When you hear the words ‘St. John’s Ambulance’, you doubtless think of those selfless people who help out the sick and ailing in public places via their on-the-spot ambulances, mobile medical equipment and first-aid skills. But what about their history? Well, that actually makes for something of a fascinating tale – and you can discover all its ins and outs at the recently refurbished and entirely free-to-enter Museum of the Order of St. John in the district of Clerkenwell, which lies between the West End and the City of London.
Believe it or not, way back through the centuries, the Order of St. John was made up of warrior monks; indeed, so fierce were they considered that they rivalled the Knights Templar for medieval notoriety. In fact, the order dates back more than 900 years and, from the beginning, developed a ‘caring’ tradition, its leaders having established in the disputed holy city of Jerusalem ‘hospitals’ (which, admittedly, would have more resembled modern-day hostels than what we’d today recognise as hospitals).
In time, the order grew significantly in numbers and, contributing to the Christian cause in the infamous Crusades, became militarised. Eventually, it settled on the Greek island of Rhodes, while maintaining as a stateless navy from Malta, in the heart of the Mediterranean. Indeed, the museum’s Malta room, is a great source for this period of the order’s history, featuring as it does fantastic artefacts from this era. Meanwhile, elsewhere in the exhibit you’ll come across examples of weapons, armour, coinage and the last extant major cannon cast during the age of King Henry VIII (that’s the 16th Century for those not totally au fait with British history), which was recovered from the sea in 1908. So many an historical item of interest to be found here, ensuring there’s many a reason to venture this attraction that’s very easy to reach whatever hotel accommodation London you may be staying in, such as the Park Grand Central Paddington London hotel.
In fact, you’re welcome to visit the museum in one of two ways. The first is entirely by yourself, for which its two main rooms and main atrium is open, while the other is via a more comprehensive guided tour. While ostensibly free, the museum’s more than happy for you to donate around £5 for the privilege; all of which, needless to say, goes to its upkeep and running costs.
Additionally, you might want to cross the road and take a look around the chapel located in Clerkenwell Road. Why? Because its crypt contains two supreme examples of the order’s treasures, the De Vergara tomb – an alabaster sculpture piece of a monk/ knight from late-medieval Spain – and a similar-aged memento mori in the shape of a fascinatingly near-skeletal corpse.
But what about what the order would eventually become, St. John’s Ambulance? Well, don’t worry; the museum covers this very adequately too, pointing out via interesting tidbits just how the organisation has grown to become UK first aiders’ largest trainer and its critical and, in some ways, harrowing yet peaceful role played in both the First and Second World Wars, as well as many other major conflicts.
Location: St John’s Gate, St John’s Lane EC1M 4DA
Open: 10am-5pm, Monday-Saturday
Nearest Tube: Farringdon (Circle, Metropolitan and Hammersmith & City lines)