IT may be 73 years ago, but Jackie Short vividly remembers the cruel winter’s night when three men were killed in an explosion down the road at Derwent Colliery.

His father, James, was a pitman at Medomsley’s other local coalmine, known as Busty Pit, and had his “first aid ticket”. When news came through of the blast, on February 10, 1947, he naturally wanted to put his training to good use.

Jackie was 14 at the time and went with his dad: “It was a bad winter and I remember us trying to climb up the bank, but the wind had drifted the snow like a ski slope, and there was nothing we could do,” he says.

The records show that Ronald Heighway, 24, Francis Monaghan, 44, and William Watson, 46, lost their lives that night.

Although Jackie and his father had been unable to help, he looks back on it as a pivotal moment in his life: his first memory of wanting to learn how to help the injured.

A lifetime on, Jackie – real name John – has clocked up 56 years’ service with St John Ambulance, and is still a volunteer at 87, though he could comfortably pass for a man 20 years younger.

“I think the pit accident must have been an influence on me,” he says.

Shortly afterwards, he joined Medomsley Boy Scouts, led by a man called Ernie Bicknell, who looked after first aid training for local pitmen as well as the Scouts.

In those days, first aid competitions were common, and Jackie remembers being part of the Scouts’ team that won the Durham County Vaux Challenge Shield in 1952.

“It was valuable training in the Scouts, and I think it stayed with me for the rest of my life,” he says.

At 15, Jackie got his first job, heating rivets at Consett Iron Company, before taking an apprenticeship as a wagonwright. Four and a half years later, he joined the RAF for his national service, embarking on a nursing course, and ending up working on the officers’ ward at RAF Halton Hospital, in Buckinghamshire.

He came out of the RAF in 1956 and started working at the Marley Tiles factory, in Ebchester. Naturally, they made him the first-aider.

There was the time an apprentice rushed up and declared: “Frankie’s dead.” An employee in the garage had been trapped under a wagon and wasn’t breathing. Jackie calmly cleared his airway and got him into the recovery position before the ambulance arrived. Frankie wasn’t dead, and Jackie received a letter of commendation from the company.

He began volunteering for St John Ambulance in 1964, working at the Consett unit under a “brilliant” trainer called Fred Lovett. It was Fred who started calling the new recruit ‘Jackie’ and it stuck.

Regular duties, included providing first aid support at country shows, motorbike scrambles, horse racing, point-to-points, fun runs and charity walks. In 1989, having become a sergeant in the unit, Jackie qualified as a lay instructor, assisting members, going into schools, and teaching scouts.

There was the time, on the second day of a baby and child course, when Jackie discovered that choking hadn’t been covered by the previous trainer. Jackie hadn’t brought a baby manikin with him, but the room was used as a creche, so he looked round and picked up a doll. After five chest thrusts, the doll burst into life, shouted “Mamma”, and a student jumped up to declare: “It’s a miracle, Jackie!”.

In 2005, Jackie was admitted to the Order of St John, with an investiture taking place in London. That was followed four years later by being presented with a “Hero of Derwentside” Award. Then, two years ago, he received the Laurel Leaf award for completing 52 years’ service.

Dr Gillian Willmore, chair of the Durham County Priory Group of St John, said: “Jackie is an wonderful example of our volunteers – a man who has given outstanding service.”

Dr Willmore hopes others will be inspired by John’s story to become St John Ambulance volunteers, saying: “It would be difficult to find anything more worthwhile in terms of commitment to our local community.”

Adult St John volunteers have made a critical difference behind the scenes in the North-East during the pandemic, assisting North East Ambulance Service, hospitals, GP surgeries, and the NHS Blood and Transplant Service.

There are several St John units in County Durham: Spennymoor, Willington, Darlington, Chilton, Durham City, Chester-le-Street, Consett & Burnopfield, and East Durham, and they start them young. Badgers can join at seven, before becoming cadets between 10-18.

Jackie Short, now a great-grandad, has certainly made a difference over 56 years of service. He’s no longer involved in formal training, and has given up public duties, but continues as a “fellowship member”, helping with collections, guiding cadets and “chipping in”.

“It’s in my blood,” says Jackie, speaking at his home in Ebchester. “I’d recommend it to anyone. You make friends for life as a St John Ambulance volunteer, and helping people makes you happy.”

Meanwhile, he keeps himself active, practising his hobby – ballroom and sequence dancing – at the St John Hall, in Mooriside.

Should anyone ever twist their ankle during the quickstep or tango, they’re sure to be in good hands.

  • To find out more about volunteering with St John Ambulance, go to:

LIKE many others, I was sad to hear that the Phoenix House rehabilitation centre at Catterick, run by Help For Heroes, is to close for the foreseeable future due to the financial impact of coronavirus.

For several years, it was my privilege to compere fashion shows with a difference at Phoenix House. Veterans – many with physical and mental injuries – shared the catwalk with professional models in the most inspirational way.

The fashion shows not only raised funds but showcased Phoenix House’s world-class facilities.

Members of our armed forces, who put their lives on the line, deserve the very best support when they return from war zones.

It is my sincere wish that Phoenix House will one day rise from the ashes of this horrible pandemic and continue its precious work.

Wouldn’t it be nice if we could celebrate beating this silent enemy by re-opening the doors of Phoenix House and staging the best fashion show yet?

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FINALLY, it was an interesting sign of the times that Neil Warnock managed Middlesbrough via Zoom against Bournemouth at the weekend after testing positive for coronavirus.

I can’t help thinking it would have worked better on Teams.

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