At Ashford’s recent Create Music Festival 2016 the St John’s Ambulance were out in force, doing what they do brilliantly: providing medical cover for events – from major sporting fixtures and music festivals to public gatherings (as well, of course, as providing ambulances and first aid training). But few people know that the history of the St John’s Ambulance is fundamentally tied up with Ashford’s heritage.
The Ashford Division of St John’s Ambulance inhabits a fairly anonymous-looking premises. But this long, one-storey building bears the name of a significant Ashford individual, who has had an impact all over the world and for over a century.
Sir John Furley was born in what is now Freemasons’ Hall, North Street, on 18th March, 1836, the son of Robert and Margaret Furley. Robert was a local Justice of the Peace, solicitor and Ashford historian (and, for that reason alone, I warm to him!).
John Furley also trained as a solicitor and began working for his father, but was always interested in healthcare and helped to found a cottage hospital in Ashford.
Troubled by the reports of poor medical care available to the many warring nations of the latter part of the nineteenth century, he spent some weeks with the Danish army during the Schleswig-Holstein war of 1864.
He was also a Commissioner for the British National Aid Society in the thick of the Franco-Prussian war. This war illustrated just how courageous John Furley was; and how ingenious he was at making the most of a lucky situation. He had been denied access into Paris, where he had wanted to provide medical aid to the various “beleaguered citizens” and to assess the conditions of the hospitals. So, he borrowed the livery of a “well-known diplomatist’s coachman and drove in on the box-seat of his carriage.”
Sir John passed through the Republican and Communist lines sixty-five times: an extraordinary feat given that hundreds of people attempting to leave Paris were turned back by the Commune and many were forced against their will to serve in the ranks of the Revolutionists. When asked how he had managed to cross these lines so often, he replied: “That is a curious story … I had issued some circulars as chairman of the Paris Committee of the French Peasant Farmers’ Seed Fund. By mistake they were issued on hugh yellow posters, the official colour of the Commune, and stuck about the streets. They bore my name, to which was attached, President du Comite de Paris. The effect of this title was tremendous. It sounds incredible – but I was even able to sign passports for friends working for me. In one instance, at least, my signature was accepted, when a passport vised by the British ambassador was rejected!”.
Amongst many of his other achievements, he was vice-president of the Red Cross Society Conference in Vienna in 1857 and at Rome in 1892. He was one of the founders of the St John’s Ambulance Association in 1877, invented both the Furley Stretcher for carrying wounded people, and the Ashford Litter which was a stretcher with wheels and a canvas cover.
Following the outbreak of the Second Boer War in 1899, he supervised the supply of ambulance equipment to Africa, serving as Commissioner in South Africa for a time. Despite his advanced age, he designed and then commanded a hospital train which was sent to South Africa.
Furley was knighted in 1899. He became a member of the Order of the Companions of Honour in 1918. He was an Honorary Bailiff of the Order of the Hospital of Saint John of Jerusalem and, in 1902, received the Order of Vasa from the King of Sweden. He died on 27th September, 1919, in Oxford, aged 83.
His life was dedicated to bringing medical aid to soldiers and civilians all over the world. It is an amazing achievement that this legacy continues today. Furley Park Primary School in Ashford is named after him. And the St John’s Ambulance presence at the Create Music Festival is a perfect example of how Ashford’s heritage shines through to modern times.