Wellington Free Ambulance marks 90 years 'looking after its own'

Sir Charles John Boyd Norwood founded Wellington Free Ambulance 90 years ago this year. His grandson, Wayne, says it was ...
SP ANDREW LTD/ALEXANDER TURNBULL LIBRARY/Ref: PAColl-6407-24.

Sir Charles John Boyd Norwood founded Wellington Free Ambulance 90 years ago this year. His grandson, Wayne, says it was in his nature to help people.

There was a time when an emergency ambulance ride in Wellington would later see a bill show up in your letterbox, but that ended at 8am on November 9, 1927.

"It just sums up Wellington really, doesn't it? Wellington, being so generous in making sure it looks after its own," Wayne Norwood said, grandson of WFA founder, the late Sir Charles Norwood.

To be fair, Wellington Free Ambulance (WFA) actually attended its first callout the night before, when a Constable Devonport suffered fractured ribs in a collision between his car and a tram on Jervois Quay.

Wayne Norwood, grandson of former Wellington mayor, the late Sir Charles Norwood, outside the former headquarters of ...
KEVIN STENT/FAIRFAX

Wayne Norwood, grandson of former Wellington mayor, the late Sir Charles Norwood, outside the former headquarters of Wellington Free Ambulance.

"No time was lost in rendering assistance, and the injured man was taken to the Wellington Hospital," the Evening Post declared at the time.

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Sir Charles Norwood only served a two-year term as mayor, but in that time created the legacy that would go on to employ more than 300 staff and run a fleet of 25 ambulances through Greater Wellington and Wairarapa.

Wellington Free Ambulance building, in Cable Street, Wellington taken from the Evening Post, July 6, 1932.
ALEXANDER TURNBULL LIBRARY/Ref:EP-6859-1/2-G

Wellington Free Ambulance building, in Cable Street, Wellington taken from the Evening Post, July 6, 1932.

Time delays had been his biggest frustration, after he'd seen a sick man laying on the cold footpath on Lambton Quay and a crowd standing around asking for an ambulance.

"He then got to work and said, we should have an ambulance for everybody in this community," WFA chief executive Diana Crossan said.

Sir Charles Norwood was Australian, and perhaps that was the reason he kept such good company with those authorities behind a free ambulance service of New South Wales, which he described as "spectacular".

Ray Hunt, former driver for Wellington Free Ambulance. From negatives of the Evening Post newspaper, 1956.
Ref: EP/1956/2298-F. Alexander Turnbull Library.

Ray Hunt, former driver for Wellington Free Ambulance. From negatives of the Evening Post newspaper, 1956.

"The outstanding features on the Australian service, is that it is free. It is a service which belongs to the people, and is available to the people, at all times and for all cases of illness, whether accident, sickness, whether in the city of within a radius of 50 miles..." Mayor Norwood said in January 1927, as quoted in the Evening Post.

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He told the city that the system, funded by voluntary subscriptions and donations, "cannot fail to appeal to the people of Wellington".

He wanted it to move to other centres, once it had been established in the capital.

The 90th celebrations will be the last hurrah for Diana Crossan, outgoing chief executive of Wellington Free Ambulance.
KEVIN STENT/FAIRFAX

The 90th celebrations will be the last hurrah for Diana Crossan, outgoing chief executive of Wellington Free Ambulance.

After collecting support from the local authorities and the Wellington Harbour Board, the free service was born.

It was in his nature to help the community, Wayne Norwood said.

"Papa was... very much a people person, he just loved people." 

Ninety years on, Wellington Free Ambulance remains the only completely free ambulance service in the country and, as it's understood, the world.

The first base was at the Old Naval boatshed – today's Wellington Rowing Club with three ambulance cars.

"Now we get six new ambulances a year," Crossan said.

Each one clocks up about 110,000kms on Wellington's winding roads every year.

In 1932 WFA moved to a new building in Cable St, now the St John's bar. The old insignia is still branded on the outside. 

It's been in the Davis St, Thorndon premises since 1990.

Wayne Norwood and Crossan have no doubt the service will reach a centenary, but wanted to grab the chance to celebrate the 90th milestone.

It will also be the last hurrah for Crossan, who will step down in May. Her replacement is yet to be decided.

Future efforts won't be without a large dose of elbow grease – the service needs to raise $4.2m this year to break even, and its current building is no longer fit for purpose.

In 10 years, Crossan wants to see the service continuing to reach patients quickly, and said they'll probably be treating more people at home.

The 90th celebrations will be officially marked with a fundraising gala in November, titled One of a Kindness.

 - Stuff

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