“A man was lying on the cold footpath with the crowd just standing around looking at him. I asked: has anyone sent for a doctor – yes they had. Has anyone sent for an ambulance – no, they couldn’t get one from the hospital. This really set the idea of a free ambulance service going in my mind.” Charles Norwood, city mayor and philanthropist. The year was 1927.
This vision was a gift that has held through the years and makes Wellington Free Ambulance 100% unique.
Things started out small
Operations got started from the Old Naval boatshed – today’s Wellington Rowing Club with three ambulance cars - one from the Harbour Board and two from Wellington Hospital. Charles Norwood donated three vehicles himself. Back then our people were ‘stretcher bearers’ whose sole duty was to get the sick and injured from one place to another.
In 1932 we moved to a new Cable Street building which today you’ll know as St John’s Bar. Next time you’re passing look up and you’ll see ‘Wellington Free Ambulance’ proudly embossed along to its top.
The fleet was boosted again in 1938 when General Motors gifted a fully equipped ambulance car known as the ‘Hutt Valley Ambulance.’
Numbers grew and models changed. If you’re a vehicle buff check out our Pinterest gallery. There are some beauties from days gone by including iconic Bedfords, Leylands, Chevrolets and Mercedes. In 2005 the bold change was made from white to green and gold ambulance colours.
Stations grew too
In 1956 the first station outside Wellington City popped up in Lower Hutt, followed by stations in Upper Hutt (1961), and Porirua (1963). The Kapiti Coast finally got its ambulance station in 1977, the same year a station was established in Newtown.
By the early nineties things had outgrown the Cable St building. After a major fundraising effort Prince Charles opened today’s Davis Street headquarters in 1984.
Bases were also established in Waikanae and Wainuiomata in 1999 to meet patient needs. Finally, Wellington Free Ambulance moved into the Wairarapa in 2011.
We don’t do things like we used to
Ray Edwards joined the service in 1963. He recently attended the memorial service for his mate and colleague Syd Barlow – the only Wellington Free paramedic to ever die in the course of duty. That memorial was the first time Ray had been back to the site where Syd and two young boys died 50 years ago.
Ray proudly wore his Wellington Free Ambulance uniform of the day. A smart white shirt and tie, black jacket with military style lapels, and a cap that he saluted as he remembered the passing of his good friend. These are all things that tell a story about how the service has changed.
Today getting people to the hospital is only part of the service. “We’re much more sophisticated, tailoring our service to patient needs. Sometimes that means treating them at home,” says head of service delivery Andrew Long.
History of giving
“In the early days the aim was to raise money to provide extras for the officers on duty. Over the years the need for this diminished, with funds instead providing equipment for the service – vehicles, defibrillators, splints and paediatric resuscitators."
As the service grew, so did our history of giving. Long-time supporter and patron Shirley Martin remembers it all.
More than 50 years ago Shirley was a member and later president of the ‘Ladies Auxiliary’; a group of women who worked hard on getting the whole community behind keeping it free.
She fondly remembers the stand out fundraising events.
“We were the first to hold a charity race day. Companies paid for big marquees. It was a real event,” Shirley remembers. “We had beautiful food and the ladies wore hats and gloves.”
“I will remember the last ball forever.” Shirley is talking about the final fundraising ball held at the Majestic Cabaret in Willis Street. “We had a waiting list of people who wanted to get in. It was just a night to remember,” she says. “Black-tie and ballroom dancing. It was such a wonderful place to hold a function – the best in Wellington.”
“The ladies of the Auxilary prepared all the food. We were the first to arrive, and the last to leave at these events. It was hard work you know. It wasn’t about sitting pretty.”
In 1989 things wound up. “As many women are in the workforce it is difficult to recruit new members who have the time to commit themselves to take office, or even serve on the auxiliary.”