Epsom Division, St John Ambulance Brigade, Auckland

We were definitely “St John kids”: father’s ambulance work as a volunteer had a profound effect on our family’s life for all those years we lived at home. St John was inextricably woven into all our family activities.

First Recollections

My first memories of Epsom Ambulance Division were as perhaps a five year old (1950) being taken to the St John hall at 171 Manukau Road by my father, a long-time Brigade member, who was at that time engaged in a job of works at the premises, repairing the post-and-wire boundary fence. These visits to the hall became a regular occurrence. I suspect that for my mother, with 3 of us kids under 6 years of age, it was a bit of relief – when I accompanied Dad she got a break, her child-minding one-third lighter. Well, at least in theory. My younger siblings probably demanded more of her time.

The St John hall on Manukau Road was headquarters for those volunteers who comprised Epsom Ambulance Division, the Nursing Division and the Cadets. Appropriately, it was almost exactly opposite Mt St John Avenue, in the shadow of Mt St John and bordering that part of Epsom called Mt St John.

The name Mt St John was not connected with the Order of St John; rather it remembers an early army officer, Lieut. Colonel John Henry Herbert St John, who led troops on many campaigns in the New Zealand Land Wars. On his demise (in middle age, of natural causes!) newspapers said “St John performed a series of exploits against the natives such as would do no discredit to the heroes of romance and earned the reputation of being, without exception, the bravest man in the colonial forces”.

Lt Col J. H. H. St John,
Alex Turnbull Library

Right outside the St John hall on Manukau Road was a tram stop (the Onehunga line) which later became a bus stop (Route 10). And in those days there was plenty of car parking, right outside the hall or around the corner in the side road, Domett Avenue.


The hall was a plain rectangular, aging, wooden building with a corrugated iron roof and, around the back, had the remnants of a huge water tank (a left-over from before the days of piped water?) The hall was set well back off the road, a snug fit across the section with just room for a narrow path down one side. The building was originally situated further along Manukau Road, near the present library. In 1917 the Epsom Nursing Division of the St John Ambulance Brigade had its eyes on the former Epsom Fire Station when the fire brigade was disbanded resulting from the amalgamation of the Epsom Roads Board with Auckland City Council.

The Epsom Nursing Division of the St John Ambulance Brigade was looking for headquarters… a place to meet and for instruction and training. The Division had been formed in 1914, the brainchild of registered nurse Evelyn Firth who, at the outbreak of World War One, had the foresight that nursing facilities would be required for injured and sick servicemen returning from the front.

Epsom Convalescent Home for returned soldiers from World War One
Henry Winkelmann – Auckland Libraries Heritage Collections 1-W1658

Appointed Lady Superintendent of the Nursing Division, she recruited nurses and caregivers through Red Cross and St John, grew the Epsom Nursing Division and set up a recuperative nursing home/hospital in a former mansion at 2 Dommet Avenue, property taken over by the Hospital and Charitable Board. Similar convalescent homes were later set up at Narrow Neck on the North Shore and in Parnell, a facility named after Evelyn Firth and which continued into the 1960s having catered to those suffering long-term injuries and sickness from two World Wars. Evelyn Clifton Firth, founder of St John in Epsom, died on 13th November 1918 of illness arising from duties at Narrow Neck Camp nursing native soldiers suffering influenza. The epidemic which swept New Zealand caught up with Evelyn Firth at the age of 43. The newspaper New Zealand Herald said at the time “…she gave her life in the service of humanity and she will be remembered as a true heroine”. As well as the Parnell Convalescent Home named in her memory, St John members, family and friends subscribed to a memorial tablet, unveiled in St Andrews Church, Epsom, by the Anglican Bishop of Auckland the Right Reverend Averill in November 1919. For his address he used from Bible the text “She hath done what she said”, referring with feeling terms of the noble and self-sacrificing life of Miss Firth and said that the community had suffered a severe loss by her untimely death, but had gained a noble example from her beautiful, self-sacrificing life.

The men’s Epsom St John Division was formed sometime after the nurses: both entities survive and are flourishing: the Nurses celebrated their centenary in December 2014.


St John Nurses Get their HQ

The City Council was prepared to gift the old fire station to St John, but unfortunately not the land it occupied. (It may not have had the right to do this: the Auckland Hospital and Charitable Aid Board owned, and leased, large areas in this part of Epsom).

The fire station became vacant when the brigade disbanded in May 1917

St John accepted the old fire station building and arranged to move it, intact, on wooden rollers along Manukau Road to its new location, a section in Domett Avenue provided by a benevolent resident. The hall was improved, and extended. Some 20 years later the resident wanted to develop the section and gave notice to St John to remove its hall. A new site was found, land fronting Manukau Road, part of the large block owned by the Hospital Board. The hall was cut into sections and piece by piece moved from Domett Ave, around the corner on to the new site at 161 Manukau Road. Perhaps it was deliberately positioned, pushed right back on the long, narrow section, to allow a new, more modern-looking, addition to later grace the street frontage. And, of course, this was to happen, but decades later.

The 1950s

To the 1950s, and things I personally recall. On the northern (Newmarket side) the neighbours lived in a block of brick flats while the southern boundary was not marked – it was in fact the wall of the adjoining fruiterer’s shop, the first of two or three shops on the corner of Dommet Avenue. Inside, the hall was as utilitarian as it was drab. Old fashioned light bulbs with minimal shades hung from the match-lined ceiling. At the far end of the building on one side was the small kitchen, on the other side the toilets. The kitchen did not have a power point so the big urn which was used to boil hot water was plugged in halfway down the hall and moved to the kitchen in time to make the drinks. The urn, by the way, had a very slow element so that when there were evening functions someone… and my father lived the closest of most of the members… had to visit the hall in the afternoon to “put the urn on” to make certain the water was hot enough to make tea and coffee for supper. The small windows along each side of the hall were heavily curtained. There was but one relief, I recall, from the expanse of one of the walls: a print of the famous picture of legendary stretcher-bearer John Simpson and his donkey, “Duffy”, in the hills above Anzac Cove, “Duffy” carrying an injured soldier on the way to medical help. Not only a kind of memorial to those who died in the Great War, it was probably also meant as an inspiration to present-day ambulance workers.

Simpson (Jack Simpson Kilpatrick) and Duffy above Anzac Cove, 1915

There were meeting and training nights at the hall every Monday evening. Father was never available for anything else of a Monday night – it was “St John” of “Parade” night  – and there was frequently a bit of a scramble in the family home as he changed into uniform and got away in time for the meetings.  Sometimes there were special St John gatherings for which the hall had to be prepared. I recall some of these events were the Division’s Annual General Meeting, parades for “Corps” or “District” visiting officers, tests for annual revalidation of First Aid Certificates and once, a big ceremony for a member who was not-quite retiring but was going to carry on, listed on what was called “National Reserve”. I guess this means he would be willing to assist if summoned to help in the event of major calamity.

The Evening Post, Wellington, records in May 1914 that the Government had recently set up a National Reserve with Defence Forces “recognising the St John Ambulance Brigade as the ambulance section of such reserve”. It was, perhaps, a prudent move with the outbreak of World War One soon after. The same report advises that in 1914 Auckland Division National Reserve had 3rd highest membership in New Zealand with 27 members.

When I was a teenager I recall there was a major function at Epsom Division. I guess it was the 50th anniversary. There was an immense crowd invited, and I helped decorate the hall. I also helped clean up after the festivities. What I remember best was the big box of food that father brought home: the leftovers, saveloys, assorted sandwiches and fresh cream cakes. The Carlyon kids could not believe their good fortune.  Our family put the hall to good use for some of its events and celebrations. Parties connected with milestone birthdays, engagements and wedding dances were held in the hall, a useful gathering place when numbers invited would have overwhelmed the Alba Road family home.

The Projects at the Hall

I recall one of the Division’s projects was to lay a new concrete path from the street to the steps of the hall, quite a job because the hall was so far from the footpath. The idea was to plant a lawn either side of the new, raised, path.  As mentioned, another working bee had been held to replace the fence along the boundary with the neighbouring flats. The Burkes occupied the rear flat. Mrs and Mrs Burke were always interested in the Division… Mr Burke often lent a hand with the various works while I remember Mrs Burke providing endless cups of tea and refreshments for the men engaged in the projects next door. Their son, Gary, joined St John Cadets about that time and was later a member of the Division until he joined the NZ Police when shift work precluded his continuing membership. I remember one Saturday afternoon… it must have seemed a long session at the Hall for a 5 year old and, by hook or by crook, I wanted to go home. Father was busy in the middle of tensioning the wires in the fence. Mrs Burke came to the rescue, diverted my attention with toys Gary had kept from his childhood, particularly a model car which I can still see to this day, and somehow made me forget thoughts of going home.

Father was regarded as the Division’s Clerk of Works and, with other members of the Division, he planned the Hall’s maintenance programme and improvements.  Projects included painting the building inside and out and replacing the flagpole atop the barge boards on the front of the premises. I recall careful selection of the Kauri timber for this, the choice left to Brigade Officer Noel McLennan. He was a builder by trade and greatly assisted many of the works at the hall especially those involving carpentry or joinery. He worked on our family home, adding a new kitchen, laundry and indoor toilet to help cope with the growing family. Anyway, the timber for the flagpole was chosen, several ladders were fetched in to assist the elevated work above the roofline, and the old, rotten mast was replaced.

In later years there was a project to build a concrete-block wall along the frontage, complete with wrought-iron gate worked into the shape of the St John eight-pointed star and a ‘minor work’ about the same time was the erection of a signboard, telling the passing world this was the headquarters of Epsom Ambulance Division.

Memories of Public Duty

Most weekends these works were interrupted by Public Duty, times when St John presence was expected at various events, taking first aid to the community. Those who performed this duty were often referred to as “Zam-Buks”, commonly used, but not universally favourably accepted by those to whom it referred!

“Zam-Buk”, in fact, was a well-known English-made medicated ointment, a kind of soothing fix-all for skin complaints and irritations.  It had anti-septic qualities: important in the absence of antibiotics in earlier times… it was used by medics treating injured Boer and First World War casualties. There were several versions of labelling on “Zam-Buk” tins over the years, presumably to comply with local pharmacy laws and to suit customs where it was being sold … for instance the wording of one indicates “no lard or animal fat or oils used”, presumably to meet religious rites in India and other markets.

It became available in New Zealand and Australia in the early 1900s and when it was advertised as “a miracle embrocation” it was quickly sought after to soothe football players’ sprains and pains. It was soon assumed all St John personnel carried a tin of “Zam-Buk” in their first aid kit and, when summoned, they would run on to the playing field and apply the ointment for just about every injury or complaint! The name of the ointment and the first-aiders rapidly became synonymous and, on both sides of the Tasman, “Zam-Buk” became their nickname. Radio commentators would often say “… and now the “Zam-Buks” are running on to the field to patch up the injured player….” thus perpetuating the name.

On Saturday afternoons during winter months there was always Public Duty at rugby, and I frequently accompanied father to what (at that young age) I thought were long, boring, games played in the grounds of the Teachers’ Training College in Epsom.

Teachers’ Training College with football grounds, 1940s
James D Richardson -Sir George Grey Special Collections, Auckland Libraries, 4-2910

There was absolutely no shelter of any kind either from the wind or the rain in the wide open football fields so the College grounds were wind-swept and stark. Usually too cold or wet to get out of the car, I would sit in the family sedan of the day, a Ford Model A or Hillman, a young boy trying to figure out what the game was all about and watching in case father’s duties were called for… three short blasts on the referee’s whistle and he would run on to the paddock to minister to the downed player.  One time, player number 8 in the light blue jersey, I still recall the scene, was carried from the field on the shoulders of 2 of his team mates and put into the temporary sanctuary and comfort of the back of our Ford, his leg plainly broken and his body shivering in shock. No cellphones or 111 emergency calls in those days. Someone had to make sure they had a few coins and then run over to the public phone box in the Training College precincts to call for an ambulance to take the injured player to hospital. Dad put the player’s leg into a wooden splint (which he had in our old car just for such an eventuality). He also went on Public Duty at Rugby League games in Cornwall Park, adjacent to the Showgrounds, but I don’t think I ever accompanied him there; perhaps I was a bit older by then and did my own thing on Saturday afternoons!

Public Duty Officer

Father was Public Duty Officer for Epsom Division for some time. The task was to keep abreast of local events and to ensure adequate and appropriate resources were arranged to provide first aid cover. In the winter months screeds of printed material would pass through our home letter-box, rosters from organisers of rugby and rugby league tournaments, so father could go through them, find the matches Epsom Division would need to attend and arrange personnel to be there. Then there were major or regular events which seemed to be shared around the various Auckland Divisions, such as Ellerslie Races, Night Trots, Rugby Test matches and the annual Birthday Carnivals at Western Springs. Father’s job was to find sufficient numbers so that Epsom could be seen to be doing its bit.

On the approach to the annual Easter Show, father would be ringing around trying to arrange cover at the Showgrounds during the day: difficult because most Epsom members had their jobs to attend. But father found nurses and veteran St John man, George Morrison, to fill the breach.

They made themselves available year after year, signing off each day as other members became available. In summer there was once regular weekend daytime duty at the Olympic Pool, Newmarket, but this seemed to disappear. Just as well, because Rangitoto Island duties kept members busy in the holiday season and until winter closed in.

George Morrison, SBStJ, was the mainstay of daytime public duty at the Easter Show for many years (freeze-frame taken from 16 mm movie film)

First and Last

In 1961 an English FA soccer team was touring New Zealand and members of Epsom Ambulance Division were among St John personnel from all around Auckland rostered for Public Duty at the Showgrounds at Epsom for the Test Match, England versus New Zealand, on 10th June.

New Zealand Football Association officials introduced an unwelcome innovation for this tour when, I suppose as a means of preventing free-loaders, everyone, just everyone entering the Park had to have a pass. This included St John people. There was an outcry. It was pointed out that this was the first time, ever, that a pass or ticket had been required by St John personnel to get through the gates of any event, a stipulation many brigadesmen thought unnecessary. So much so, that they at first declined the duty. Others said it denigrated the uniform and what it stood for… an Order much older (and, apparently, wiser!) than the Football Association. Adding insult to injury, the pass handed out to St John people so they could access the Showgrounds was, in fact, a duplication of the Press Pass.

Father was on duty that day: I am not certain if he took the pass and had to show it to get into the Park himself, or whether he had to show it on behalf of all members of Epsom Division who were attending. But he was bitter about the uniform not being recognised. It became a personal hobby-horse. He kept the pass, later framing it with the handwritten caption “The First… and the Last”. It survives to this day.

The infamous and controversial pass issued to St John personnel.

I think father got his wish… from memory I believe it was the last time St John folk had to have a pass to get access to any event while on duty. I can’t recall repetition of that controversial move in 1961 by the Football Association.

The tourists played 2 matches in Auckland, the Test at Showgrounds, 10th June 1961, and against an Auckland Eleven at Carlaw Park, Parnell, on the 14th June. They also played Tests in Christchurch and Wellington. The Auckland Test fetched an estimated 10,000 spectators which must have been surprising given that Rugby was very much “the game” in those days. Among the tourists were top names like Booby Moore, Tom Finney and Ray Charnley. As perhaps may be expected with such high-class players, the visitors took a clean sweep of all the games in their month-long tour: Tests were also played in Malaysia, Singapore, Hong Kong and San Francisco.  

More Public Duty

Every now and then it would be Epsom Division’s turn on the roster to provide Public Duty at the Auckland Trotting Club’s meeting at Alexander Park, Epsom. It was only day-time racing at first: the introduction of night trots came later. Father disliked this duty, especially in winter, because St John personnel were dotted around the track in case of accident, and he often described the racecourse with no shelter, its chilling winds sweeping across the wide, open space, as “the coldest place in Auckland”.   In fact, he obtained the heaviest, thickest, black felt overcoat, attached St John buttons and shoulder flashes and wore this whenever he was posted to “Trots Duty”.

Epsom Division obtained more Public Duty when, in summer, part of the Cornwall Park fields were allocated to softball. Personnel were rostered there every Saturday afternoon from November to March.

These personnel on Public Duty were often alone, especially at sports events. Their only first aid resources they had readily to hand were the contents of a small black leather pouch the men carried on their waist belt, nurses in a hand bag. As far as I can recall, the typical pouch contained the bare essentials: a carefully folded triangular bandage (mainly to create a sling to support a broken limb), a couple of gauze bandages, dressings, scissors, tweezers, iodine (later mercurochrome), a reel of sticking plaster, sal volatile (smelling salts), and burns cream.  Sometimes more resource was added in a wooden box, the size of a small suitcase, which accompanied members on duty. An old muddy canvas stretcher was kept for emergencies in the groundsman’s shed at Cornwall Rugby headquarters. I recall it was my job, when I accompanied father at this venue, to go over to the shed before the game began to sight the stretcher hanging in its brackets from the rafters – making sure it was there, ready for action, if required, to carry an injured player to the sideline.

 First Aid on Wheels

Then, I think in the late 1950s, came the Division’s biggest project of all. No, not improvements at the hall this time.  Epsom Division decided that Auckland should have a mobile first aid facility, a caravan outfitted as a clinic/first aid post that could be towed to various locations for Public Duty and would also be available for major accidents or civil defence-type incidents. I guess once the design was finalised and the funds guaranteed, a firm of caravan-makers was commissioned to complete the coach-work. But I recall the aluminium-clad shell of a caravan being towed up on to the land in front of the hall for the Divisional Project to put the finishing touches outside and then to fit it out with a bed, benches, a table, chairs, cupboards and a small wash basin… thus creating a useful first aid facility. I recall a notice board inside recording all the donors… we would call them sponsors these days… so Epsom Division obviously canvassed, and obtained, a lot of support behind its idea for a mobile first aid post.

I can recall a very grand occasion for Epsom Division the afternoon the caravan was dedicated.

Father, like other members of the Division was apprehensive before the event. With so many important people coming, the Service had to go off just right. The centrepiece of the day, the caravan, was parked on the forecourt in front of the hall, polished, dressed overall, and looking a million dollars. A very big crowd assembled in the hall. I saw Officers there wearing more medals than I had ever seen before. I think these people were referred to as “Corps” or “District” officers, obviously high up in the pecking order of Auckland St John or even in New Zealand. The rank insignia was impressive, too.  One or two mantles were worn accompanied by glistening regalia, definitely senior people of the Order. I remember Epsom Division was honoured to have them attend the ceremony, so perhaps they came from Wellington.  Everyone moved outside. There were flags and bunting, a Padre gave the blessing, the ribbon across the doorway was cut and there were speeches by the many-medalled, one of which I have never forgotten.

A Homily

That was, perhaps, 55 years ago. I was about 10, I suppose, and must have been at an impressionable age. Maybe the seniority of the officer’s rank, the respect shown him by those present… or whatever… but his inter-generation story must have hit a responsive chord within me and I still remember its theme and have updated it and often quoted it myself. The Officer said that his Sunday School teacher had once told him that life was a bit like a money-box. A few pennies collected every now and again would soon add up.  “What you have put in can later be retrieved for something of value,” he said. “In this life…”, and he repeated his Sunday School teacher’s words of probably 60 years earlier, “… you get back what you put in. If you contribute to life, you are entitled to take something out of it. Volunteering in St John, whether it be on Public Duty training for proficiency or building assets like this caravan, is a personal contribution, and you’ll find the satisfaction of serving will be repaid many times over”.   I cannot recall the name of that St John Officer who impressed me so much the day the caravan was dedicated: the sentiment has stuck with me all these years.

The dedication service over, the caravan was open for inspection by all present and then there was welcome afternoon tea in the hall.

On the Move

In the early days the caravan was stored beside the path in front of the hall. I can’t recall local duties it undertook at that stage but for some years at holiday times – Easter, Queen’s Birthday Weekend, Labour Weekend and between Christmas and New Year, it was towed to the top of the deviation on Great South Road, Bombay,  and stationed at the cross roads there. Staffed by members of Epsom Division, I think they slept-over in the caravan, at the ready around-the-clock to treat victims of road accidents. One year there was a write-up in the NZ Herald about this service, noting patients otherwise would have a long wait for treatment while an ambulance responded from Auckland. Another time the caravan was towed to Ardmore Aerodrome to be the ambulance base for Public Duty at the International Grand Prix.

Just how these duties came about I don’t know: they were all so far from Epsom! Perhaps Auckland District officers, representing greater Auckland, realised the worth of the caravan and asked for it at these “out of town” locations and I suppose it was only natural that Epsom personnel would accompany the vehicle and carry out the duties.

Public Duty at the Showgrounds 

The Easter Show, held at the Showgrounds, was right in Epsom Division’s territory and for many, many, years the Division performed Public Duty for the fortnight of the Show, providing first aid both day and night for the duration. From time to time reinforcements were called in, particularly for the afternoons when most Epsom St John volunteers were working in their normal occupations. Veteran ambulance man, George Morrison, SBSJ, long-time retired from the Railways, was a willing worker for afternoon shifts often accompanied by St John nurses. From memory, the senior ladies had their own network and, between them, arranged their own roster for afternoons at the Easter Show with George. I recall Mrs Hall was one of their leaders. Evening and weekend “shifts” were filled by members of Epsom Division, the men, the nurses and the cadets: a full-on commitment for the fortnight leading up to the busiest long weekend of the show, Easter, though in those days it was not open on Good Friday. From time to time other Divisions were invited to assist to help maintain a full complement.

Epsom Ambulance Division’s caravan at the Showgrounds:
wide doors so stretchers are easily manoeuvred in and out
(freeze-frame taken from 16 mm movie film)

The caravan was used as a mobile first aid post, towed to the Showgrounds before each year’s Easter Show (entertainment-based on the old-style industrial fair in those days) and then again later in the year for the annual, November, 3-day A and P Show (entertainment entwined with displays of farm animals of all sorts) . The caravan was parked in the same spot each time, just inside the main gates where it was easily accessible for ambulances to pick up patients and take them for treatment over the road at Green Lane Hospital’s Casualty Department, as it was then known.

Apart from the usual cuts, scratches and aches and pains that were treated in the caravan, it was inevitable that among the thousands of visitors there would be the victim of collapse, heart attack or fall.  Patients would be taken by stretcher to the caravan and given emergency first aid until the ambulance arrived. In addition, there was a wide range of other people needing help. Patrons sometimes got bitten by the monkeys performing in side-shows, folk fell out of, or off, some of the rides at the Easter Show and there was occasionally the victims of fights or altercations: a knife figured in one lively exchange between staff in the kitchen of the restaurant and at one Easter Show there was a fight between competitive visiting showmen. During the A and P shows, riders sometimes got tossed from their mounts during horse-jumping or dressage events. An elderly farmer was gored by his prized bull one year. Details of the total number of patients treated at each Show were collated and, together with some of the more serious or curious cases, often rolled into a release for the newspapers.

It was soon realised that the Showgrounds provided a better “storage” place for the caravan than the front yard at the hall.  It was more secure in the Showgrounds, it didn’t have to be towed to and from and, moreover, it was readily available when it doubled as first aid station for Public Duty at Club rugby games which, around this time, were played over several winter seasons on the oval within the Showgrounds. Time passed and the caravan never moved. Chocks were placed underneath, the wheels removed, and that was it. The caravan became a fixture at the Showgrounds. It deteriorated over the years, leaked and the interior looked shabby and – worse for a medical facility – it appeared unkempt and dirty. An alternative was sought. Divisional Officers didn’t have to look far. Easter Show officials came to the rescue with the perfect answer, and at the best possible price!  They offered an “A-frame” house to the Division, a replacement for the caravan which was now past the point of repair. The “A-frame” had in fact been part of the Show, a demonstration show home by Hardies of their ‘up-to-the-minute’ Fibrolite building, a departure from the shape of the conventional house… now available as a prefabricated kitset for home or seaside bach.

The “A-frame” had been on display for several Easter Shows so it no longer lived up to its “state of the art” claims, and Hardies wanted rid of it. Epsom Division accepted the offer, but pointed out it was in the wrong place, inaccessible and out of the way among the other show exhibits. Besides it needed to be connected with water, power and sewerage, and ideally it would be located by the main gate, easily accessible for ambulances collecting patients en route to hospital. No problems, Showground management and Hardies, between them, arranged to have the A frame house moved to the spot where the caravan was: the deal was done. The caravan was dispensed with; the “A-frame” replaced it and all without charge to Epsom Division. It served as first aid post at the Showgrounds for many years.

The caravan had served Epsom Division very well: truth to tell, as well as providing a useful public amenity, it also provided a focus for the Division’s very being.

An innovation worth noting was the radio system that father introduced at the Showgrounds. What with the pavilions, the enormous new Australian Court, the arena with its grandstand and events, the amusement section (sideshow alley) and the car parks, the Showgrounds ranged over many hectares. Getting St John personnel quickly through the crowds to the right place within the complex became a bit of a problem. In the early 1960s father purchased the very latest in hand-held two-way radios. The caravan (later the A-frame) was ‘base headquarters’ and roaming St John personnel each took a radio with them so they could be contacted and dispatched directly to patients. Although the radios were awkward with their long telescopic aerials and were confined to the low-power Citizen Band they were a boon to mobilise first-aiders, and knowing father’s penchant for latest radio developments, I am certain that this was the first time portable radios were used by St John personnel on Public Duty. Epsom Division led the rest!

Biggest Crowd… Ever?

Going back even earlier, perhaps the early 1950s, Epsom Ambulance Division personnel were on duty at the Epsom Showgrounds (including father) when it was estimated the biggest crowd, ever, attended that venue and it was one of the largest crowds of the time, anywhere. The occasion was a fireworks display, celebrating exactly what, if anything, escapes me, but people turned up like the organisers never dreamed. Maybe it was to celebrate Guy Fawkes (November the 5th) or perhaps it was the first post-war fireworks display: financial recovery was such that folk thought they could afford an evening out. Whatever, there were traffic jams that Epsom had never seen before, the trams could not cope with the numbers wanting transport to the Showgrounds, taxis were caught in the jam. There were mile-long queues of people waiting at the ticket boxes and, inside, just a crush of humanity. Father tells the story of police, worried about a stampede of those unable to gain entry as start-time approached, ordered the organisers to close the ticket boxes and open the gates wide, for all to enter. Not only were the gates flung open but sections of the corrugated iron fence along Green Lane Road were deliberately torn down by organisers to allow better entrance for the mob. (The organisers had probably made more than enough money to cover expenses, and then some, by that stage). Father told us that inside the open-air stadium, the toilets could not cope and people were either going where they could or disgracing themselves. St John lost count of the patients they treated for claustrophobia, crush or collapse. Many young people climbed up on top of the old wooden grandstand building to get a better view, and a few broke bones when they fell from their precarious perches. The fireworks were spectacular, a series of set pieces on the ground and then many sky rockets of every colour according to father.

We knew all about the skyrockets – we could see them from the nearby Carlyon family home in Alba Road. Then the immense crowd had to make its way from the stadium. Father says police and the MC used the loud speaker system to ask people to depart sequentially, one section of the stadium after another, to help ease the crush at the gates and out in Green Lane Road. The press next day wrote up the big night at the fireworks, saying that, while it was impossible to count the crowd, at least 100,000 people packed in to the Showgrounds to witness the event. The Carlyon family had seen the traffic jam in our street, we had admired the skyrockets and then heard the stories from father, so though we were not present at the Showgrounds, we all thought we had been part of a momentous event.

 Rangitoto Island – Islington Bay

For as long as I can remember Epsom Division was responsible for Public Duty on Rangitoto Island. I don’t know how this eventuated when there are other Divisions closer, or more appropriate, to serve the island, nor can I ascertain when Epsom began the duty but St John duties on the island go back as far as 1926. In 1934 there was correspondence between Rangitoto Domain Board and the then Superintendent of Epsom Division, A. C. Marks.  So staffing the small first aid post at Islington Bay by Epsom personnel goes back much before World War 2.

As a very small boy in the 1950s I remember accompanying my father on the launch, probably one of the Blue Boats, to Islington Bay – “Issy Bay” as it was known – and staying the weekend in the very old-world atmosphere of the two-roomed St John station.

St John Ambulance Station, Islington Bay
North Shore Libraries Collection

There was no electricity, of course, no phone and no utilities. Fresh water had to be fetched from neighbours because the supply in the St John tank was of dubious quality. Cooking was on a Primus kerosene pressure-stove and there were kerosene lanterns and candles for lighting. There was an out-house.

Father had fetched tools and equipment because his weekend was mostly spent on maintenance. He took a break for a walk around towards Motutapu Island, pointing out items of interest he had been familiar with while stationed there during the war. Father had also fetched his 16mm film projector so that, with the help of a generator for power, there could be movies on Saturday night at the local hall.  I can’t recollect the audience, or the title of the film, but even at age 5 or 6 I recall the feature of the evening turned out not to be the comedy on screen, but the overweight man in the crowd who laughed so much the deck chair he was sitting on collapsed, depositing him with a thump on the wooden floor. The movie was interrupted, an impromptu half-time, while it was ascertained he was not hurt and so he could find a sturdy, replacement chair!

I do not recall any patients that weekend but there were stories of very busy times for the St John person treating locals, day-visitors, boaties and yachties during summer months, particularly during the Christmas and New Year holidays. First aid treatment was appreciated: there was no doctor on the island and apart from the regular daily trip to Auckland by the Blue Boat, there was little contact with the mainland.

From memory (and I have not been back inside the St John station at Islington Bay since), there were 3 rooms. Once you entered through a small porch there was the clinic which led through to a bedroom and out the back was a small kitchen.

Islington Bay, itself, provides sheltered anchorage for boaties while waiting out foul weather: perhaps some found the bottle appropriate comfort – the reason it’s sometimes called Drunken Bay.

There was quite a settlement at the time I went there centred around a small shop and the hall, buildings constructed of local volcanic rock, erected in the late 1920s and early 1930s by inmates from Mt Eden Prison. They also built the road around to the beacon at McKenzie Bay at the western end of the Island via the only other settlement known as Rangitoto Wharf.

Austin Seven cars taking officials on a tour of inspection after prisoners
completed the road to McKenzie Bay beacon, Rangitoto Island, 1930.
North Shore Libraries Collection

Rangitoto Island – Rangitoto Wharf  

I was a teenager at the time that several buildings were joined together to form the St John facility at Rangitoto Wharf. They had been part of the construction camp for the 1920s roadworks and are easily identifiable in a photo taken in the late 1920s.

Prison construction camp at Rangitoto Wharf, 1930

The committee representing bach owners at Rangitoto Wharf decided that the small settlement should have its own first aid facility, similar to that at Islington Bay. Not just for residents but for the increasing number of day-trippers and boaties visiting the island. I accompanied my father as part of a working bee of St John people and locals to finish off the premises, painting inside an out, levelling the rocky ground in front of the building and fashioning a flag pole. Subsequent visits were spent putting up curtains, laying lino on the floor and, a respectable distance from the bach, creating an outhouse along a stony pathway nicknamed ‘Burma Road’.

The buildings comprised 3 sections, the clinic at one end, (which had been used in recent times as a honey house), a kitchen and dining area in the centre section (inserted between two buildings) and sleeping quarters at the other end, another former prison/construction building.

Three buildings were joined to form the St John Station.
Dawn Burton

Again, there was neither electricity nor phone. Lanterns lit the rooms by night, cooking was on a small pressure-stove, done mostly outside for safety. The bach had its own water tank and in lieu of a refrigerator, a “safe”, hanging in a nearby Pohutukawa tree to keep food cool.

A former prisoners’ hut became the bedroom.
Dawn Burton

The clinic was fitted out with a bed and cabinets for first aid equipment and supplies, including an elderly canvas stretcher.  At night, with no patients, this became a bed for “family extras”.

The new facility was officially opened in March 1961 with grand pageant, ceremony and a dedication service. The Mayor of Auckland, Sir Dove-Myer Robinson attended, together with the Port Chaplin, the Reverend Lawley Brown and high-ranking members of St John. Many bach-holders were present and so were members of the Rangitoto Domain Board (Devonport Borough Council) which had helped fund moving the buildings and renovations. It was a gala day, the bach-owners celebrating achievement – they had realised their quest for first aid facilities.

St John Ambulance Station, Rangitoto Wharf, 1960s.
Dawn Burton

The Carlyon family were frequent visitors to Rangitoto Wharf, sometimes putting in the best part of their summer holidays there, enjoying the walks, swimming, fishing and the company of other bach-holders. It was a unique location. Few had the privilege of staying over when the last boat left for the day on its way back to Auckland.  And, at dusk, that’s when you’d see the wallabies and young deer coming down from the bushy slopes, foraging for food scraps around the Wharf settlement. Later in the evening it was time for the opossums to make their appearance.

I recall many cases of sunburn being treated… father had his own secret potion comprising mostly of cold tea: “…the tannin in tea is both soothing and healing”. There were numerous scrapes and abrasions. One thing was quickly learnt – it was a certainty that even the slightest or most superficial scrape or graze caused by contact with the island’s volcanic rocks resulted in rapid infection. If not promptly and properly treated the wound would quickly flare up. There must have been something on the surface of the rocks which caused certain aggravation. Other cases I recall being treated were numerous occurrences of fish hooks embedded in human flesh, a woman with burns after a cooker overturned and… exhaustion. One hot day an elderly couple found the walk to McKenzie Bay more than they could handle and had a panic-attack when they thought they would not make it back to Rangitoto Wharf in time for the only ferry boat back to Auckland.  Worse, they could see themselves alone on the island, out in the open, overnight. Other people using the route raised the alarm and storekeeper/caretaker Reg Noble went out in the old White bus to collect the two distressed hikers.

The old White bus on Rangitoto
Ed Dowding – Northern Sports Car Club

The couple was tired, suffering shock and were a little disoriented. Back at the St John station father gave them hot sweet tea and a lot of calming, reassuring words in the short time they had before being assisted along to the wharf and aboard the late afternoon launch for Auckland.

Just a word about the White Bus. It had originally been in service on Auckland’s North Shore. Its destination blind showed “Deep Creek” so at some stage it must have been on the run to and from Torbay. It appears to be an early 1920s model made by White Motor Company in Cleveland, Ohio, USA with coachwork probably done by an Auckland company for North Shore Transport Company, a 23-seater, labelled “No.4”. It was left-hand-drive.

Back to first aid duties on the island. They  were often shared at weekends and holidays with St John nurse Dawn Burton of Onehunga Nursing Division. Her family members owned (and have retained to this day) a small cottage, “Whare Taare”, at Rangitoto Wharf, and they regularly visited the island at weekends, particularly over summer. Dawn’s photos are most welcome to illustrate Rangitoto Wharf activities.

Dad’s movie projector was fetched on the ferry during some holidays and long weekends, hooked up to the power generator at Reg Noble’s store, resulting in popular outdoor evening movie shows which invariably included a repeat of the film Dad had taken of the official opening of the First Aid facility.  The locals could see themselves, larger than life and in colour, on the big white screen, a sheet, strung between Pohutukawa trees.

Other Memories

Annually (and did it coincide with St John’s Day?) there was a Church Parade with all Divisions throughout Auckland participating.  The particular one I best recall formed up near the Town Hall and marched down Queen Street, along Customs Street West and up Hobson Street.  While today a split in a formal parade to divide members by religion would hardly be tenable, this is exactly what happened in those times. St John personnel were called on parade and asked to form two distinct sections, Roman Catholics in front and Protestants bringing up the rear. A couple of bands accompanied the parade. This particular year Epsom Division was honoured with the task of providing the Colour Party. Father was pleased to be included and, wearing white gloves, proudly escorted the flag of the Order of St John at the head of the parade, second only to the brass band.

Colour Party, behind the band
on Hobson Street, Annual Parade and Church Service, 1960

The column proceeded up Hobson Street. Near the Swanson Street intersection a party of highly ranked St John Officers on the footpath took the salute.  At Wyndham Street the parade came to a halt. The front ranks then broke off, marching the short distance up Wyndham Street to the entrance of St Patrick’s Cathedral, the mother church of Catholics in Auckland, to attend Mass. Protestants and others then continued their march up Hobson Street to Wellesley Street where they broke off and entered St Matthew-in-the-City, the Anglican inner-city church, for their annual Service. I can’t recall whether the parade reformed and returned to the Queen Street start point: great detail would be called for by the organisers to ensure coordination between the churchmen so that both services ended with the Catholics out in Hobson Street, formed up and ready to join the Protestants as they marched by!


There was one other formal, very formal, occasion I remember: the Investiture Ceremony. It was not an annual event, in Auckland at least, but may have been shared with other New Zealand cities. This particular year the ceremony was held in the Auckland Town Hall. My father was to receive his medal and parchment as Serving Brother of the Order. The Carlyon kids were not present: invitations were strictly limited. But from the photos I later saw, it was all ceremonial, and in the eyes of a young person, bristling with very official-looking people, be-mantled or in uniform and practically everyone had medals. The investiture was carried out by the Governor-General who, from memory, headed the Order in New Zealand. Dad was proud of his SBSJ. He had always respected those in the Brigade, the ordinary Zam-Buks (not that he liked that term when used by others to describe St John personnel!) who were Serving Brothers and Sisters, and now he had joined their ranks.

I mention Brigade – there was always a little tension between the St John Ambulance Brigade and the St John Ambulance Association. In short, the former were the unpaid personnel providing first aid on Public Duty while the latter operated ambulance services in Auckland. Elsewhere in New Zealand, especially in provincial towns and cities, the Brigade did both, the volunteers performing Public Duty and also rostered to ensure an ambulance was readily available in their communities. Some Brigade people, father included, resented the frequent publicity the Association got and the better funding it received, maintaining the Brigade was by far the poorer cousin, always in the background.  Father often disagreed with the various utterances by high-ranking Association officials… “what would they know about providing first aid on the side-line at a rugby match in the cold with driving rain, comforting a patient in pain while awaiting an ambulance?” he would ask.

I gather in recent years the two ‘arms’, so apparently separate in those days, have combined.

“The Evening Post” newspaper reports that in 1929 the Epsom Nursing Division took 3rd prize in the Inter-District “Willowbank Challenge Cup” in the annual St John competitions held in Wellington. I think it must have been these national competitions that were held at Eden Park, Auckland, in the early 1960s or thereabouts. I recall there was great preparation for the event: all Divisions in greater Auckland seemed to contribute some part of the organisation and, on the day, all had parts to play to ensure success. Dad borrowed a movie camera and shot some of the action… mostly a march past, I remember, so perhaps it was something other than competitions… the visit of on overseas St John dignitary? Video exists of this event – it will be found in Carlyon family treasures and if possible will be made available.  

A Visitor

In the mid 1960s St John Brigade Headquarters in Auckland received a request from St John in Nadi, Fiji, for help for one of their first-aiders who was coming to Auckland for a medical operation at Green Lane Hospital and who neither had relatives, nor knew anyone, in Auckland. Could St John assist?  Epsom Division was asked to be involved because the hospital was in its patch. The upshot was that Epsom did help, and the Carlyon family agreed to host Mr Amrit Lal during his post-operative convalescence. It turned out the operation was to remedy a nasal condition, so after Amrit was discharged from Green Lane he came to stay at our place, bulbously bandaged nose and all! As his appetite returned he cooked his own food to ensure he ate nothing that offended his religious beliefs. We got some advice from a local Indian family about where to buy appropriate foodstuffs and the Carlyon kids were coaxed to share some of his exotic, sometimes aromatic, dishes. Amrit was with us for some weeks while his nasal tubes returned to normal and until the surgeon gave him the all-clear to fly back to Fiji. One thing we did discover from Amrit…  the St John first-aider in Fiji is not known as a “Zam-Buk” but as an “Aspro”, the small white pill taken for headaches and pain, a name similarly transferred to first-aiders from a well-known remedy.

“Aspro” – the other name for “Zam-Buk”

Amrit and his family hosted my father when he visited Fiji. I also had a holiday with the Lals in Nadi.


Superintendent Des Bentley was OIC Epsom Division for most of the years I recall, and Noel McLennan before him. Des was also a senior leader/executive in Scouts.

Gordon Dean was a senior officer for many years, so was Fred Graham, the latter heading the local cadets in earlier years. Fred Madden, Noel Doull, Nel Allport, Jack Conway, Jim Noble and Ted Phipps – and his wife (who was an executive officer in St John Nursing in Auckland) – were names of those in ‘Corps’ or ‘District’.

My cousin, Warren Carlyon was a cadet, qualified for the Grand Prior’s Badge, rising through to the ranks of Epsom Division. Other names I remember were Gordon Wilson, ‘Snow’ Mason, Graeme Poole, Lindsay Roberts, Colin Mackie, Ricky Robertson, Lawrence Ennor, Jim Datsun and Dorothy Fraser.  Ronald Batson met with a boating accident in the Hauraki Gulf and was drowned. He was a member of Epsom Division at the time… members properly paid tribute to him at his service. Years later the Batson family, as their memorial to Ronald, gave the Division a substantial contribution enabling it to buy the leasehold section the hall stood on. A new building has since been constructed on the freehold site, known as the Ronald Batson Memorial Centre.

Mavis Mansfield, who for many years held the Cadets together, knew how to be favourite among the young men she led. By day she worked in a coffee bar/tea rooms in Balmoral and would frequently take leftovers – cakes and similar treats – to the Hall on nights when the Cadets were meeting.

Although slightly handicapped herself with a crippled foot, Mavis was a stalwart for the Division and took more than her fair share of Public Duty and administrative help.

Dawn Burton (ex Onehunga Nursing Division), George Morrison (Otahuhu Railway Division) and Miss Schroeder and Mrs Hall (both St John Nurses, but from other Divisions, I think) are other names readily to mind.


My close association with St John from such an early age because of my father’s dedicated membership might prompt the question “why didn’t you join?”. I was asked if I was interested when I was quite young. And just the once! I can’t remember who it was, but an officer in Epsom Division asked me if I had considered joining now that I had reached an age when I could enroll in Cadets. Unfortunately the question was put to me in the presence of my father who immediately discouraged the idea with the comment “he wouldn’t last 5 minutes”. Dad probably had more than 20 years’ service at that stage! The subject of my enrolling with St John was never raised again.

I later joined the Auckland Volunteer Fire Police. I have been a member for some 40 years.


RCC Oct 2010

Pics added Nov. 2018 June 2019