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Ohinemuri Regional History Journal 11, May 1969

THE SUNBEAM – ROVER AMBULANCE, FIRST WORLD WAR - WAIHI

By Ernie Longley

Editor's Note

To-day, we take an Ambulance for granted, but notwithstanding the dangerous nature of mining during Waihi's early days, and the fact that the Hospital was opened in 1903 yet for many years only two-wheeled Hand Ambulances were available. One was kept at the Fire Station in Haszard St. and others at the Martha and the Grand Junction Mine. They each consisted of a stretcher with a cycle wheel on either side, and were manipulated by two men who pulled and pushed. (One of these trolleys was given to Whangamata St. John Ambulance and was last heard of at the old Surf Club building.)

In our 3rd Journal (May 1965) we included an Ambulance "Sermon" composed and "preached" at a concert in Waihi by Mr. Harry Armour [see Journal 3: Waihi Ambulance - E]. This told the story of Waihi's first four-wheeled Ambulance - an "Overland" for which funds were raised after the 1st World War and which did not prove particularly successful. Subsequently a petition was sent to the Prime Minister (Mr. W. Massey) asking if a disused War Ambulance could be made available to meet the pressing needs of Waihi. This 1915 Sunbeam-Rover Red Cross Van duly arrived in 1922 and was housed in a shed beside the Fire Station. Mr. Bernie Roberts, who had a garage on the site of Galvin's Motors, was a member of the Brigade and drove the Ambulance when required. About 1932 both the shed and the Ambulance were moved to the Hospital grounds and after the St. John Ambulance Association was formed in 1933 it supplied drivers.

(We are grateful for this information supplied by Mr. Royce Morgan and Mr. Dick Leach. Mr. Longley's story follows.)


"I first became acquainted with Ambulance Work in England in 19l8 when, as a lad of nearly l6, I did Voluntary Service as an Ambulance Assistant with the Boy Scout Organisation. The thousands of casualties - walking wounded - being shipped across the English Channel at that time, needed assistance to reach transport which would disperse them to outlying hospitals.

We boys, granted leave from our work, (in my case from my second year in engineering training) were fed and housed in return for our service. It was during this time that I was introduced to the Sunbeam - Rover Ambulance. They steered like drays and took off in the air if they ran over a brick. I am afraid the wounded had a very rough ride but their spirits remained undaunted.

I arrived in New Zealand (Taumarunui) in 1925 with my parents and a brother and sister and until 1928 worked at the Ellis and Burnand sawmill at Mananui. Meanwhile my family had moved to Waihi where I joined them, and for a time ran a small plumbing business. The depression put an end to that and along with many others I picked up road-beds of blue metal and put them back again. The district fascinated me and I hiked and tramped all over it. Finally for eight years I was employed by the Hospital Board in charge of the Boilers as I had been trained to be a "Steam and General Engineer." And again I was destined to have more than a nodding acquaintance with a Sunbeam - Rover Ambulance, with its gate change lever and gas head lamps. Exhaust pipes were used to heat the inside and the familiar Red Cross sign was painted on each side of the canvas cover. In small print inside was stated the number of stretchers that could be carried (four). A very low powered engine to drive the machine enabled it to change gears going down Seddon Ave. from town.

(Mr. Fred Carbutt recollects that when a number of men were injured in the mine accident that occurred at 4.30p.m. on 25-7-33 see Journal 9, - Page 21 [Waihi Mine Accident 25-7-1933 - E] - he was the driver of the Ambulance, which was still making trips to the hospital after dark. The rough road in the vicinity of the Seddon Ave. Bridge caused the gas lights to go out, so the driver proceeded in the dark but on arrival both he and the patients were found to be almost asphyxiated by the escaping gas.)

In 1957 a new Ford Ambulance was purchased for Waihi and probably few people know what became of the old "War Horse." It's "wreck" was "run to earth" in Tauranga by a friend of mine, (Bryan Jackson) the most historically minded young man I've ever met. His private Museum is a sight to behold for he and his assistant seem to spend all their spare time on exhibits, restoring them to their former grandeur. I am sending you a photograph of the restored "Sunbeam - Rover" which contains parts of the World War 1 - Waihiedition. The front right dumb-iron (chassis member) being one. Left and right of the driver's seat is inserted a copy of its history.

The restoration which took two years, is according to its use in World War 1. It had no glass other than the lamp glasses. A canvas apron, attached to the dash-board was tied round the driver's waist; the rest of him and anyone else in the front seat was liable to get wet. The Waihi vehicle had a windscreen fitted. I am enclosing some verse I wrote for the "new" old bus, now probably the only one of its kind in the world.

"The Old Ambulance."

(1915 ''Sunbeam - Rover'' used in 1914 - 1918 War - The Only One In The World)

If this old Ambulance could speak, reveal its history,

What stories would there be to tell of human misery,

Of shattered men from Flanders Field, of roads with shell-bursts torn,

Of grim, heroic Red Cross men, who strove, though tired and worn,

To bring their wounded from the Front, away from war-fare's hell,

Their part fulfilled. This is the tale this Ambulance could tell.

 

If this old Ambulance could speak, and roll back fifty years,

Tell of the "war to end all wars"!, tell of the strife and tears,

And speak to those, now old and grey, who cared for it, when young,

Exchanging stories with them all, recalling war-songs sung,

Recalling days of mud and blood, and names of men who fell,

This Ambulance could write a book, could it, its story tell.

 

If this old Ambulance could speak, and say to you and me,

"I'm grateful that you've tried to make me what I used to be,

Restored my pride in work well done, of countless wounded bourne,

From Marne, and Mons, and Paschendaele, through country ripped and torn,

Though, like my drivers, I am old, my mem'ry, like a bell;

Remains quite clear on all these things, and stories I could tell."

 

If this old Ambulance could speak, and tell its story true,

The tears, now dried for many years, would course down cheeks, anew,

Its tales of "shrap," and bayonet-wounds, of deadly Chlorine gas,

Of shattered remnants of the men who said, "They shall not pass!"

The cry of ''Stretcher-bearers, here!" this Ambulance knew well,

Another trip to C - C - S, another tale to tell.

 

Now, Diggers, Tommies, Kangaroos, where-ever you may be,

A kind thought for this Ambulance, a relic, as you see,

That takes us back when we were young, reminds us of the days,

Of rifle-butts and bayonet sharp; of French Estaminets,

Of too - brief leave away from war; the legend, "Mons Angel;"

Armistice Day; and peace again on shattered world befell.

E. Longley.


Our Contributor Mr. Longley who now lives in Auckland, spent 25 years as Chief Engineer at the Taumarunui Hospital after leaving Waihi. He has always been a keen banjo player and relates an incident which is linked with Waihi where he became acquainted with Sel Duncan, sax-player, who later moved to Taumarunui, and formed a band in which they played together. Last year when Sel died suddenly, Ernie Longley took his banjo with him when he left to attend the funeral. He was able to take his friend's place in the band that Saturday night, thus keeping up Sel's tradition of never letting his clients down.