Wellington Free Ambulance 95 years young

Nearly a century after Sir Charles Norwood, Mayor of Wellington, founded the service, Wellington Free Ambulance remains the only ambulance service in New Zealand that is free of charge and the only service operating over the greater Wellington region including the Wairarapa.


Black and white photo of Wellington Ambulance Station at twilight.
Wellington Free Ambulance building in the 1930s. Courtesy of National Archives.expand/collapse

In 1927 Sir Charles Norwood encountered a man injured and cold on the footpath in Lambton Quay, Wellington. He asked the crowd that was gathering around if anyone had called an ambulance. The response was that none could be found, so Norwood took off his coat and laid it over the man while he waited for an ambulance to come from the Wellington Harbour Board.

This was the beginning of the unique ambulance service that Wellington has today.  It was Norwood’s belief that there should be a place where emergencies didn’t need to cost lives or money, and he decided there and then that Wellington city would have a free ambulance service for everyone.

Sir Charles Norwood served on the Wellington City Council from 1917-1923 and became Mayor of Wellington from 1925-27, the 22nd Mayor of Wellington. He was also a member of the Wellington Harbour Board for more than 30 years and was its chairman from 1931-33.

He was a prominent figure in the motor industry in New Zealand. His substantial business, Dominion Motors, in Courtenay Place, imported, assembled and distributed cars. He beat his competition to winning the country’s sole agency for the best-selling English car, the Morris. He was an outstanding member of the Rotary Club of Wellington, holding the position of Club President in 1933-34, and was instrumental in helping Rotary in New Zealand set up the New Zealand Crippled Children’s Society (NZCCS), in 1935.

Sir Charles Norwood died in 1966 in Wellington, aged 95. Sir Charles’ son, the late Sir Walter Norwood, also a leading New Zealand businessman and Rotary figure, and his wife Lady Rana, were also avid supporters of the city, including gifting the Lady Norwood Rose Garden at Wellington Botanic Garden ki Paekākā.

The Wellington Free Ambulance building, Category 1 heritage listed, in Cable Street, near Taranaki Street Wharf, was constructed in 1932-33. The service operated from there for many years before moving to Thorndon. The building was under threat of demolition, or relocation, in the late 1980s, however it was eventually saved and converted to a popular bar and restaurant, the St John’s, which remains today.

David Watt