People Profile – Ralph Brown – St John Ambulance Worker

Ralph Brown, St John Ambulance Worker and ‘Kings Head’ Landlord

I was born in Dorking in 1959, and have one brother and sister who are younger than me. The family originally came from Westcott, just outside Dorking. We lived in that area until I was about 8 or 9 years old, when we moved to Cranleigh. Moving to a new home was a bit of a wrench at that time of life. I’d been a keen member of 10th Dorking Cubs when we lived there and all my mates were part of the Cub pack. I really missed them. My Mum and Dad, who still live in Cranleigh, Dad used to run Cranleigh Dairy. It was originally situated in the station yard, what is now Stockland Square. In those days the Stockland Square area comprised of Cranleigh railway station, the coal yard and dairy. The dairy later moved to Little Mead Industrial Estate, down the Alfold Road. Dad ran that for many, many years.

My school life was pretty uneventful. I remember being one of the first pupils at Park Mead Junior school, when it first opened. When I left Park Mead, I went onto Glebelands school. I wasn’t particularly sporty when I was young. I had varied interests, some of which I carried on in different ways. After we’d lived in Cranleigh for a couple of years, I gave up Cubs as I didn’t get on with the Cranleigh pack. Subsequently, about 1971, my mother coerced me to go along to St John Ambulance meeting with a friend of mine from school. He was the son of a friend she worked with and she also sent her son Philip, to the club. The group met in the old Ambulance station, just off the High Street in the village, behind Cranleigh bathrooms. It’s Lynn Murray solicitors offices now but that was the original St John accommodation. I didn’t know that day what I was walking into. There were about 20 or 30 lads who met at the club and it was a little bit more serious than other boys’ clubs because we had to learn first aid. At one stage one of the leaders was a fireman so we did a lot of fire training too. We did various other things including competitions and practicing our first aid skills. We met every week, on a Tuesday night. In some ways it was a bit like Scouts but with a particular purpose in mind and that’s what caught my interest. I was only about 11 when I first started, in my first year at Glebelands. I recently found my first aid certificate which was awarded in 1972! I think I’m the only one who is still around from those lads I knew in the early days.

As a young SJA Cadet, we were able to go out with adults to different events. I remember going to things like the motor cycle scrambles at Tunnel Hill in the Aldershot area, as well as other local events, always accompanied by adult members. In those days British Aerospace, when they were at Dunsfold Aerodrome, held a big event every year which we supported, as well as the annual Cranleigh Show and regular football matches on Cranleigh common. We would go along to these events and if need be, use our skills alongside the adults. The very first events I went to were the school fêtes, the low key events before gaining more experience when I was invited to attend the bigger events. The big events being Cranleigh Show and sometimes we would be asked to some of the County wide events. It’s not until you’re an adult that you’re called on for those more regularly. As the Division (‘Division’ is the name given to SJA unit in those days) grew and I was a lot older, I became a more active volunteer, attending various events giving support to the Ambulance Service, particularly in London, but that was a bit more down the line.

Ralph as a schoolboy in Dorking

Whenever our services are called upon at such events, for example, at a motor racing event, someone might be pulled out from a crash and we would perform initial first aid, handing over the casualty as soon as the Ambulance crew arrived. We never really knew the outcome of our care, further down the line and whether our intervention had a good result. I’m fortunate in that witnessing a severely injured casualty has never really worried me too much, by and large I can cope with the ‘blood and gore’. What I don’t like is eyes! If there was ever someone with an eye injury I would get somebody else to deal with it.

The only thing we were involved in that really affected me, and it wasn’t ‘real’, was a major exercise held at Dunsfold Aerodrome. The scene that was set up was a plane that had crashed into the crowd. There were probably 100-150 casualties who were all in make-up/costume according to their ‘injuries’. Some of them were in a bad way and the make-up of the casualties haunted me for a few weeks afterwards, just seeing blatantly what could happen if such a thing took place and the support from and with colleagues was invaluable.

We went up to many big events in London as St John volunteers. We could be at our day jobs and get a call to check in later to back up the Ambulance service. One of the things I particular liked when supporting London Ambulance service was caring for people. While the 999 crew would get on with the more serious traumatic stuff, we were asked to pick up elderly folk who needed to go to hospital. It was the ‘arm around the shoulder’, the personal care, comfort and reassurance that I found so fulfilling. We dealt with a whole range of incidents – everything from a sticking plaster to broken limbs or someone who had some serious heart problems or injury.

My first SJA certificate at age 13 – June 1972

Much later on that experience enabled me to qualify as an instructor and pass my knowledge onto other people. That might have been within the organisation or running First Aid courses for members of the public or going to talk to the Lion’s or the Rotary club, occasionally recruiting more members along the way. We recruited many members in Cranleigh. At its height Cranleigh Division was a very active one with three sections.

In 1979 I met Linda at a social event and we later married in 1983 and have three children, David, Matthew and Amy.

Linda also took up a role with St John and opened a group for 6-10 years olds in Cranleigh with her friend Sarah, called Badgers. Linda was one of the first Badger leaders in the Country. Linda and Sarah’s Badgers group had about 20 children attending. Badgers was a wonderful introduction to the organisation and they would move onto the cadets as they turned 10. Stepping up to be a SJA Cadet was more formal for them because it was a uniformed body. Again we had some fantastic Cadet Leaders in Cranleigh, numbering 30 or 40 youngsters in the group. A lot of people in Cranleigh who are still around today, have an early connection with Badgers and SJA Cadets. Once a Cadet reached age 16 they would move onto train with the adults. In its Hay Day you could join SJA organisation aged 5 or 6 and finish when at 70 or 80! Volunteers would adjust their involvement and skill level according to lifestyle which attracted and enabled me to keep going.

Our wedding with a ‘guard of honour’ – June 1983

The people of Cranleigh were fantastic and very supportive of the Cranleigh Division as were the members themselves. As the Division grew we were asked to do more and more things on a wider level. Whether that be attending the Royal Weddings in London, or the Rugby at Twickenham. We did a few football matches in London, as Ambulance support at that next level. We also supported London Ambulance service at particularly busy times, at weekends and evenings. But our children came along and circumstances changed, I couldn’t commit to as much. When I finished with Cranleigh unit in 1983, I was the Officer in Charge going onto a job at area level and ended up as Assistant County Commissioner for Surrey doing various jobs with them before returning to Cranleigh as life changed. Some of those jobs gave me the opportunity to work full-time finally as Regional Training Manager for the whole of the South East of England. This role was totally separate to being a volunteer, doing commercial training for companies, but I remained a volunteer as well which was so important. If I hadn’t had such a supportive wife like Linda, who let me go out on Saturdays and Sundays I couldn’t have done that. She was a volunteer herself as I mentioned, as a Youth Leader which she enjoyed until David our eldest son, came along.

As I reflect over the number of years I’ve been involved with SJA I didn’t consciously think in terms of a long-term commitment. It was the people I volunteered and worked alongside that made it so enjoyable. I love going out and about meeting members of the public at events but most important was the group of people we had at the Cranleigh Division and wider in the County, they were such nice people and all totally committed to what they did. It was a great ‘club’, a ‘family’. You would have difficulty finding a group of like-minded people to be honest, who were as committed to the work that we did in the same way. I’m sure other service organisations have a similar ethos and like any family group we had some great times.

Cadets learn many skills and respect for others. Our Cadet Leaders instilled a regime of respect and insisted that when on duty, the youngsters addressed adults as ‘Mr and Mrs’ etc. At one event a Cadet calling ‘Mr Brown’ across the room. I was so used to being addressed as Ralph, I took no noticed, until I heard ‘Oi! Ralph are going to help?’ He actually had a casualty!

SJA Cranleigh with young cadets and officers, 2011

There were some great characters among us one of whom was extremely committed. Everybody knew him around Cranleigh and perhaps he was not the person you would let out on his own but he was always there when you needed him. He would do anything for anybody. He took a bit of stick from people at times because he was an introverted kind of fellow but commanded the respect of his colleagues in a crisis.

Cranleigh Magazine mentioned St John Cranleigh in the ‘Joy of Cranleigh’ feature last August,
‘On Saturday August 10th 1991, the Cranleigh division of the St John Ambulance Brigade organised an attempt on the world record for a continuous line of two-pence pieces. Meanwhile, a group in the Isle of Man was competing against them.’

We won and broke the record that day! The lady who laid the final coin was Miss Ethel Hook and the Hooks are one of the oldest families in Cranleigh. Ethel was one of the longest standing members of Cranleigh SJA. I hate to think how many years she’s been a member, probably since pre-war. She’s was a great character. With others like ‘Granny Smith’, the Elliotts, Croxfords and Murrays, together with their families, they were the stalwarts of St John.

Handing over the keys to Peter Frampton at Cranleigh

I think one of the key roles of being a St John volunteer is to put someone at ease and reassure them whether they’re a child or adult. When someone is in shock after an accident or injury, talking to them calmly, rather than adding to their panic is essential. It’s quite an individual skill set to have. When arriving on the scene you can be faced with anything. I found my confidence after years of experience in doing this. It only comes with practice and training. The Cranleigh Division prided itself on the amount of training it offered volunteers. We had a couple of guys who were senior officers with London Ambulance service and lived in the Cranleigh area and they would come along to help us with our training. So it wasn’t a case of just reading it out of a book and self-taught, we received a lot of excellent instruction from them.

I’ve experience some scarier moments in my time. We used to attend Notting Hill Carnival for example. Cranleigh was one of the first units to have a mobile first aid post and we had a vehicle that was like a mini hospital to take to events. One of the most scariest times was when we were in Bedington Road which I believe is near Ladbrook Grove, for the Notting Hill carnival, when some of the troubles started. Although we were protected by the police, people were brought straight to us to deal with. There were incidents of stabbings and basically anything that comes under the riot banner I suppose. Incidents varied from someone who’d been well beaten up to people who were simply scared by what was going on. When you’re just a youngster and a riot kicks off it’s extremely frightening. I remember at other occasions like the Royal Weddings or Princess Diana’s funeral, there were people who were overcome and taken ill from the emotion of it all who we treated.

The first London event I attended was Trooping of the Colour and in those days it was very regimented as the SJA men would line the route with the police, guards and soldiers and any casualties were passed back to the SJA ladies who were positioned behind the crowd. It was the women who did the work. But that changed after the assassination attempt on the Queen in 1981, when someone came out of the crowd with a gun. It was a St John volunteer who helped disarm that chap. There’s no training for that! He wasn’t actually a member of Cranleigh division but he was a St John volunteer. After that we were moved back, behind the crowd. There used to be hundreds of SJA members on duty in various places along the routes of those Royal events.

Myself and Linda enjoying a moment on holiday

The elements of SJA that has inspired me to keep going has been the wonderful support of my wife, Linda, the people I worked with and the opportunities St John has offered me. My brother and sister-in-law’s involvement also inspired me to keep going. I was very lucky to represent England as a St John volunteer in Gibraltar, Malta and Cyprus at different events and conferences. I used to go out to Malta and Gibraltar to train members there, especially when new practices like defibrillators were introduced. There were two or three of us who would go to Gibraltar quite regularly to train their instructors so they could train the public and other St John members. Those trips were all as a volunteer but funded by the County. I usually went for a week at a time. Unfortunately Linda didn’t get the opportunity to join me there but on occasions people came from Gibraltar and Malta to England and visited our house for dinner so she got to meet them.

Since 2014 we’ve run the Kings Head pub in Rudgwick and I’m not currently active with St John anymore. When I finished as a volunteer I was President of Cranleigh division so I kept my foot in the door, but wasn’t quite so active on the volunteering/events side. I was more involved in management and fund raising. But when we took on the pub I found I couldn’t offer the same time commitment. Things were also changing in the organisation and I thought it was time to give up and let someone else take responsibility. St John still exists in Cranleigh, and is run by my nephew though there’s no youth sections in Cranleigh now, just a few adult members. During Lockdown, when the Kings Head was shut, I thought about going back but I volunteered for the Royal Voluntary Service instead as well as Rudgwick village Covid response team. As it happens I have recently volunteered again and signed back on as a Community Advocate. I’m not quite sure what’s involved in that just yet but it’s still in my blood and I don’t think after all these years, it will ever leave me, playing a part in saving lives is a whole life commitment.

The goal of St John is that everybody should be able to do basic first aid. Its name is taken from its patron saint, St John the Baptist. The original Order of St John, can be traced back to The Knights Hospitaller who joined the crusades. The Governing body of the ambulance is the Order of St John and Jerusalem of which I was proud to be made a commander member in 2001.

Receiving my Order of St John from Lord Vesty, 1991

I’ve got a photograph taken in 1991 with Lord Vesty, when I was made a Serving Brother. The Knights of St John were centred in Malta, where the sovereign order of Malta, a Catholic Order is still based. It was originally founded in 1099 as Hospitaller Pilgrims, and so caring for the sick and injured irrespective of race or creed, goes back to its origins. They set up Pilgrim hostels and hospices on the way to Jerusalem but as things evolved, it eventually became a military organisation as well. Rhodes is one of their traditional homes as is Cyprus and then when they were removed from the Ottoman empire, they took up residence in Malta. That is why Malta has the Amalfi Cross as its emblem because the Knights of St John gave it to Malta.

Historically ‘St John Ambulance Association was set up in 1877 by the Venerable Order of Saint John to teach workers first aid so that they could provide on-the-spot treatment in emergencies. The St John Ambulance Brigade and St John Ambulance Association merged in 1968 to form St John Ambulance, providing both training and first aid cover’ (Wikipedia).

As we’ve seen during the pandemic years, the two lockdowns in particular, volunteering in general has taken a higher profile in community life. We’ve greatly appreciated volunteers in our own local communities and more recently the trained volunteers at the NHS Vaccination centres. I would thoroughly encourage anyone to get involved in a voluntary role and do whatever they can, don’t overdo it. Whatever you choose, do it with enthusiasm and gradually build up your confidence. The rewards are great. They might not be financial but the reward of meeting people and interacting with them is very fulfilling. Since we’ve all been cossetted in our homes with the risk of Covid-19 infection, getting ‘out there’ by volunteering is very attractive. You may not necessarily see the benefits of it immediately but once you get satisfaction from it, you’ll be hooked! It doesn’t matter if it’s St John or any other recognised voluntary organisation, make enquiries and get involved. Alongside that recommendation, very high on my priorities is that people learn first aid and are able to offer help in their community. With the best will in the world an ambulance isn’t standing outside when you fall over or have a heart attack. It’s what a first aider can do there and then that can make all the difference between life and death, until the ambulance service arrive. In Rudgwick and Cranleigh there are several public-access defibrillators placed strategically where if a person has a heart attack, it can be grabbed off the wall and used in those vital first minutes. You don’t need to have a lot of training to utilise a defibrillator, just the confidence to get on with it. That’s what drives a St John volunteer to keep going and make a difference, it becomes a way of life.

For more information contact Ralph on: 01403 822200

For St. John Ambulance: 0370 0104950
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