We were founded on 4 August 1870, at a time when Europe was suffering war after bloody war. Our original mission was to help the wounded and sick in wartime, but as the nature of conflict changed our services have expanded to help civilians in peacetime as well.
Neutral help in war-torn Europe
The Franco-Prussian war
The first meeting
The first members
The first donations
Getting aid to wounded soldiers abroad
The first relief items
Early aid workers
Division of labour between women and men
The first 50 years
A Swiss businessman named Henry Dunant first proposed that countries create organisations to provide neutral, impartial help for wounded and sick soldiers in wartime. The groundbreaking idea came to him when he was travelling through Italy and saw the carnage immediately after the Battle of Solferino, fought on 24 June 1859 between a Franco-Sardinian alliance and the imperial Austrian army. Some 40,000 wounded men lay abandoned on the battlefield until Dunant started organising local villagers to help them.
Dunant’s idea led to the creation of the International Committee of the Red Cross in 1863 and the first Geneva Convention in 1864. Countries across Europe began forming their own Red Cross National Societies.
In July 1870, war broke out between France and Prussia. Colonel Robert James Loyd-Lindsay (1832-1901), who had served with the Scots Fusilier Guards in the Crimean War and was awarded the Victoria Cross in 1857, was immediately concerned about the suffering the war would cause.Since the British government had ties with both sides, he wrote a letter to The Times on 22 July 1870 to propose the country create a neutral, impartial aid organisation to help wounded soldiers on both sides of the frontlines.
He wrote: “The news which daily reaches us from abroad shows that nations can at times go mad as well as individuals. It is strange to read in your columns of the preparations which are being made simultaneously to destroy life and to save it. Unfortunately it is far easier to destroy than to save, all the glory being reserved for the former, and ten times the scientific resources being devoted to it.
“The part that we [the British] may be destined to take in this war is unknown, but we know well that as soon as a battle has been fought there will be a large amount of sympathy excited on behalf of the wounded soldiers on both sides for the French, our staunch and faithful allies in the Crimea, with whom I, in common with many others, spent two years in constant and friendly intercourse, and for the Prussians, related to us by ties of friendship, and by our Princess Royal, destined to be their Queen.
“The difficulty will be how properly to direct our friendly aid. England has before now marked her sympathy in various wars by largely contributing aid and succour to the wounded on one side but any one-sided demonstration would in this case be singularly out of place. What is done, should be done impartially and, above all, systematically.”
When the Prussian army surprised the small garrison of soldiers at Wissembourg, northeastern France, on 4 August 1870, none of the men fighting for their lives knew that a who’s-who of British society was meeting in London to discuss ways of helping survivors.
Colonel Loyd-Lindsay had written to influential people, including the foreign secretary Lord Granville, asking for their support after his letter was published in The Times. Florence Nightingale, who had made a name for herself nursing wounded soldiers during the Crimean War, sent a message that Colonel Loyd-Lindsay was “quite on the right tack”.
At the meeting on 4 August, the group passed several resolutions to create an organisation called the National Society for Aid to the Sick and Wounded in War, which later changed its name to the British Red Cross in 1905.
The resolutions called for the organisation to be based on the rules of the Geneva Convention, and that it adopt “the Badge and Flag which have been recognised by the International Convention of Geneva”. The badge and flag showed a red cross on a white background, a legally protected symbol of humanitarian aid.
The group also resolved that:
- aid be given impartially to the sick and wounded of the belligerent armies
- sub-committees of the organisation be established in various parts of the country (these later became known as Branches)
- a ladies’ committee be established.
The organisation’s aims were not political. It would not attempt to interfere with state operations, or military medical staff, but only to help them in relieving the miseries of war.
A committee of 22 prominent men – including military officers, surgeons, and members of the House of Lords – formed to guide the fledgling organisation. Colonel Loyd-Lindsay was the chairman.
The ladies’ committee was headed by Queen Victoria’s daughter, Princess Christian. Florence Nightingale was also a member.
Queen Victoria was the organisation’s patron, and the Prince of Wales, later Edward VII, was the president.
From the beginning, The Times played a crucial part in raising money for wounded soldiers. Colonel Loyd-Lindsay’s original letter in the newspaper pledged £1,000 of his own money. He said: “If the money is not wanted we shall all rejoice, but I fear that much more will be needed.”
The British public responded in kind. Donations were sent from various sources, including the royal family, the staff of 100 companies, 257 schools, 5,824 congregations and parishes, 139 concerts and events, and 11,832 individuals.
Contributions ranged from £1,000 to a few shillings. Little ornaments and trinkets were frequently given to the organisation, which sold them to raise money. Small packets of food and clothing were brought to the organisation’s office every day.
By the end of the Franco-Prussian war, the British Red Cross had raised £250,000. That would have the spending power of £11,425,000 in today’s money.
Right after the meeting on 4 August, John Furley – who had worked alongside Colonel Loyd-Lindsay to bring the committee together – left for Paris, Geneva and Berlin to see how the newly formed organisation could help.
The committee decided to give an initial £40,000 to help the sick and wounded soldiers of the French and German nations.
Colonel Loyd-Lindsay carried cheques for £20,000 each to the Germans at Versailles and to the French in Paris. The cheques were drawn from Messrs Coutts Bank.
Furley also travelled extensively through the battlefields, distributing aid and reporting back to headquarters in London. In his publication Struggle and Experiences of a Neutral Volunteer, he called the war “the most terrible contest that has ever disgraced a civilized country”. He met many of the most senior military commanders as well as witnessing the conditions of the ordinary soldier and local population.
The Crown Prince of Prussia wrote a letter of appreciation, saying the contribution “deserves somewhat more than a simple acknowledgment. On this, as on other occasions of distress, the help of the English public has been poured out with a liberal and impartial hand. The gifts . . . have excited a feeling of heart-felt gratitude amongst those in whose name I speak. In doing so I am repeating the feelings of the whole of my countrypeople.” (2 November 1870)
The total amount spent on transportation, food, clothing, medical stores, surgical instruments and grants to local funds was £223,717.
In 1870, that bought:
- 256 brass bedsteads
- 83,858 blankets
- 83,962 cotton shirts
- 68,440 pairs of drawers and trousers
- 14,800 pairs of slippers
- 3.5 cwt of disinfecting powder (3,500 lbs)
- 150 boxes of fumigating papers
- 200 lbs castor oil
- 2,390 bottles of chloroform
- 33 flags with the red cross emblem, to protect humanitarian workers
- 100 horses’ nosebags
- 2786 lbs calf’s foot jelly, thought to be nourishing for the ill
- over 500 amputating knives
- 259 pairs of crutches
- 75 boxes of a dozen nightlights
- three teapots
- over 6 tons of soap
- one refrigerator.
After the war, part of the surplus funds was devoted to the training of women nurses at the Royal Victoria Hospital, Netley. The remainder was spent on the organisation’s long-term work, including providing relief during the 1876 Turco-Servian War.
By 17 September, there were 110 people working for the organisation in the field or at hospitals in France and Germany, including 62 surgeons and 16 nurses. One of them, Dr Sims, wrote a report to the committee giving strong testimony to the value of the nurses. “From the moment that women were introduced as nurses, the whole aspect of our establishment changed. Only last night a poor wounded soldier’s life was saved by one of our lady nurses in a most remarkable manner.”
The first member of the organisation to die on active service was during the Franco-Prussian War. John McIntosh (pictured), a 19-year-old from Hamilton in Scotland, offered his services on 10 October 1870. He was sent to Germany to dress wounds. He died on 23 November 1870 in Saarbrücken, Germany.
Women didn’t just serve as nurses on the battlefield. They were also instrumental in raising money and organising the relief items that were sent abroad.
The ladies’ committee managed the gifts given in the form of goods, keeping track of the incredible number of donations coming in. They sorted the donated items and organised sending them abroad. They also managed the relief item storerooms.
Since the ladies’ and the men’s committees were housed at St Martin’s Place, relief items were stored in a wing of the disused St Martin’s workhouse, the vaults of St Martin-in-the-Fields, and a tent in the churchyard.
Local women’s committees across the UK helped tremendously. One group, run by Lady Augusta Stanley – whose husband was the Dean of Westminster – had over 100 volunteers mending donated clothing and sewing linen into useful garments.
John Furley dedicated his book Struggles and Experiences of a Neutral Volunteer to Mrs Loyd-Lindsay, who was involved in one of the women's working committees, “in grateful remembrance of the work which she and the women of England performed in 1870-1, towards the alleviation of the victims of the war”.
The central committee managed the administrative business and organised the selection and despatch of agents abroad. They dealt with requests from foreign aid societies for more resources and help. They also facilitated the transport of people and goods through areas disturbed by war.
The first 50 years
In the years immediately after the Franco-Prussian War, the organisation was heavily involved in supplying personnel, transportation and supplies to other wars in which Britain was not engaged, including the Turko-Servian War of 1876 and the Russo-Turkish War of 1877-78.
In the Egyptian expedition of 1882, the organisation provided a hospital launch, the Queen Victoria. This was the first boat the British Red Cross owned for transporting the wounded.
The organisation helped during the two South African conflicts in 1881 and 1899-1902. It provided a hospital ship and two hospital trains as well as other forms of aid, totalling about £1,000,000 during the second war.
Change of name and new Branches
In 1905 the National Society for Aid to the Sick and Wounded in War and its organising committee were reconstituted as the British Red Cross Society.
By November 1907, there were 86 local Branches of the Red Cross in England, Scotland, Wales and Ireland. They were formed to recruit individual supporters and be prepared in the event of war being declared. These Branches were to become centres of Red Cross activity for their districts.
Our Royal Charter
The British Red Cross received its first Royal Charter in 1908 at the request of Queen Alexandra, who became president of the organisation.
In 1909 the Red Cross set up its Voluntary Aid Detachment (VAD) scheme in England and Wales. Volunteers (also known as VADs) were trained to supplement military medical forces in times of war.
The Red Cross needed a huge number of skilled volunteers to be prepared for its wartime role. Detachments were formed in every county in England, where members would provide skilled aid to the territorial medical forces in times of war.
After the First World War, ‘the war to end all wars’ in 1919, the British Red Cross was granted a supplemental charter, allowing it to extend its activities to peacetime.
In addition to the primary objective of helping the wounded and ill during wartime, from now on the British Red Cross would work to improve health, prevent disease and relieve suffering throughout the world.
Find out more about the beginning of the movement
Read about the founding of the International Federation of the Red Cross