In pictures: 150 years of the British Red Cross

The British Red Cross, a humanitarian network founded to offer impartial aid to the sick and wounded, is marking its 150th anniversary this year. On World Kindness Day, Mehzebin Adam, curator at the British Red Cross Museum & Archives, shares more about its history in both times of war and peace – through eight fascinating objects…

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The Red Cross and Red Crescent movement began when Swiss humanitarian Henry Dunant called for a kinder world. Shocked by the suffering of wounded soldiers in the aftermath of the Battle of Solferino in 1859, he urged all nations to create volunteer groups to provide impartial relief to the sick and wounded. Dunant’s ideas led to the foundation of the Red Cross in 1863 and the original Geneva Convention in 1864, the first treaty of modern international humanitarian law.

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Following the outbreak of the Franco-Prussian War in 1870, the British Red Cross was formed on 4 August to provide relief to the sick and wounded soldiers on both sides of the war. The society joined the global Red Cross movement to work towards the shared goal of helping people in need, no matter who or where they are.

To mark our 150-year legacy, we have launched 150 Voices – an online exhibition to celebrate the charity’s history of connecting human kindness with human crisis. As part of the exhibition, volunteers from around the UK helped to select 150 items from the British Red Cross Museum and Archives.

At a time when the coronavirus pandemic has meant that many museums are inaccessible, this new online exhibition allows people to virtually explore the British Red Cross Museum and Archives and learn about the charity’s 150 years of history.

You can find out more by visiting the 150 Voices online exhibition


Beginnings of the British Red Cross

Robert Loyd-Lindsay at Versailles, first chairman of the British Red Cross. Artist: Robert Landells, 1875
Robert Loyd-Lindsay at Versailles, first chairman of the British Red Cross. Artist: Robert Landells, 1875

Following an appeal by Robert Loyd-Lindsay in The Times in July 1870, a sum of nearly £200,000 (the equivalent of around £24 million today) had been raised by the National Society for Aid to the Sick and Wounded in War, later renamed British Red Cross, to provide relief to the soldiers of the Franco-Prussian War.

The painting shows Robert Loyd-Lindsay, on foot, travelling to give equal cash donations of £20,000 (the equivalent of around £2.4 million today) to both sides of the war. He is followed by his assistant, Mr Whittle, who is carrying the money in his bag.

The British Red Cross in the First World War

Embroidery, 1916
Embroidery, 1916

The British Red Cross provided convalescent homes, during and after the First World War, for the large numbers of injured servicemen. The medical authorities recommended craftwork as part of the healing process. Beautiful works of art were created by convalescing servicemen, and these were often gifted to the volunteer nurses caring for them.

Out of more 90,000 VAD (Voluntary Aid Detachments) recruited by the British Red Cross during the war, around 66,000 were women. 

 

The peacetime role of the British Red Cross

British Red Cross Supplemental Charter, 1919
British Red Cross Supplemental Charter, 1919

Considered the deadliest global pandemic in history, the 1918 influenza killed between 50 and 100 million people worldwide. The health emergency demonstrated that wars are not the only threats to humanity, and therefore changed the course of the Red Cross and Red Crescent movement forever. In September 1919, the British Red Cross was granted a supplemental charter that extended its original objectives to include the improvement of health, prevention of disease and mitigation of suffering throughout the world.

   

BRC in the Second World War

Prisoner of war food parcel, c1940–45
Prisoner of war food parcel, c1940–45

Over the course of the Second World War, the British Red Cross sent around 20 million food parcels from the UK to Allied prisoners of war (POWs) held captive overseas. Food was often scarce in the POW camps, and these parcels were intended to provide the prisoners with vital nourishment to supplement their dietary intake and prevent starvation. 

 

First aid

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Illustrated triangular bandage, c1939-45

In addition to first aid training for volunteers, the British Red Cross has played a significant role in teaching and promoting first aid to members of the public.

This illustrated triangular bandage was used to treat injured civilians during the Second World War. The images on the bandage show 32 different ways of applying it, allowing it to be used without referring to a first aid manual.

Emergency response

Hurricane Hattie, which struck Honduras in 1961
Hurricane Hattie, which struck Honduras in 1961

Hurricane Hattie struck British Honduras (known as Belize today) on 31 October 1961, killing more than 400 people, and leaving thousands homeless. The photograph shows a Junior Red Cross member giving a disaster relief kit to two young boys. These kits had been flown in from the UK along with other aid sent by the British Red Cross.

Emergency response blanket, 2009
Emergency response blanket, 2009

Fleece blankets, like this one, are used by the British Red Cross when they are providing relief to people in crisis in the UK. The British Red Cross has played and continues to play an important role in responding to emergencies in the UK, such as fires and floods. This involves providing food, practical and emotional support, as well as providing wheelchairs.

 

Refugees and displacement

For over a century, the British Red Cross has helped protect and support people in the UK and overseas who are forced to flee their homes. Today, there are at least 70 million forcibly displaced people worldwide. The British Red Cross is committed to supporting and protecting displaced people at all stages of their journey.

Journey by boat, 2016
Journey by boat, 2016

This artwork, titled Journey by boat, shows refugees crossing the Mediterranean Sea by boat. Refugees are often forced to travel on overcrowded boats run by smugglers. The boats are not always seaworthy and risk capsizing at sea. The artist produced the work at a British Red Cross young refugee support centre in Gravesend, Kent.

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Syrian Arab Red Crescent food parcel, 2017

Nine years of war in Syria has resulted in more than 11.6 million fleeing their homes, and around five million people now live as refugees. The coronavirus pandemic has created further challenges for Syrians, especially for the people living in camps in Syria where social distancing is difficult or impossible.

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The British Red Cross works with the Syrian Arab Red Crescent to provide food parcels like this to people in Syria. Each box is designed to support a family of five for a month.

Find out more about each image and more, by visiting the 150 Voices online exhibition