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Duration 25:29

The British Red Cross and its archives

The British Red Cross has long recognised the importance of its history and archive collection, maintaining an archive since the late 1960s. The talk outlines the history of the British Red Cross and show how this has left a record in the archive collection. It provides an overview of the wider international movement, its formation and early years, local organisation, joint work with St John’s during the First and Second World Wars and our peacetime role and expansion of remit.

Sarah Cox has worked as the Collections Assistant at the British Red Cross Museum & Archives since August 2011, where her role is to assist the Archivist and Curator in managing and promoting the historical collections and responding to internal and external historical enquiries. Sarah previously worked as the Archive Graduate Trainee at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew and is currently studying for the MLitt in Archives & Records Management at Dundee University.


Thank you all for coming today to listen to me talking about the history of the British Red Cross.

So, the intention of this talk is to outline the history of the Red Cross and to show how it’s left a record in our archive collection. I hope to provide an overview of the wider international movement as well as give an overview of our formation and early years, the local organisation, joint work with St John’s during the First and Second World War and our peacetime role and expansion of remit.

So, I will start by just briefly introducing myself a bit more and telling you a bit more about who we are. I am the Collections Assistant at the British Red Cross Museum and Archives. We also have an archivist who is in our audience who manages the historical records held by the Red Cross, whether paper, photographic or electronic. We also have a curator who manages historical objects in the collection which were received or used by British Red Cross personnel in the course of their work. So, we all work together to collect, preserve and make available, to as wide an audience as possible, our historical collections.

The British Red Cross Society’s archives contain official reports and other papers, from 1870 to the present date. This includes: minutes, accounts, annual reports, a complete run of our official journal which started in 1914, as well as personnel records, including more than 650,000 World War I and World War II service record cards. We also have county branch records dating from about 1907. In addition, papers and memorabilia that have been donated to us play a significant role in filling in some of the gaps that have been created by two major upheavals which I am going to discuss a little later on.

In order to understand the British Red Cross history, it is important to understand our international context. So, we are just part of the International Red Cross and Red Crescent movement. The movement is made up of the International Committee of the Red Cross, the International Federation of the Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies and 186 national Red Cross and Red Crescent societies around the world, of which we are one.

So, our archive only contains material created by the British society but both the ICRC and the IFRC have their own archives which are based in Geneva. Some of the other national societies also have their own collections, either with libraries, museums or archives.

The 186 Red Cross and Red Crescent societies all around the world wouldn’t really be here without this man [photograph]. So this is Swiss businessman, Henri Dunant, who witnessed the suffering of wounded soldiers at the Battle of Solferino in 1859.

He was passing through a town which was affected by the battle on a business trip and was appalled at the sight of the suffering of the wounded soldiers he encountered. There was no organised medical division within the army that could meet their needs. Medical provision at this time was inadequate and there were few doctors, equipment or transport attached to each regiment. Many soldiers died from simple wounds due to a lack of knowledge or care.

Henri decided that he couldn’t sit by and witness this suffering so he immediately began working with local women. He brought in supplies for washing, dressings; he also brought in food, water and clean clothes.

In 1862 he wrote an account of his experiences which he called A Memory of Solferino. In this he proposed the creation of national relief societies of trained volunteers to provide neutral and impartial help to wounded soldiers in times of war. He wrote:

‘Oh, how valuable it would have been to have a hundred experienced and qualified voluntary orderlies and nurses. Such a group would have formed a nucleus around which could have been rallied the help and disbursed efforts which needed competent guidance.’

Copies of his account were sent to important people in Geneva throughout Europe including royalty and ministers. Within months of the publication of A Memory of Solferino a temporary committee of five was formed in Geneva which began organising the relief societies which he suggested. The committee of five later became the International Committee of the Red Cross. There were British representatives that attended the first Red Cross Conference which was held in Geneva and succeeded in drafting resolutions and recommendations that would be used when national relief societies were organised. In 1870 a society was formed in Britain which was later to become the British Red Cross.

So, the British Red Cross was formed on 4 August 1870 and it was known as the National Society for Aid to the Sick and Wounded in War and Queen Victoria was the patron. It was founded by Colonel Robert Loyd-Lindsay in response to the outbreak of war between France and Prussia. An appeal was launched by Loyd-Lindsay in The Times newspaper and medical supplies and trained medical personnel were arranged to provide assistance to both sides in the war in keeping with Red Cross principles of Neutrality and Impartiality.

The majority of the records which were created in these early days relate to the formation of the Society and its first action. It takes the form of correspondence between the main personalities involved in the fledgling organisation. Following the end of the war, the organisation wrote a report on their actions which survives today and contains quite a surprising level of detail including lists of supplies that were sent out to the Front.

So, a sub-committee was set-up around this time to consider the best means of expanding the organisation in this country and it recommended that the best way to do this was to organise voluntary aid through the formation of branch committees in connection with counties and larger towns, and a central British Red Cross Council was proposed as part of the framework of responsibility and this here is a copy [shows picture] of a painting showing Loyd-Lindsay delivering aid in the Franco-Prussian War. He is being protected by the Red Cross emblem.

So, this pattern of early response and the records that survived continued throughout this early period until 1905. The early records amount to about ten boxes of, primarily, letters and are known as the Wantage Papers after the title that was awarded to Loyd-Lindsay, which was Baron Wantage, in 1885.

Many of the early responses have left very few records. However, some slightly more detailed records have been left from wars such as the Serbo-Bulgarian War, South African War. In addition to documenting the humanitarian activities of the organisation, these early records also show the relationships between the organisation and other agencies including government departments which at times could be difficult.

The overlapping and conflicting remits of the British National Society for Aid to the Sick and Wounded in War and the central British Red Cross Committee is also shown by the records. And it was the need to resolve this overlapping remit that led to the reconstitution of the organisation in 1905 when it became a single British Red Cross Society. On 12 July of that year a letter was issued stating that the King and Queen had, after consultation with various bodies, agreed that the movement should be reconstituted on a wider administrative and financial basis under an association to be called The British Red Cross Society. The King was the patron and the Queen was the president.

So, this event had a significant impact on our records because it saw the start of a more formal administrative structure with minute taking, for example. This photograph [shows picture] shows the Princess Christian Hospital Train which was used in the South African War and it was the first purpose-built hospital train which carried 7,548 badly injured soldiers.

So, our archive has collected signed minutes from the executive body since 1905 and continues to receive annual deposits today. These records document top-level decision-making and are largely available for research. Another significant decision that affected the development of the organisation and creation of records was made in 1907 when it was decided that the organisation would be based on the structure of county branches, based on local government administrative structures. So branches started to be formed immediately, although it wasn’t until the publication by the War Office of a scheme for the Organisation of Voluntary Aid in England and Wales in 1909 followed by one for Scotland later that year that the basis for recruiting and training volunteers was formed and the real start of Red Cross activity on a local level. Branches were also formed in British Overseas Territories and we do hold records of many of these branches until they gained independence.

So, because authority had been devolved to local branches, they were then free to administer themselves as they wished which creates quite a deal of regional variation in the provision of services, as well as the organisational structure and their record keeping. Although we do collect and contain material from many of these branches the coverage therefore is quite patchy and some parts of the country are better represented than others.

As our services are closely linked to local administrative structures, any major changes to the organisation of local government or health service have been reflected and had an impact on our branches. For example, local government reorganisation in 1974 affected the administrative boundaries of our society. Because of the preparation by branches during the early years of the twentieth century, it meant that the organisation was well-placed to respond to the outbreak of war in 1914. To prevent duplication of effort and competition for funds from the public, a joint body was formed on 24 October 1914 by the British Red Cross and the Order of St John and this was known as the Joint War Committee.

The First World War saw unprecedented levels of activities with thousands signing up as volunteers to help the Committee run auxiliary hospitals and convalescent homes in the UK and overseas. We also provided transport for the wounded and searched for wounded and missing service personnel. The records of the Joint War Committee are not extensive but they are supplemented by personal records of those who served with it. So, albums, diaries, photographs and some autobiographical accounts in our collection help to show a richer picture of the wartime effort.

So, a very important upheaval occurred after the First World War which has had a significant impact on our records. In 1927 it was decided that in view of the enormous volume of records resulting from the activities of the Joint War Committee, the records would be dispersed and only a small proportion retained. A surviving inventory lists the records in three categories which it states were transferred in February and March 1927 to the Joint War Committee, the Imperial War Graves Commission and the Imperial War Museum. However, it appears that none of these groups of records actually survived.

The Joint War Committee was demobilised in 1919 but this did not see the end of joint working with the Order of St John. The Joint Council did continue to operate services such as convalescent homes and ambulance service and hospital libraries during the inter-war period.

The British Red Cross only had a remit to operate during conflict until 1919 when it was granted a supplemental Royal Charter giving it a peacetime role to help improve health, prevent disease and mitigate suffering. It was the granting of this charter which dramatically changed the scope of the organisation and made it what it is today. This broader remit is reflected in the records with health and social care services alongside emergency response.

During the inter-war period, the British Red Cross started several healthcare services such as patient transport and blood transfusion which were operated by country branches until the formation of the NHS in 1948.

This work is reflected in the files of the Central Registry which was maintained by the British Red Cross from around the end of the Second World War until the 1990s. Many of these files have been transferred to the archive which provides information on the organisation at home and abroad. The files cover a wide range of subjects from the introduction of new uniforms, responding to international disasters and that sort of thing.

So, also during the inter-war period the Junior Red Cross was formed. Their goal was to promote health and hygiene and international and cultural understanding and we have records of their activities including: a run of their journal, photographs of their activities which include first-aid training and fund-raising as well as friendship albums they created to promote communication with other national societies. This here is Percy Lane Oliver [shows picture] who started the blood transfusion service in the 1920s.

The model of joint activity during conflict was again used during the Second World War with the formation of the Joint War Organisation on 2 September 1939. British Red Cross members, again, worked in hospitals and convalescent homes as well as nurseries, ambulance units, rest stations and central workrooms providing welfare and nursing support. All of this work was funded by the Duke of Gloucester’s Red Cross and St John appeal which had raised over £54 million by 1946. According to The National Archives’ online money converter [], which I hope is right, that is almost £1.5 billion in today’s money. I am sorry if that is wrong.

So, there have been some developments since the First World War which affected the services the British Red Cross ran. The Third Geneva Convention, which was signed in 1929, had established comprehensive rules for the treatment of prisoners of war. So, during the Second World War, the Joint War Organisation sent standard food parcels as well as medical supplies, educational books and recreational material to prisoner-of-war camps. Around 20 million standard food parcels were sent out from the UK office.

The records of the Joint War Organisation are not as complete as many people would hope or expect them to be. An order was given in May 1945 to draw up a list of records created by the organisation that should be preserved, destroyed or offered to government departments. The order stated that ‘arguments for preservation for historical or sentimental interest of a general kind will not be accepted’ which led to the destruction of many records and one of the biggest impacts upon us today is that it has left our Second World War personnel indexes incomplete.

After the war in 1946 a separate Red Cross department of Welfare Services was established due to growing demand throughout the country. British Red Cross personnel engaged in regular welfare work in 169 service and 265 civilian hospitals, helped run 51 outpatient canteens, maintained 1,040 medical loan centres and 67 diversionary handicrafts centres. Work for disabled children was carried out at over 772 clinics and regular visits were made to counties to children in hospitals and other homes.

On 5 July 1948, 1,143 voluntary hospitals and 1,545 municipal hospitals were taken over by the NHS in England and Wales. The coming into force of the National Health Service Act made 1948 a busy year for the Red Cross. In many parts of the country, the authorities invited the Red Cross to continue and extend their services under the Acts. The Red Cross was used as a signpost for members of the public confronted by all the changes in social legislation and they turned to the organisation for advice and interpretation of this. So, the organisation launched a five-year plan to help tide over the interim period before the Ministry of Health could fulfil the gigantic health programme that they entered upon under the Act.

The late 1940s and early 1950s also saw a significant expansion of overseas branches. Branches of the British Red Cross were set up in British colonies including: Jamaica, British Guyana, Cyprus and Hong Kong. The Central Registry files we hold reveal the relationships with other Red Cross societies including many in, what are now, former British colonies as well as relationships with foreign governments. Other than the official minutes Central Registry Files we hold are the only record of our work during this period of dramatic change. They chart the development of the organisation, record our involvement with major events and also demonstrate our relationship with other organisations.

There are 245 boxes of material and it is estimated around 1,400 files and although they contain the official responses to situations, there is also a great deal of personal comment and assessment which provides a much richer picture of events than is recorded in the official minutes and annual reports.

So the huge number of civilians affected by forced migration during the Second World War resulted in serious refugee problems which continued for many years after the end of hostilities. In 1949 the Fourth Geneva Convention made provision to protect civilians caught up in war especially those who found themselves in the hands of the enemy or occupying power. The British Red Cross has since continued to work with other elements of the Red Cross movement to provide relief to displaced people and liberated population in need of basic supplies. Working as part of the Red Cross movement, the British Red Cross has provided relief to the victims of international conflicts and disasters including refugees from the Hungarian Revolution in 1956, victims of the Iranian earthquake in 1962, famine in Africa in 1980-1989 and Hurricane Mitch in 1998 and more recently in the Indian Ocean tsunami in 2004.

Within the UK emergency relief work following incidents such as the collapse of the coal slip at Aberfan 1966, the Lockerbie air disaster 1988 and the London bombings in July 2005 have been undertaken alongside providing short-term relief within the community.

The provision of community services and the supply of emergency relief in the UK and worldwide continues to be the focus of British Red Cross activities so we hold records of these services delivered by the Red Cross at home as well as overseas from its formation to the present day. Now these services come under the headings of: health and social care, emergency response, first-aid, international tracing and messaging and refugee services and fund raising. These include, amongst many other services: therapeutics care, meals-on-wheels, skin camouflage service, loan of medical equipment and disaster response at home as well as overseas. We also provide first-aid courses and first aid at events.

Fund-raising has always been at the heart of the organisation and our records document the expansion of fund-raising techniques including the growth of regular giving and the history of our corporate partnerships. So we have photographs, journals and newsletters which supplement official records in documenting the provision of these services throughout the years. Personal papers which reflect the contribution of just some of our staff, volunteers and beneficiaries. These papers add richness to the collection and help researchers to understand the impact of our work through personal stories and experiences. Diaries, albums and letters allow us to see the lives that were changed and the friendships that were formed against the backdrop of challenging Red Cross work during events such as the First World War as well as the liberation of Belsen concentration camp and the Falklands conflict amongst many others.

As well as traditional documents, our collections also contain audio-visual records. We have a large photographic collection with contains several thousand official and donated photographs and also a small quantity of historic film but most of this has been donated to the British Film Institute and can be accessed there. We continue to receive regular transfers of material within the organisation to ensure that our story is kept up to date.

So, this talk has been focusing on the archives of the British Red Cross Society however we do also have an important museum collection which contains a wide-range of artefacts dating from 1870 to the present day. It contains uniform, medical equipment, food parcels and medals. We ensure contemporary collecting as well from internal and external sources to ensure that significant objects are collected for the future. We have uniforms from the First World War to contemporary work-wear and medical equipment which includes items representing services that we used to run, such as blood transfusion and the hospital library service as well as current services such as therapeutic care. We have textiles including embroideries, dolls and string items and the Changi quilt. These items can include dolls made by former inmates of prisoner-of-war camps given to Red Cross workers after the camp was liberated as well as items made by prisoners-of-war in captivity. We also have a collection of artwork including paintings, drawings and a large number of posters which are managed under the museum collection.

So the collections are used internally to promote the work of the British Red Cross to staff and volunteers. Recent examples include offering tours as part of our induction process and working closely with fund-raising teams to find stories or items that might be of interest to donors.

We also use the collections to answer external enquiries including from media and family historians. The index cards of volunteers during the First and Second World Wars are an incredibly popular resource and we are investigating ways of making them more accessible. We do also receive enquiries from a wide-range of academic researchers.

This talk has intended to show the range of the records that are part of the British Red Cross archive collection. Anyone who has an interest in the history of the Red Cross is welcome to visit to use the collection which is housed in our head office in London. Now, although there is no public museum at the UK office, we try to make sure that access to the museum collection is maintained through loans to exhibitions at other registered museums as well as inviting people for research visits and tours and answering enquiries on museum objects and providing information through our website.

Thank you for listening.

Transcribed by Sara Perry as part of a volunteer project, March 2015


  1. Helen Kariv says:

    In 1945, the American Red Cross notified my mother, Suzanne Verghage, that her fiancee had been killed. He was a Marine serving as a temporary security guard at the American Embassy in Paris then was recalled and never came back.

  2. Steven Bray says:

    If you have a subscription to FindMyPast you can look at the 1939 Register. Search for your relative and select View Original Image, then look at the page on the right, you sometimes see “British Red Cross Society”. This method could be used to recreate an index of Red Cross volunteers.

  3. Patrick R. L. Dunbar says:

    Thank you for such an interesting account.

    I would be most grateful if you could suggest how I can research the careers of two nurses. One was serving during WWI and the second in WWII

    I have a Times obituary for Miss Ethel Gordon Dunbar (1876-1929) who was a mental nurse at the start of WWI. She teamed up Miss Leigh a US Red Cross nurse, and from the obituary they seemed to have ‘freelanced’ rather than wait for official postings.

    The second is Stella Kathleen Underdown (1893-20 March 1941) who married Lt. Col. William Henry George Dunbar. She was killed during an air raid on Plymouth, and her name can be found in the Plymouth Book of Remembrance.

    Any information you may be kind enough to forward, or any research suggestions you might make would be much appreciated. Both ladies are important figures in Dunbar family history.

    Please note that I have no commecial interest in acquiring this information. I am an amateur researcher, fully engaged in a retirement project.

    Yours sincerely.
    P. Dunbar
    Organiser, Dunbar family Society.

    1. ruthcrumey says:

      Thank you for your comments.

      If you are researching military nursing careers please have a look at our guidance at

      It’s possible that our Civilian Nursing guide could be useful to you as well

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