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1870-79 The need for first aid training

The St John Ambulance Association was established during 1877 in England by the Order of St John. The aim of the Association was to address the growing need for effective first aid training to deal with the increase in accidents occurring with the development of an industrialised and urbanised society.

1880-89 Enter the Brigade

Inspired by the original monastic Order of St John, the English Order founded a St John hospital in Jerusalem and, during 1887, created the St John Ambulance Brigade. The Brigade was based on a military-style organisation, featuring uniformed disciplined members and a specific hierarchy. Its primary purpose was to provide volunteers, trained in first aid, to offer basic medical assistance at large public events and during times of emergency.

1890-99 Arrival in Western Australia

Permission was granted to Mathieson Henry Jacoby to establish a St John Ambulance Association centre in the Western Australian colony during 1891. Jacoby had already gained a St John First Aid certificate in his hometown of Adelaide. Along with Dr George McWilliams he enlisted several local doctors to promote and teach first aid in Perth.

The initial first aid training class commenced on 3 March, 1892 and was attended by 20 police, 10 railway workers and two members of the community. By the end of the century, 176 students had passed St John Ambulance first aid courses.

1900-09 Expansion into the country

The start of the century saw new centres established in Kalgoorlie, Boulder and Fremantle. This was the beginning of a steady expansion into regional Western Australia.

A men’s division of the St John Ambulance Brigade was formed during 1904. The Brigade attended all race meetings at the metropolitan race courses and received donations for their services. They also attended other events such as football matches, bicycle races and the Royal Agricultural Show. During this decade, 1506 students passed their first aid courses.

1910-19 Supporting the war effort

During 1911, first aid classes began at mine sites and two years later, classes became a regular part of instruction in schools.

The first women’s nursing division was also founded during 1913. Many of these volunteers, along with the men’s Brigade, served in the First World War. This included women who formed Voluntary Aid Detachments and worked in military hospitals.

Despite first aid class numbers fluctuating during this decade – increasing during the First World War and decreasing because of the influenza pandemic – 7126 students passed their first aid courses.

1920-29 The city’s Ambulance Service

During 1921, a building was acquired on Murray street to officially house the Perth centre of the Association. After negotiations with other ambulance providers, St John Ambulance assumed responsibility for the city’s ambulance service on  1 July, 1922.

Prior to this, the injured were transported to hospitals by a number of ambulance corps including the Fire Brigade, Police, Railways, and the Fremantle Port Authority. Overwhelmed by public demand, the logical decision was to involve St John Ambulance. It would provide transport for both accident cases and, for the first time, medical cases. Between 1922 and 1923, 1873 patients were transported in three ambulances by four paid officers. The service grew steadily and within a decade the number of patients transported in the Perth area had risen to more than 3000.  

A first aid lecture was given by Sir John Hewitt in Kalgoorlie during his visit in 1928 and lectures on first aid were broadcast from the Western Australian Farmer’s Broadcasting Station (6WF). During 1929, a second metropolitan ambulance centre was established in Fremantle and St John began teaching first aid to girl guides and boy scouts. Some 4714 students passed their first aid courses during this period.

1930-39 Lotteries Commission support activities

The Depression following the First World War slowed advancement of the centres around the State. A campaign was initiated during 1932 to encourage first aid teaching to senior high school students in country areas. The ambulance service was funded through donations, and during 1933 the Lotteries Commission made its first annual grant, establishing a long association with St John Ambulance.

By 1938-39, the number of patients transported was 5174. There were four ambulances and six paid officers. Growth in the St John Ambulance Brigade was steady during this time and by 1939, the Western Australian District had 41 divisions with 1072 volunteer members. The first Cadet unit commenced in Fremantle during 1936. Throughout this period, 13,782 students successfully completed first aid courses.

1940-49 Demand for training increases

World War II had a great impact on all branches of St John Ambulance, with unprecedented demand for first aid training. Large numbers of the population – especially women – joined first aid classes for the war effort.

The number of certificates issued between 1939 and 1945 was 41,962. This was equivalent to one in every 12 Western Australians being certified. New divisions were registered in the Brigade despite many members joining the Armed Services. For those who did remain in the State, many joined Voluntary Aid Detachments with the men deployed in Air Raid Patrols and the women in the Army Medical Service. Following a greater understanding of injury treatment during WWII, a supplement to the first aid textbook was issued during 1945.

The St John headquarters moved to Wellington street during 1940 and seven years later the St John Commandery in Western Australia was established. This provided a semi-independent status for the WA Order, permitting self governance and no further requirements to have all decisions and policy come from London. It was towards the end of the 1940s that the State Government began its assistance in funding the ambulance service.

By the end of the decade, 46,099 students had passed first aid courses with St John Ambulance.

1950-59 First Aid revolutionised

First aid was transformed this decade with the introduction of mouth-to-mouth resuscitation. A contributory scheme was introduced during 1952 to allow the public to insure themselves for their ambulance transport needs. By 1959 there were 72 sub centres established throughout the State. The Association taught 1871 first aid students during that year and transported almost 12,000 patients. By the end of the decade, 28,499 students had passed a first aid course.

1960-69 A State of growth

This decade saw significant growth in St John Ambulance activity as the State’s population rapidly grew. Major changes in funding and governance enabled the Association to keep up with the increased demands.

A fleet of Dodge ambulances were acquired and were later replaced by Fords. The number of country sub centres also grew, with most staffed by volunteer ambulance officers. During 1961, Brigade numbers peaked at 2400 members, and first aid training was extended to taxi drivers, naval cadets and even the Vespa club.

At an international level, the ‘Resusci Anne’ first aid training manikin was introduced by Norwegian toy and doll manufacturer Asmund Laerdal. The introduction of Resusci Anne would revolutionise the training of first aid and CPR for generations to come. Trainers used ‘Annie’ to teach simple skills of CPR to 100 school children. The first manuals teaching ‘Airway, Breathing and Circulation’ (ABC) were published, and 47,965 students passed first aid courses.

1970-79 Birth of a non-profit organisation

Population growth and developments throughout the State continued during the 1970s. Occupational first aid training extended from police and the fire department to other essential industries including civil aviation and the army during 1970.

From 1977-80, St John Ambulance operated an aerial service in addition to road ambulances in the southwest of the State, alleviating many of the long road trips to hospital. There were 116 sub centres operating around the State and during 1979 the Basic Life Support (BLS) course was piloted. It included CPR, control of bleeding and caring for an unconscious patient.

Also during 1979, the administration of St John Ambulance shifted to a higher quality of professional management, and the headquarters moved from Perth to Belmont. As a consequence of these changes, the Association ceased being a medical charity and became a non-profit organisation combining features of a public utility, a business corporation and a voluntary association. Funding under this status also became more reliable. An ambulance contribution scheme and small government subsidies surpassed donations and fundraising events. Brigade numbers saw a decline during this period and 52,716 students passed first aid courses.

1980-89 A cohesive entity

During 1980, there was a 50 per cent increase in student numbers from the previous year because of tailored marketing and a professional approach. Throughout this decade, the first aid course was shortened to three days after constant internal review. This period saw 166,708 students pass first aid courses.

Across Australia, St John Ambulance services and activities were streamlined during the 1980s. A major structural review was initiated during 1985. All the various State arrangements were brought together under one cohesive entity; improving communications and reducing duplication. From this, a single name and logo was adopted across the country. The new name was ‘St John Ambulance Australia’ and all activities were channelled into two departments – a training branch replacing the ‘Association’ and an Operations Branch replacing the ‘Brigade’.

1990-99 A century of service

St John Ambulance Australia (WA) celebrated 100 years of service to the Western Australian community during 1992, as well as 70 years of running the ambulance service.

The organisation continued to develop and during 1995 it opened a new branch, Community Care. The aim was to meet the growing needs of the lonely elderly in the community, with non-uniformed volunteers taking them shopping or on excursions and maintaining contact by telephone (see picture, left).

The Industrial Paramedic Service was also introduced during this period. During 1991, an introductory course was created with the emphasis on practical first aid. Training numbers increased, and included 900 country police. 383,186 students successfully passed first aid courses during this decade.  Between 1999 and 2000, more than 500 career and 2000 volunteer ambulance personnel transported 136,000 patients. The ambulance fleet consisted of 340 vans and 55 other vehicles. The old Ford model ambulances were slowly replaced by new Mercedes models.

Uniformed volunteer first aiders performed 42,000 hours of public duty and treated 5885 casualties. In the Community Care branch, 207 additional volunteers visited 1306 elderly patrons. A number of people from the Marr Mooditj Foundation became first aid instructors in order to train Aboriginal health care workers.

2000-09 A modern organisation

The new millennium saw a united, modern organisation emerge. A new green-coloured uniform was worn by all first aid trainers, ambulance paramedics, volunteer ambulance officers and volunteer first aiders. Mercedes ambulances were still being rolled out across the State, with green livery replacing the traditional red and black. All administration was located at the State centre in Belmont.

First aid courses were expanded, with new initiatives such as the First Responder System. Oxygen and semi-automatic defibrillators were allowed to be used by First Responder personnel until paramedics arrived on the scene. First aid courses were also condensed to two days. St John Ambulance was officially recognised by the State Government as the principle provider of ambulance transport in Western Australia.

The Volunteer First Aid Service celebrated 100 years during 2004, acknowledging the important role volunteers play in providing first aid services at community, cultural and sporting events.

2010-present - What the future holds

St John Ambulance Western Australia celebrates 120 years of service to the community in 2012. It is committed to pursuing its humanitarian vision and providing high-quality first aid services to the community, using new technology and advancements in first aid equipment and techniques.

Since the start of the new millennium, 1,115,247 students have passed St John Ambulance first aid training courses.


2020 - present - The digital era

St John WA has embraced the digital world by using innovative technologies to provide new and exciting services to the community. From our Virtual Reality First Aid Training, which takes the user into an immersive and challenging environment, where they are tested in real life scenarios. To our First responder app with over 250,000 downloads, allowing certified members to assist in an emergency, when every minute counts.

Throughout the last 10 years St John has continued to support the community through devastating fires and COVID 19. Looking forward we aim to be the most trusted provider of clinical care in the community of Western Australia.