Indian humanitarianism at the St John archive

Maria Framke, affiliated researcher at the Leibniz-Zentrum Moderner Orient, Berlin, tells us about researching Indian humanitarian initiatives at the St John Archive in London.

Tell us a little about one archive collection you have used as part of your research? I have used the St John Archive collection for my research on Indian humanitarian initiatives in the first half of the 20th century, with a special focus on the First and Second World War and the decolonization period.

Front cover of the Indian Ambulance Gazette
Reproduced courtesy of the Museum of the Order of St John

What was significant about the collection? How did it benefit your research? The records on the Indian St John Ambulance Association and the Indian St John Ambulance Overseas Brigade offer a comprehensive – albeit not complete – overview of their work in colonial and early postcolonial India. Next to published reports on the association’s work, the collection holds several numbers of the society’s magazine The Indian Ambulance Gazette and correspondence between the Indian Council of St John and St John’s Headquarters in London. The material helped me to understand how and why St John was set up in colonial India, why it was attractive for Indians to actively participate and shape the society and in which areas the association became active. Working with the collection’s sources also to allowed me to engage with questions of competition between humanitarian organisations and with the relationship between the state and non-state actors, especially in a colonial context. 

Do you have any top tips for other researchers accessing this collection? As my research stay dates a few years back, I hope that my tips are still up to date. Before you visit the St John Archive, housed as part of the Museum of the Order of St John in central London, it is best to send an enquiry outlining your research interests and request an appointment. The staff of the archive is really helpful in providing the material during your visit. As the records on India are not catalogued, it helps to bring time to look through the available sources.

You can also visit the St John Museum for free (though it is currently closed because of COVID-19). The collection includes archival holdings and documentation relating to the Order of St John and its subsidiary, St John Ambulance.

Further Reading

Maria Framke and Esther Möller: ‘From local philanthropy to political humanitarianism: South Asian and Egyptian humanitarian aid during the period of decolonization’, ZMO Working Papers, 22, 2019,

Maria Framke: ‘‘We must send a gift worthy of India and the Congress!’ War and political humanitarianism in late colonial South Asia’, Modern Asian Studies, 51 (6), 2017, pp. 1969–1998.

Maria Framke ‘Political Humanitarianism in the 1930s: Indian Aid for Republican Spain’, European Review of History, 23 (1–2), 2016, pp. 63–81.

About Georgina Brewis

Professor of Social History at UCL
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