The Ambulance Division was first registered on 24th June 1932 as Highbridge & Burnham Division, single sex Divisions only were operated – Ambulance for men, Nursing for ladies and corresponding for Cadets. Today there are combinations of Quadrilateral – one Division with all members- men, women, boys and girls; in 1932 there was a very definite segregation of the members. The Highbridge and Burnham Division were formed mostly with men who worked on the S & D Railway and had trained in first aid. Early paperwork indicates that the Division met in the Council Chamber of the Highbridge Town Hall; Mr. F. Hayes was the Superintendent, Dr. Jack Burns as the Surgeon and 30 members.
Ladies soon followed into the Service and were first registered on 20th August 1938 under the leadership of Mrs. Lumber. It is interesting to note that in those days she was referred to as “The Lady Superintendent”; Dr. Burns’s wife, Phyllis (also a Doctor) became the Nursing Division’s Surgeon. On Sunday 10th December 1939 the first ambulance was dedicated at the Bristol Blue Bus Garage, which later became part of Woodberry Bros.& Haines Ltd near the Bristol Bridge. The first patient to be conveyed to hospital in the new ambulance was their Superintendent Mr. Hayes who, regrettably, died just six days after the dedication; he was succeeded as Superintendent by Mr. W Young who remained in office until his death in 1947.
A new Headquarters was opened on Sunday 25th June 1943 at the Constitutional Club in Highbridge this was a building between the Railway Hotel and the Town Hall in Market Street. Also, during 1943 two Cadet Divisions were formed – the ambulance cadets under the leadership of Mr. Fred Webb, this was registered on 5th October. The Nursing Cadets were formed with Mrs Hansford as Superintendent this started on 20th December. On VE Day 1945 a newly acquired American Ambulance was involved, tragically, involved in a fatal accident in which Mrs Lumber the Lady Superintendent of the Nursing Division lost her life. A window in West Huntspill Church is dedicated to her memory. In May 1950 Dr Jack Burns the Division’s first surgeon died and a very well known local GP Dr Gerald Clayton was appointed to take his place, Mrs Edith Clayton became Nursing Officer of the Nursing Division. The Doctor and Mrs Clayton were stalwart supporters of the Division for many years. At that time Mr Harry Miller was Superintendent having been a founder member of the Division.
The first recorded AGM of the Nursing Cadets refers to the resignation of Mrs. Hansford in 1955. In 1956 Miss Muriel Cox of Mark was appointed Superintendent. To celebrate their Silver Jubilee in 1957 the members held a week of social events. By now all four Divisions were flourishing, there was over 100 members in all. The members were carrying out hundred of hours of duties; not only at events as they do today, but in those days they were covering the ambulance service in the district. This was still run on a voluntary basis, the Division did receive payment for fuel, equipment etc but the were not paid for the 24 hour cover that they operated on with the rosta system.
At the Highbridge and Burnham St John Ambulance Division A.G.M. in May 1959 it was reported that Ambulances had travelled over 16,600 miles during the year and dealt with 983 removals and 62 accidents. Praised was also levelled at the cadets for their service to the general public especially when so much is reported on juveniles causing trouble. The local Division continued to operate the County Ambulance Service on a voluntary basis through the 1960’s until intervention by the unions in the early 1970’s; the service was then prevented from continuing. Sadly when this work was lost membership dropped, but the Divisions continued to cover all the events in an extensive area, these included Brean, Biddisham, Mark, East Huntspill, Pawlett and of course Burnham and Highbridge.
The first “paid” staff were those stationed at Highbridge on 24th May 1963. Two Divisional members—Mr Les Copper, a paid driver on the ‘sitting’ ambulance and Private Joe Haines, part of the front line emergency crew. The Highbridge St John Ambulance radio call sign was also the first on the new system and was BASE 1. In June 1964 Superintendent Harry Miller retired, he had been admitted to the Order of St John in 1954 and promoted to Officer Brother in 1963 for his services to the Brigade. Many Officers from the local Divisions have been honoured in this way. A brand new ambulance was dedicated in November 1964 it cost £1,584.11s.3d. The vehicle was sold privately a few years ago to a local person who has maintained it as a “Classic Vehicle”. Over the years a number of vehicles have been purchased, usually from the County Ambulance Service; two ambulances are at present owned by the Division.
Upon Harry Miller’s retirement Mr. Ken Walker took over the Ambulance Division, followed by Mr. John Brewer in 1977. Subsequent Superintendents have been Joe Skinner, Terry Major-during whose time the two adult Divisions combined, and Phil Thorne took over from Terry Major when he retired due to ill health. The person currently in charge of the combined Adult Division is Keith Gough. The Ambulance Cadet Superintendent Mr. Webb was promoted to the Area Staff and subsequent leaders include Cyril Gowan, Mike Facey, Gordon Howe and David Drinkwater, until, due to lack of numbers, they combined with the Nursing Cadets.
During this time Mrs P.Vowles was Superintendent of the Nursing Division until her retirement. Miss Murel Cox ran the Nursing Cadet Division from the late 1950’s until her promotion to Area Staff Officer Cadets in 1965, then Mrs Pat Comer took charge of the Nursing and Nursing Cadet Divisions until her promotion to Area Superintendent in 1971. Mrs Lyn Thomas took over the Nursing Division and remained in post during the change to a Combined Adult Division, working with Mr. Major. Mrs. Pat Masterman took over the running of the Cadets until1987 when Mrs. Valerie Young took charge. Mrs. Masterman was appointed to the newly introduced role of County Badger Leader. Following a long career of Area Staff Officer Cadets, Miss Cox became County Staff Officer Cadets until her retirement in 1993. Mrs Masterman followed in her footsteps in Area and County Staff Youth appointments. The Division is currently under the leadership of Mrs. Sarah Westlake and as our picture shows has a considerable membership, together with the Badger Sett led by Miss Julia Gibson.
Mrs. Comer went on to become Deputy Commissioner, then County Commissioner for Somerset and is now Deputy Commander. In recognition of her Service to the Organisation she was honoured by being promoted to a Commander in the Order of St John.
All four Divisions independently celebrated their Golden Jubilee prior to combining their membership.
As mentioned earlier, the first H.Q. was at the Constitutional Club on the Town Hall Square with the garages and duty room underneath the Town Hall. Early in 1970 the Railway Hotel was pulled down so that the new Medical Centre could be built and with it the sheltered housing. The Division was homeless for some time but true to the traditions of the Knights of St John we kept going. The Cadets used the old Railway Hut opposite where Kwik Save Supermarket now is and the ladies met in the homes of members. The men! Yes you’ve guessed—in the Coopers Arms; the closest to the garages and duty room.
In 1976 it was decided that it was essential we needed our own permanent Headquarters and a major fund raising campaign was launched. The Council leased to us an area under the Town Hall and work was started to convert this for our use. It was an ideal location, adjacent to the garages and within a year we had completed a lecture room, kitchen and other facilities; at last we were settled and plans were made to renovate the rest of the premises under the Town Hall. But fate had conspired against us, history was to repeat itself-the main Town Hall had been condemned as unsafe and we were forced to leave. A second major campaign was launched to build a replacement building. Thanks to the generosity of the Sedgemoor District Council giving us land adjacent to Bank Street Car Park plus substantial grants from them and Somerset County Council; together with support from many organisations and members of the community our new premises opened in April 1985. One point of interest is that we moved back to our roots, this current, and hopefully permanent building, has taken St John Ambulance in Highbridge back to property once owned by the Somerset and Dorset Joint Railway.
St John Ambulance continues to give service to the community in many ways:-
first aid cover at events, whether by ambulance, fully trained crew or a person with first aid kit and knowledge.
A youth organisation catering for boys and girls from six to eighteen years of age.
A venue for the community to use for functions, meetings etc. Social services frequently use the HQ
Training courses in first aid, ranged from basic skills, to a full certificate by our fully qualified instructors, for all types of organisation.
(Article supplied by Mrs. P.Masterman and Mrs. P.Comer)
In 2004 Thomas Hancocks, a 15-year-old cadet, from Burnham Road, received Royal recognition at Buckingham Palace, when the Princess Royal presented him with the Grand Prior Award; this is the highest recognition a cadet can achieve.