin Street.

“There were three columns and depending on what colour of card you had you queued up and you handed over your shilling or two and then one person marked your book, the next put it in the big ledger and the other person took your money and you got it back at Christmas time. It was a savings club, but we hired the same hall on a Monday and Tuesday.

“On the Monday the Nursing Cadets met at 7pm and the ladies at 8pm and on the Tuesday the boys met at 7pm and the men met at 8pm. In those days no way would you be allowed to meet together. The first group that met together was in Strabane High School in 1966. The Commissioner at the time was Col Desmond Whyte, head of the Radiography Department at Altnagelvin Hospital, and he said ‘We will have this unit’. The Northern Ireland District Officer for Nursing Cadets, Ethel Garrett, said ‘You will not. We will never have mixed boys and girls’. That was the way life was in those days, so Col Whyte said ‘I’m running this area,I’ll decide and we will have.’ And that was the first combined boys and girls Cadet Division in Northern Ireland in Strabane High School. Of course they are combined all over the place now... In those days you would not have had the women and men combined either, oh no, no, no, but times have moved on. Nowadays the young people meet earlier but it is all under one leader,” said Albert.

Interestingly, Albert joined the Cadets because his older sister was a Nursing Cadet in the Londonderry Nursing Division, so nothing would do but Albert join the Ambulance Division in 1950.

A long and winding 64 years later he is one of only two Knights of the Order in Northern Ireland.

One of his indelible memories from his youth is the Queen’s visit in 1953, one of the first she made as Monarch anywhere.

“The Queen was coming to Northern Ireland following her Coronation and a certain number of us were invited to Balmoral, as lots of other organisations were as well. At 10pm the night before, the Superintendent of my Division arrived at my door and I, of course, was all excited, looking forward to it. The uniform was all laid out on the bed ready for the morning. He announced that ‘Tomorrow is off and I have resigned’. That was a terrible shock. He had had an argument with the Area Commissioner and I never found out what the problem between them was, but he resigned that night and arrived at my door, and we didn’t go. It was very sad. Such an occasion to go and see the Queen,” he said.

He did, however, get to meet her on more than one occasion later in his life, receiving not only the Maunday Money from her but also when he received his MBE in the New Years Honours List in 1993, which, he actually got for his work as chairman with the NI Home Accident Prevention Council.

With the young people’s division down, Albert joined the more senior Division as a ‘student’ and then in 1962, tempted to throw in the towel, but he was persuaded to reform the junior Division, which he did. He had over 30 in his Division and because he was a Scout Master at the time he was able to do a lot of the Scouting activities in tandem with the Cadets in terms of activities, visits to London, outings, parading and drill work. There was a flourishing parents’ committee and fundraising activity too.

Some of the many awards and accolades bestowed on Albert duing his 64 years with the Order of St John.

Some of the many awards and accolades bestowed on Albert duing his 64 years with the Order of St John.

He recalled one instance, as a young recruit, however, that did not go so well: “My first experience was in 1951, when eight of us from the City here went to Chigwell in Essex to attend the Festival of Britain celebrations. I remember it well. This was a purpose-built campsite and was the official opening of it was by the present Queen, as Princess Elizabeth opened it, and Winston Churchill was the Prime Minister and also attended and during the 1960s and 1970s I took the cadets back there on may occasions,” he said.

“In those days we would have had more camps than anywhere else in Northern Ireland and we used to go there and it was very handy from there to tour London. The Cadets were popular in those days, you would have had 30 or 40 in a unit. Mind you, some of the units nowadays have 80 or 90 in them and during the late 1960s we had a couple of Divisons with over 100 in the City. Parents were keen to get their children into a ‘uniformed organisation’ not like a boys’ club or a girls’ club. In those days it was very much a mixed religious organisation, where probably when you go back to the 1930s or 1940s, it was very much a Protestant organisation,” he said.

The regulations in the ‘old days’ were very relaxed compared to now. If you wanted to do a first aid course you did it and off you went out to do your duties. Now is more heavily focused on training courses and having the right qualifications for everything from driving an ambulance to putting a sticking plaster on someone’s finger - simply because of the propensity towards litigation.

“Its all courses, courses, courses and it is all to do with litigation and people making claims against the organisation,” he said recalling a situation with a runner in England who collapsed.

“If the person holds the proper certificate and they hold all the right certificates, the Court will uphold them that they were properly and fully qualified,” he said.

There is no doubt that over the past 80 years the organisation is responsible for providing several generations of Maiden City natives with a whole range of skills that they have taken into their lives, including a wide range of first aid and emergency skills as well as citizenship.

In the City this year we have the Northern Ireland Cadet of the Year from the Belmont Division, last year we also had the Northern Ireland Cadet of the Year from Northland as well as the Badger of the Year (aged six to eight), and this year again the NI Badger of the Year was again from Lisnagelvin Badgers. The number of awards that these young people pick up is, to quote Albert, “Just amazing”.

“With nursing and doctors combined it is hard to put a finger on the number of people who have gone on to have a career in nursing and medicine, but when you listen to people talking you can heat it; ‘Oh, So-and-so is in the City Hospital, So-and-so is nursing in England, it must be hundreds...and that’s the reason some of them joined up, because that was their interest and that was the profession they wanted to follow,” said Albert, proud of the fact that so many of his Badgers and Cadets have gone on to take UK-wide titles in competitions.

“This year the Badgers came back with fist place in the UK and the Cadets came back with second place and the year before the adults, the Cadets and the Badgers all came back with first place,” he said.

Recalling the death of the Area Commissioner, Albert said there were some reservations about his replacement Lt Col Desmond Whyte, head of the radiology department in Altnagelvin Hospital.

“We all said to ourselves ‘that’s the end of the organisation! Do we want an Army Colonel running this organisation? No, we don’t. Its the end, we’ll be finished’,” said Albert, adding: “He was the greatest thing since sliced bread. Col Desmond Whyte, this new man, you could not get him out of the hall. Night after night I stood at the door with my finger on the light switch, he was marvellous! Up to that we had about 220 members and he then appointed me Area Staff Officer for the Ambulance Cadets, because we never had one. We had Anna Anderson, she was the Area Staff officer for the Nursing Cadets, and Col Whyte and I set off and we formed Divisions in Eglinton, Strathfoyle, Claudy Donemana, Castlederg, Sion Mills and we got all these new Divisions. So where we had about six Divisions, we now had 15 or 16, and the numbers soared to nearly 900. We ended up we had more Cadets in this area than in the whole of the rest of Northern Ireland,” he said.

After being Superintendent he went on to be the Area Staff Officer for the Ambulance Cadets before taking up the role of Area Superintendent for the Ambulance Division in 1971, and in 1975 when Col Whyte retired, Albert took over as Area Commissioner.

He recalled ‘The Troubles’ being a big problem for the organisation as people did not want to come out for meetings, so the numbers dropped and a lot of Divisions closed.

“No one wanted to go to Hawkin Street at night back then, and at that time we had been planning to build a new HQ, and we were offered ground somewhere between the Fire Station and the Police Station at Crescent Link, but The Troubles took over,” he said wistfully.

His next step up in the organisation was as Deputy Northern Ireland Commissioner and then three years later became the Northern Ireland Commissioner from 1993 to 1999. My last official function in 1999 was when the Order of St John were forming a Priory of England. Before that England was a part of the Grand Priory. This move meant it obtained Priory status in its own right. It was known as the Priory of England and the Islands, which brought in Northern Ireland, the Isle of Mann and the Channel Islands and all that sort of stuff. It was also the 900th anniversary of the Order of St John, which started in Jerusalem. So, they held a big dinner in the Guildhall in London and because it was the 900th anniversary they invited 900 people.

Albert remembers it as “an absolutely wonderful occasion”.

“I attended that and it was just unbelievable to be at an event like that”.

Next came his stint as Deputy Northern Ireland President and then in 2005 he became President, serving in that capacity until 2011, when he finished.

“All I am now is a Knight of the Order of St John, and in Northern Ireland we have what is called a Commandry, or a small group, so I am a member of the Chapter of that and have been since 1988.”

Next week The Sentinel will publish a nostalgic two-page photo feature of the St John Ambulance through the decades. Out on Wednesday, February 19.