FROM BOYS TO MEN
IN FIRST AID SKILLS
REPRODUCED FROM A REPORT IN THE
PONTEFRACT AND CASTLEFORD EXPRESS 12TH MARCH 1981
The stocky, quiet little man, buttoned into an inconspicuous raincoat,
handed over the "Express" office counter two pictures of a
colliery office ambulance team, 40 and 50 years old. They say every
picture tells a story and these two contain the essential story of an
era – a record of human endeavour directed to the saving of life and
limb which has not figured in the social histories nor on the placards.
And in Fred Hancox, retired Pontefract miner, who brought the pictures,
one could see the reason why.
pictures, of an outstanding Pontefract Collieries ambulance competition
team and the man who took it from enthusiastic youth to consummate
experience and skill, are of men all very similar to Fred Hancox –
came, like most pit ambulancemen, from the grass roots of a local
working population. They spent hundreds of hours and years of their
lives perfecting an expertise in the saving of life and limb, anywhere,
anytime – but especially underground. They tested themselves in
constant competitions, colliery against colliery, area against area,
throughout an industry in which the consciousness of accident or worse
was ever present.
Collieries (Prince of Wales)
Ambulance Team 1941
their fellows of the St John Ambulance Brigade, the local colliery teams
were engaged in a constant search for the perfection or the extension of
their skills. And theirs was an entirely voluntary contribution, without
sponsorship, reward or publicity – beyond the simple record of their
performances in ambulance competitions, given regularly in the
Many a man owes a limb, an eye, or even his life to their prompt and expert
ministrations. But they sought nothing for themselves. Their order
forbade it; their nature rejected it. Their giving was a way of life.
They took nothing and reserved all praise for their teachers and
It was the overriding sense of gratitude to a master-teacher, that brought
Fred Hancox, now of Fairfax Road, Baghill, to the "Express"
with his pictures.
Pit ambulance competitions were a particular feature of local colliery life
and followed through to national level. Set tests included
"live" patients and often mock-up underground conditions. They
were subject to rigorous supervision and marking. Doctors were prominent
among the judges’ panels. And it was not uncommon for one of these to
comment of some competition performance: "I could not have done it
Besides their lifeline job in the pits, colliery ambulancemen were often first
on hand at home and street accidents, the sudden collapse, the local
And Pontefract and Glass Houghton men became names in the coalfield for
their quality, skill and constancy in competitions. But it was with
something akin to worship that they regarded certain instructors who
taught them. This is particularly true of the Pontefract colliery team
They represent a decade in the life of the late Mr. Godfrey Brooks of
Pontefract, who was the inspiration and constant guide of that team from
the day in 1931, when he drew them together as novices, until their
prime in the early 1940’s. But this remarkable man had opened his long
record of devotion to humanity through first aid, long before that.
A file of his service, brought by Mr. Hancox, shows that it began in 1896
when he won the First Year Certificate in ambulance work with voucher
and medallion, adding labels for many years afterwards.
He was secretary and instructor at the Knottingley Station ambulance class
from 1898-1908 and the same at Hemsworth Colliery, 1908-1913. Hundreds
passed through his classes, including three generations. In Mines Rescue
work he was Superintendent of the Prince of Wales Rescue Station
1913-1917 and then leader of the Colliery Brigade at Wakefield until
He started competition work in 1900, continuing to 1929 when he became
Secretary of the Yorkshire Collieries Ambulance League Castleford
Division, and trainer of the Prince of Wales team.
It was then, after POW teams had had a "lean time" in
competitions, that he raised a brand new team at POW. But he trained a
total of some 50 teams, all of which won awards at open competitions,
and in personal first aid rendered, he recorded about 30,000 examples
major and minor.
It seems odd that such a record did not bring more local recognition; but
it was not lost upon the St John Ambulance authorities. Mr. Brooks was
awarded the Vellum Vote of Thanks in 1910 and in 1929 was admitted as a
Serving Brother of the Venerable Order of the Hospital of St John of
Jerusalem – a sign of the highest regard and merit.
Only long and unabating dedication brings men into this Order. Significantly,
the only other local man holding it at that time was the late and great
Superintendent T. C. Amery, of the Pontefract St John Ambulance Brigade
– then at its height.
Those who know its worth will feel pride that, only in the Express of 12th
February 1981 was recorded admission to the Order of a present-day
ambulanceman, Mr. John Burchill, of Ledston Luck who superintends
ambulance work at Featherstone where it seems to be reasonably well
However, the Godfrey Brooks Shield, which Mr. Brooks gave to encourage ambulance
work beyond his time, still stands with honour to his name.
Fred Hancox himself had many "best individual" awards in
competitions, also G. Kirkham, H. Wood, J. Tolson and Dick Cunningham.
Mr. Cunningham who later became one of Pontefract’s Mayors, once had
about seven wins in seven consecutive competitions, six being first
placing's and two bringing trophies.
The team trophies awarded were notable names throughout Yorkshire –
Pilkington Cup, Lane Fox Shield, Wood Shield, Reckitt Cup, Burman Cup
and Ingham Brooke Shield.
In their first year (1931) Mr. Brooks’ Pontefract Collieries
"lads" won the Lane Fox Shield (all Yorkshire) for the under
21’s and had four individual shield wins.
A story of mounting success continued year after year. By 1933 they had
reached the final of the coveted senior all-Yorkshire Wood Shield. They
came third. In 1935 they came second and third again in 1936. Then from
1938-1941 they were Wood Shield finalists four times in succession and
winners in 1938 and 1941 (pictured).
Other shield and cup team awards multiplied over the years, along with many
individual successes. A look at the carefully-kept records of Mr. Brooks
suggests that some of the team members must have enough certificates to
paper the walls of their homes.
But, says Mr. Hancox, when the professional nurse came into local ambulance
rooms after Nationalisation, "there seemed little point" in
continuing and locally, pit ambulance teams no longer flourish to the
same extent, though the shields and cups are still fought for elsewhere
in the industry.
It may be significant also, that the local Pontefract / Castleford
Ambulance Brigade Superintendent was appealing recently for members
because the numbers are far from what they were in the pre-war period,
when local lads often went post haste to join but found they could not
be admitted because the Brigade was at full complement.
Perhaps there are others still learning first aid; certainly there seems to be
at Featherstone. But if they are not to be found in the numbers of
bygone years, the man in the street must ask himself for whom the bell
tolls. It tolls not for these services, maintained by ordinary folk with
extraordinary devotion – but for him.
These are frightening times. First-aider's could be needed quickly everywhere.
The state cannot provide them in sufficient numbers. Only the dedication
of volunteers can do that.
Perhaps today, there are not so many quiet little men in raincoats who see
nothing – not even recognition – for themselves.
Express, Thursday 12th March, 1981