St John’s Gate, Clerkenwell has been a London landmark for many centuries. From medieval priory to Georgian coffee house and Victorian pub, the building is now a museum exploring the history of a military order of ancient origins from its beginnings in Jerusalem to its present day role with the St John Ambulance Service. Combining historic weapons, medals, hospital equipment, art and a cannon given by Henry VIII, the Museum of the Order of St John spans 900 years of history and a fascinating story.
The St John Ambulance logo of a white eight-pointed cross on a black background is recognised around the world where it appears on the sides of ambulances and on the uniforms of its volunteers. Although the charity has only been around since 1877, the symbol dates back almost 1000 years. The Brother Knights in the ancient hospital in Jerusalem were also recognised by the symbol on their robes.
The History of the Order of St John began shortly before Pope Urban II (d.1099) declared a crusade to recapture Jerusalem and the Holy Land from the Muslim Arabs who had been in control since AD 638. In 1080, a hospital was established in the city by a group of monks under the instructions of Brother Gerard (c.1040-1120) who would shortly become the founder of Order of St John of Jerusalem (Knights Hospitaller), which was officially recognised by the Church in 1113.
The purpose of the hospital was to care for the many pilgrims who had become ill on their travels to the Holy Land. The Hospitallers, as they were then recognised, took in people of all faiths and race, treating everyone equally. It was only after the fighting in the Crusades that the hospital workers became known as the Knights of the Order of St John of Jerusalem.
From the description of the hospital provided by the museum, the Hospitallers/Knights were ahead of their time in terms of care and treatments. Brother Gerard combined traditional Muslim practices with those used in the western world in order to improve medical care. He was also concerned with healthy eating, emphasising the importance of fresh fruit as an aid to recovery.
During the 11th and 12th century, only rich people could afford to sleep in a bed, however, Brother Gerard insisted each patient should have a bed “as long and as broad as is convenient and each should have a coverlet and its own sheet.” The wards were also well-aired and clean and workers, both male and female, were encouraged to pray for the speedy recovery of the sick.
In some ways, the hospital was a combination of a hostel and a hospice with clothing, shoes and money provided to those who needed it as well as beds. The Hospitallers also looked after orphaned children and provided an ambulance service for the injured. Typically, the hospital could house 1000 people but at times of need could find space for double the number.
Unfortunately, the antagonism between Christians and Muslims, in general, meant the hospital in Jerusalem could not last forever, especially after Emperor Saladin (1138-93) led a Muslim military campaign against the Crusader states in the Levant. Jerusalem was captured in 1187 and the Knight Templars moved their Order and hospital to Acre in the north of Israel. Yet, by 1291, Muslim forces had succeeded in recapturing the entire Holy Land, forcing the Order of St John to seek refuge in Europe.
The Order briefly moved to Cyprus before settling on Rhodes, the largest of the Dodecanese islands of Greece, in 1309. Another hospital was set up and the Knights remained here for 213 years until the Turkish Sultan, Suleiman the Magnificent (1494-1566), conquered the island. The Museum owns a copy of the Rhodes Missal, an illuminated manuscript printed in 1504 that contains the services for a Roman Catholic Mass. In another display case, the Museum shows two handwritten letters from brothers Rostand and Claude de Merles to their father whilst on their journey to Rhodes to join the Knights.
Forced out of Rhodes in 1532, the Knights were, temporarily, without a home. Fortunately, the Holy Roman Emperor, Charles V (1500-58) offered to rent them the island of Malta, which they eventually settled on in 1530. Again, they quickly set up a hospital for “pilgrims and to all the sick that happened to come to Malta from all parts of the world.” Once fully established, the knights began to build a fortified city, now the capital of Malta, Valetta.
The capital city was named after the military commander Jean Parisot de la Valette (1494-1568). Born into a noble family in south-west France, Valette joined the Order of St John at the age of 20, thus being present at the Great Seige of Rhodes. Later in his career, he became the Master of the Galleys then, in 1557, the Grand Master.
During his time as a knight, Valette was captured by Muslim pirates and forced to be a galley slave for a year. Although slaves were required to row for 12 hours a day on very little provisions, Valette beat the odds by living three times as long as most slaves before his rescue.
The city named after the military commander was where many of the knights were housed on the island. It was also the location of the Order’s religious centre, the Church of St John the Baptist.
The Order of St John remained on the island of Malta until the 18th century, when, as fate would have it, their home was once again invaded. On this occasion, it was General Napoleon Bonaparte who ousted the knights from their location, thus ending their rule over the Mediterranean.
Although patients of all faiths were treated at the hospital, the Hospitallers like to treat each individual as though he or she were Christ, the Son of God. Only the best possible supplies were used including silver plates and decorated medicine containers, which can be seen on display in the museum. Many other items belonging to the Knights are also preserved in glass cases to offer insight into their lives.
As well as objects, there are a few paintings, such as panoramas of Jerusalem, however, one artwork initially appears out of place. This is The Cardsharps by the Italian artist Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio (1571-1610). Whilst the painting does not add any further insight into the lives of the Knights Templar, Caravaggio was a Knight of the Order. Accused of murder in 1606, Caravaggio fled to Malta where he was made a Knight; unfortunately, he later upset another member of the Order causing him to flee back to Italy.
Down the road from the museum is the remainder of the Order of St John’s English priory. In 1144, the Order was gifted 10 acres in Clerkenwell to establish its religious community. The English Knights of the Order of St John remained at St John’s Gate until 1540, when Henry VIII abolished all monastic orders. Since then, the church has changed many times, particularly after extensive damage by an incendiary bomb during the Second World War. Although the church was rebuilt in 1958, the majority of the original architecture has been lost. Nonetheless, the Order of St John Museum offers guided tours of the church and crypt on Tuesdays, Fridays and Saturdays. When not open for tours, a small gallery and garden are available to the public.
The Knights of the Order of St John of Jerusalem lives on in the St John Ambulance Association set up in 1877. The founders wanted to reflect the Order’s ethos of caring for the sick and revolutionising health care. First Aid classes were given to the public, which encouraged a large number of “ordinary” people to sign up to become part of a trained St John Ambulance Brigade. By training volunteers, more people were on hand to help the injured and the sick, thus saving more lives that could have perished whilst waiting for a doctor.
The Brigade also provided medical resources during the wars of the 20th century, the first being the South African War (1899-1902). Over 2000 members of St John enlisted, with the army’s medical staff, the medical orderlies making up approximately 25% of the volunteers. Later, during the First World War (1914-18) St John, along with the British Red Cross organised Voluntary Aid Detachments (VADs), which provided nurses, ambulances and hospital supplies for wounded soldiers. A similar feat occurred during the Second World War (1939-45) in which they also provided food parcels, clothing and provisions for prisoners-of-war, particularly those stranded on the Channel Islands.
The museum has a number of resources, photographs and medals belonging to past members of St John Ambulance. These include examples of old medical objects, such as a triangular bandage, tourniquet and first aid kits. Interestingly, the majority of the photographs are of women of whom 100,000 had served in VADs by the time the Armistice was called in 1918. One of these volunteers was Veronica Nisbet who joined the John Ambulance Brigade in 1915 when she was 28-years-old.
As part of a project funded by the Heritage Lottery Fund, Veronica Nisbet’s scrapbook from the years 1916-19 can be viewed by the public. The museum details a little of her life but her incredible story is best viewed through the photographs in the online version of her scrapbook. As a VAD Nurse, Veronica was taught the basics of first aid, nursing and hygiene in order to volunteer during the First World War. After enlisting to work abroad, Veronica was sent to the St John Ambulance Brigade Hospital in Étaples, northern France, the largest of the British voluntary hospitals. Veronica’s scrapbook shows pictures of the insides of the hospital, which could contain 750 patients at a time, and the nurses’ accommodation. There are also photographs of other St John Ambulance Brigade members and the activities provided to entertain the injured soldiers.
Throughout WWI, the Hospital Étaples cared for over 35,000 patients and was run by 241 members of the St John Ambulance Brigade. Despite the expert care, the building was constructed from several wooden huts, which was not the best conditions for patients recovering from serious injuries. Nonetheless, many soldiers survived due to the medical aid they received from the volunteers. Unfortunately, in 1918, the hospital was struck by a bomb on two occasions, the first killing five members of staff and the second a further eleven. The building was too damaged for the hospital to continue, however, the staff moved what they could to the coastal town of Trouville where they operated for the remainder of the war.
St John Ambulance is still going strong today and has members of all ages and backgrounds. The association has spread throughout the world with divisions being formed in other countries. Its primary aim is to be the difference between a life lost and a life saved and has been a valuable service to the modern world.
Since the association’s conception, branches have been formed to include younger people with the leading First Aid training provider. St John Ambulance First Aiders support local communities and emergency services and is determined to work with schools and develop youth programmes. As early as 1922, the St John Cadets was founded for teenagers to attend and get involved with all their great work. This also provided training for the future, either within St John or in other medical professions. Eventually, in 1987, a group for younger children was formed. The St John Badgers cater for 6 to 10-year-olds, providing them with basic first aid knowledge and the chance to earn badges to sew onto their uniforms. Finally, in 1989, LINKS units were opened at universities to provide opportunities for students to be part of a unique team of lifesavers. In total, over half of St John members are under the age of 25.
St John Ambulance relies mostly on volunteers and donations in order to keep running its expert service. To help with funding, the St John Fellowship was formed on St John’s Day 1983, which raises a generous amount of money every year. Supporters help to set up and run exhibitions, displays, concerts and competitions as well as assist at many national events.
The Museum of the Order of St John is an excellent place to visit in London for those wishing to learn more about the original Knights of St John and the St John Ambulance. A concise timeline helps to make sense of the mass of objects displayed within the gatehouse that date back several centuries and the information about St John Ambulance is very fitting with the anniversary of the end of the First World War. It is also reassuring to know there are so many kind and caring people in the world, despite the many conflicts.
For children, some of the details may be beyond their comprehension, however, the museum provides a fun sticker trail with simple questions to keep youngsters entertained. There are also colouring sheets and simple, child-friendly first aid tips to take away.
The museum is free to enter, however, a donation of £5 is recommended for the tour of the church and priory. The museum receives no government funding, and needs continued financial help to maintain the historically important buildings and collections.
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Who would have thought the history of St John’s ambulance brigade would be so interesting. I am indebted to Hazel fir bringing the exhibition to life and clearly navigating me through a fascinating period of history. Such an intelligent article and thought provoking, thank you for sharing.
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