The Encyclopaedia of Plymouth History
The carriage of patients to the Borough Hospital in Plymouth at the turn of the 19th century was in the hands of Mr George Clark, a carriage proprietor of 14 Athenaeum Street, who kept a Brougham carriage available for that purpose. However, for some reason he was discharged from that duty circa 1902, for in the Council Minutes of 1903 there is a reference to him offering to sell the Brougham to the Corporation. They declined the offer and, indeed, told him to remove it.
They then invited quotations from liverymen for the supply of horses to provide an ambulance service. Mr Clark, presumably miffed by his dismissal, quoted six shillings per day, whereas all the others quoted only five shillings per day.
Way back in the 11th century there had been a religious nursing order named the Knights Hospitallers of St John of Jerusalem, who had been formed to look after pilgrims to the Holy Land. Unfortunately they got a bit out of control, and soon turned into a military crusading force, capturing extensive possessions in Palestine and Europe. They eventually lost the Holy Land and moved at first to Rhodes and in 1310 to the island of Malta. But in Britain, the Order was suppressed by King Henry VIII when he dissolved the monasteries.
Four hundred years later, at the beginning of the 19th century, there was a move to revive the Order of St John in England, purely to care for the sick and for those injured during the pioneering years of the industrial revolution. However, this needed the consent of the Pope and, as there were Anglicans as well as Catholics involved, he naturally refused.
The English are not so easily deterred, however, and so they set up their own, British Order of St John. In those days, a worker injured during, say, constructing a railway, would have more than likely died from his injuries as there was little time or facility to get him to a doctor or hospital. Doctors were called out, usually, so a lot of time was lost getting to the Doctor's residence, and for him to get to the scene of the accident. If he was not at home, well, that was it. At best, they were left disabled, unable to work and support their family.
Members of the British Order of St John wanted to do something about this situation. The first idea was to train people to provide what they called First Aid. In 1877 they set up the St John's Ambulance to provide this training and it became extremely popular. In 1887 this was taken a stage further by organising the volunteers into a uniformed Brigade to provide First Aid and an ambulance service at public events. The famous black and white uniform thus came into being.
The Plymouth ambulance service was born on November 4th 1910, when at the request of some of the young men attending George Street Baptist Church, particularly Mr R Charles Jean, Mr Hedley Miller began First Aid classes in the Sunday School building. He was "raw" and inexperienced at the time but had a great deal of help from Doctor T G Vawdrey.
Hedley, along with his brothers, Wilfred and Walter, had the idea of setting up the George Street Church Ambulance Corps. They used some rooms at the Church as their headquarters, where members waited to be called out to accidents or to transport a patient, and basic First Aid could be given to members of the public. The Corps adopted the motto 'Prepared to Help'. The average age of the officers and and members was just 16.
They started with a simple stretcher given to them by Hedley's mother (it had cost two shillings to purchase) but were presented with a two-wheeled canvas covered handcart in 1913. This was donated by the Church itself. It proved very useful and patients were transported all over Plymouth, and beyond. Indeed, it is reported that on one occasion it was taken by ship to Ireland in order to transfer a dying lady to her home.
Devonport was not left out and the Council minutes for January 20th 1910 record that Councillor Roberts had requested that a wheeled ambulance be provided at Ford. The Chief Constable of Devonport had supplied such a vehicle and it was kept at the Corporation Store, Ford.
Likewise, East Stonehouse must have had an early form of emergency carriage because in January 1917 it was going to be purchased by Plymouth Council.
Plymouth's first motor ambulance was built locally in 1918 and was presented to the Corps by the Mayor of Plymouth, Mr J P Brown JP, at a special ceremony in the Guildhall Square on Wednesday March 6th 1918. It was dedicated by the Reverend F J Miles, DSO, the Senior Chaplain of the Australian Imperial Forces. [a]
A second vehicle was acquired the following year.
The Saint Budeaux Division of the Corps was formed at a meeting in the Red Triangle Hut on Friday October 1st 1920. [b]
On the afternoon of Saturday October 2nd 1920 the Mayoress of Plymouth, Mrs Lovell Dunstan, opened the fourth depot of the Plymouth and District Ambulance service in the grounds of the Royal Albert Hospital at Devonport. The Mayor presided and inspected the guard of honour while the Morice Town Salvation Army Silver Band played a selection of music. After the ambulance had been dedicated by the Reverend Chancellor Ponsonby, the Mayor presented medallions and certificates to members of the Corps. The new Station would be staffed day and night by members of the newly formed Devonport and Stoke divisions. [b]
A division covering Ford and Keyham Barton was expected to be formed shortly. [b]
In 1921 the movement was incorporated into the Saint John Ambulance Brigade, where it was joined by members of the Great Western Railway and Plymouth Co-operative Society St John's Divisions. Number 35 Notte Street was converted into headquarters for the Brigade and the premises next door, number 36, became the ambulance station. Within a couple of years they had established additional depots at the Baptist Sunday School in Union Place, Stonehouse, and in the grounds of the Royal Albert Hospital, New Passage Hill, Devonport. The Service could be reached by telephone in 1932: Plymouth 250 and 251 or 2821 extension 253, day and night.
Plymouth Corporation agreed to maintain the St John Ambulance as from April 1st 1923 provided that the cost did not exceed forty shillings (£2) per week.
A special concert was held at the Gaumont Palace Cinema on the evening of Sunday April 22nd 1934 in aid of the Stonehouse St John Ambulance Association Station Building Fund. This particular unit had 28 members and in addition to providing facilities in Stonehouse also ran a first aid hut at Whitsands. During the summer of 1933 the hut had dealt with 50 cases while during the whole of 1933 the Stonehouse Station had been involved in the removal of 350 cases of sickness and had attended 240 accidents. 
By the 1930s the City, as it by then become, was outgrowing the ambulance facilities and a search was started for more suitable premises. After dismissing the old stables at Pounds House, Central Park, thanks to the close co-operation that had been established between Hedley Miller and the police, the Council donated a site close to the hospitals and police headquarters.
Thus, on May 1st 1935 'The J H Beckly Memorial Ambulance Station' was opened on Greenbank Hill, despite the fact that they were some £4,000 short of their financial target. This was, after all, a private enterprise. It has to be said, though, that they probably would have delayed the opening if it had not been for the imminent celebrations for HM King George's Silver Jubilee on May 6th that year.
When World War Two started in 1939 they had the foresight to purchase an old single-deck bus that had been used by the local gas company as a mobile showroom. This was converted so that it could carry either 12 stretcher cases or 31 sitting patients. This larger than usual ambulance proved its worth on several occasions, on one carrying large numbers of wounded merchant seamen, on another bringing survivors from a torpedoed vessel that went aground at Hope Cove into Plymouth. It was also used after the evacuation from Dunkirk, on a dark and snowy night, to go up to the Southern Railway station at Tavistock to collect wounded American soldiers off a hospital train and ferry them to a temporary hospital on Plaister Down.
Things changed after the war finished. In 1948 the National Health Service was formed and the local authority were now obliged to take control of the ambulance service. As the City grew northwards, with new housing estates at Ernesettle, Whitleigh and Southway, so it became necessary for a new ambulance station to be built in Crownhill Road.
Two Austin ambulances were sold in October 1949: DR 9736 went to Plymouth Motors Ltd and DR 9738 went to Mr C H Rowe, also of Plymouth. The former was probably used by the Devon and Cornwall Private Ambulance Service, which was owned by Mr W J Speare and operated from the Plymouth Motor Company's premises at 14a Athenaeum Street.
Prior to 1951 the crews had to return to their station or find a telephone box to ring headquarters before going to the next call but in that year they were fitted with radio-telephones.
A further two Austin ambulances were sold during 1951. BCO 34 went to Lammas Motors of London in April and CDR 406 was sold by tender to a Mr Luckhurst of Devonport in June 1951.
Mr W E Beckly, the nephew of Mr J H Beckly, opened a new ambulance station at Crownhill on Friday July 30th 1954. It replaced the Stonehouse sub-station. The architects were Messrs Walls and Pearn and the contractors were Messrs J W Spencer Ltd. It was partly funded by a £7,500 war damage compensation payment in respect of the original privately owned ambulance station in Notte Street. 
Built on two storeys, the control room, kitchen, dining room, locker room and drying room were on the ground floor with lecture rooms and rest rooms above. The station was to be manned by paid personnel during the day but by St John Ambulance Brigade volunteers at night and at weekends, for whom the rest rooms were provided. Adjoining the building was a garage for the six ambulances and a workshop for servicing and repairs. Beneath the yard was a 1,000 gallon petrol tank. Thoughtfully, each ambulance had its own heater mounted on the wall in front of it to assist in starting the engine in cold weather. 
Among those present at the official opening were the Deputy Lord Mayor of Plymouth, Mr J Folley; the Reverend J C Houghton, who dedicated the building; Miss Christine Short and Miss Dorothy Cornish, daughters of ambulance personnel, who presented bouquets to Mrs Folley and Mrs Beckly; Mr T R Adams, general foreman; Mr S Martin, plasterer; Mr S Strong, carpenter; Doctor T Pierson, the Medical Officer of Health; Mr R Sampson, the ambulance officer; Mr C H P Pearn, from the architects; and Mr S Grinter, representing the contractors. 
The station opened for business at 5pm and received its first call at 7.10pm to take a woman to hospital. 
Under Local Government reorganisation of 1974, when Plymouth lost its administrative status, its fleet was merged into a new Devon County Ambulance Service, run from Exeter.
The old Station in Greenbank was demolished in February 2004 but the one at Crownhill is still standing and used by the British Red Cross Society.
|© Brian Moseley, Plymouth, UK|
Any problems viewing this webpage should be notified to the webmaster at plymouthdata dot info