History of Wellington Free Ambulance

The Inception of Wellington Free Ambulance

The frustration of seeing an injured man lying on the road, and no hospital ambulance being available, was the catalyst for the then Mayor of Wellington, Charles Norwood (later Sir Charles) to establish a free ambulance service for the community.

Under Charles Norwood's stewardship the Wellington Free Ambulance Service was inaugurated in November 1927, operating out of the Old Navals boatshed, later to become the Wellington Rowing Club clubhouse.

To provide ongoing funding for equipment and vehicles, a Ladies' Auxiliary was formed in 1929 as a fundraising arm of the Service. The Ladies' Auxiliary went on to raise considerable sums for many years, until it was wound up in 1989.

The original station building soon proved to be less than desirable, and a building fund was established to improve the 'most difficult conditions in cold bleak premises'. In 1932, Lord Bledisloe laid the foundation stone on a new Cable Street building, which has been a hot topic in the ongoing Lambton Harbour development debate.

Expansion was inevitable, and in 1956 the first station to be built out of Wellington City was established 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, WFA had outgrown its Cable St building. After a major fundraising effort, in 1994 Prince Charles opened a replacement station in Davis Street, Thorndon, which still operates as the Service's headquarters today.

Because of WFA's strong emphasis on patient care, bases were also established in Waikanae and Wainuiomata in 1999, to enable the Service to meet its own stringent target response times.

The next station to be built was the replacement Porirua Station building, opened in October 2000, which won a New Zealand Institute of Architects Institute Wellington Branch award. This was followed by the Linkspan Response Post on the Wellington Waterfront in Nov 2008, and the Johnsonville Station in May 2010.

Historical images of Wellington Free Ambulance can be viewed in our Image Gallery;

In March 2011, after a concerted fundraising and significant contribution by the WFA Trust, the Newtown Regional Ambulance Station was opened in the new Wellington Hospital grounds. This state of the art station is our most heavily used site and has provided our paramedics with an easy access, comfortable, functional environment from which to operate. Some would argue that this is our flagship station!

Another exciting development in the history of Wellington Free Ambulance was the successful response to a Government tender to outsource the last DHB run ambulance service in the Wairarapa. On 1 March 2012, Wellington Free Ambulance warmly embraced this service into their fold and are working with their new team members to fully integrate both services together and build a service that truly represents the Greater Wellington Region. Wellington Free Ambulance had been associated with the Wairarapa service for some time before the tender so it was a natural pathway for both services to combine. With the unique knowledge of both areas and that we now cover urban, suburban and rural enviornments making us a wide ranging effect ambulance service that is free to the patient.

The Evolving Ambulance Fleet

The original 1927 WFA ambulance fleet consisted of one 'ambulance car' transferred from the Wellington harbour Board, and two from Wellington Hospital. Three further vehicles were donated by Charles Norwood.

By 1929 the fleet consisted of seven ambulance cars made up from the following models: Austin, Graham Dodge, Thornycroft and four Hudsons, together with an Essex coach for 'organising purposes.' General Motors boosted the fleet in 1938 when they donated a completely equipped ambulance car to be known as "The Hutt Valley Ambulance".

However, by 1942 the fleet was becoming older and wearier. The fleet contained three Wolseleys, three Chevrolets and two Fords, with the mileage on these ranging from 58,000 to 98,000 miles, which for the day was considerable. A Packard 8 was also purchased for 700 pounds in 1944, and in 1946 a Nash ambulance was donated by the Australian Canterbury Bankstown District Service.

The Sargood Trust agreed to donate a Daimler in 1948, but by the time the conversions were completed, the vehicle was not commissioned until 1951. In the mean time, a Packard ambulance had been gifted by Charles Norwood. In 1951 two Humber Pullmans were purchased, with the third arriving a year later.

Also in 1952, Charles Odlin (whose hardware business occupied the building next to the Cable St station) formed the Florence and Charles Odlin Trust 'which was expected to contribute an annual eight hundred pounds towards maintenance of the fleet.'

By 1959 fleet replacement was once again an urgent issue, Two Morris J2 'mini-bus 'type vehicles were put on the road at a cost of 1300 pounds each. However this was only a temporary measure. Chrysler ambulances with fibreglass bodies seemed to be an elegant solution and six were ordered in 1962. Unfortunately they promised much but proved mechanically unreliable.

Following the tragic death of Sydney Barlow who died in 1964 while attempting to rescue two boys trapped in a gas-filled tunnel, it was decided to mount an appeal for an ambulance to bear his name. This ambulance was the first of the new Internationals introduced to the fleet in 1965.

Following a trip to the UK in 1973 superintendent major Gordon Stanley arranged to import WFA's first CF25 Bedford, (later handed over to the southward Museum) which was funded by the Odlin Trust. This lead to the fleet being equipped with Bedfords, fitted with Holden engines to suit Wellington conditions.

Chevrolet ambulances (long nose) representing a major capital outlay were the next replacement vehicle, closely followed by the Leyland DAF400 in 1992 which achieved a mixed reputation. The DAF's were phased out and replaced by Chevrolet Vandura ambulances (short nose), however these vehicles were not the success hoped for and no new Vandura's were ordered after 1996. Fiat Ducatos, donated by long time supporters the Odlin Trust, were introduced as patient transport (non urgent) vehicles in 1999 & 2000.

During 2000/2001 an extensive programme of fleet modernisation occurred, with the purchase of 9 Chevrolet Silverado ambulances. The cab and Chasis for these vehicles were imported from the USA and were converted to right-hand drive prior to construction of the specially designed patient compartment.

The cost of fuel impacted on the decision making for the next model of ambulances, resulting in two Mercedes Sprinters hitting the streets in 2005. For the first time in the history of the service a change from the white base colour of an ambulance was introduced. These vehicles featured a distinctive yellow/green base colour with large green and white reflective markings.

Today Wellington Free Ambulance operates a fleet of 24 ambulances, including Mercedes Sprinter frontline and patient transfer vehicles, Mitsubishi Pajero Rapid Response vehicles, and a Mitsibushi Triton and Chevy Suburban as Rescue vehicles.

Historical images of our Wellington Free Ambulance emergency fleet can be viewed in our Image Gallery;

WFA is grateful for information provided by A.W Beasley in his book Borne Free in compiling this historical perspective of WFA's evolving ambulance fleet. Copies of this book are available from Wellington Free Ambulance via the WFA Online Store;