How St John’s Ambulance brought life-saving training to our shipyards

Readhead's shipyard had its own first aid team.
Readhead's shipyard had its own first aid team.

It’s easy to romanticise the old docks and shipyards but they were dangerous places to work.

Accidents were common and, often, the first emergency response to an incident came within the yard itself.

Readhead's shipyard had its own first aid team.

Readhead's shipyard had its own first aid team.

This goes back to the picture the other night of members of the Jarrow Division of the St John Ambulance, taken, it’s thought, before the war.

I mentioned that St John played a leading role in providing ‘ambulance classes’ – essentially, training in first aid – to workforces in heavy industry, such as the pits, and shipbuilding etc.

It interested John Bage because he can remember Readhead’s shipyard in Shields having a first aid team when he worked there in the 1970s.

“I joined it and we met in the ambulance room under the supervision of the full-time shipyard nurse,” he says.

“I think we were paid about an hour’s extra pay, as it was in our own time when we trained.”

Sometimes they would go out on a ship on the berth and do a mock up rescue.

Recalls John: “One of these involved getting a workman out of the lower tanks. He was strapped to the stretcher and had to be lifted vertically to get through the narrow manhole. We were using, I think, a block and tackle and we managed to get most of him through the manhole, but his big shipyard boots hooked under the manhole rim. For a few seconds they were still hoisting so he probably got a little bit ‘stretched’ before we realised his boots needed to be moved through the opening.”

It was good training though, he says.

“We eventually took a St John Ambulance exam in a room at the Keppel Street police station/courts. I think most of us passed it and Readheads paid us a small weekly amount if we remained ‘on call’ during work hours.”

The accompanying picture is likely from John’s era.

This was the British Railways train ferry Cambridge Ferry, seen dry docked at Readhead’s in the early 1970s, in a break from her run between Harwich and Zeebrugge (sometimes also Dunkirk).

She had been built by Hawthorn Leslie’s at Hebburn in 1963. She was sold to Maltese owners in 1992 and renamed Ita Uno. She eventually ended her days under the Panamanian flag and was scrapped in 2003.