Sunday, June 7, 2015


Recently our trivia night shared part of the floor at the club (separated by walls, fortunately) with a St John Ambulance Brigade Annual Dinner. Some of us knew some of them and, in response to an apology for any disruption, I replied “It’s okay, I was a Zambuk myself when I was young.”

By way of explanation, the St John Ambulance Brigade is a charitable organisation that teaches first aid and provides voluntary assistance by having members attend contact sport matches, parades, functions etc in uniform with first aid kits. These adult officers are accompanied by younger members, known as cadets. I was a cadet in my younger years and attended training etc every Friday night.

Cadets assisting at an Anzac Day march, known as doing “duty”. Back in my day 300 hours got you a badge for your uniform.

Cadets training, here learning CPR

My use of the term “Zambuk” caused a few initial quizzical looks and at least one “A what?” The person to whom I made the comment, of my vintage, knew what I was talking about but apparently the word is no longer in use.

Here are some comments.

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St John Ambulance Brigade personnel on duty at football matches were, back then, commonly referred to as Zambuks. These days there is much greater organisation and professionalism in the sport. In the bygone years first grade footballers had other jobs as well as playing football, there were no trainers or medical people as part of the team and first aid was rendered by the Zambuks. If the matter was serious, an ambulance was summoned for a trip to hospital or someone, such as a club official, drove the player there.

How did they come by that nickname?

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Zam-Buk is an antiseptic ointment herbal balm, first sold in the UK in 1902 and still available. It is believed that the name comes from an African town by the same name.

At a time when a graze or cut could result in infection and sometimes death, the availability of a handy and inexpensive antiseptic was welcome.

Some early ads:

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St John officers rendering first aid at football matches began carrying Zam-Buk as part of their kit, applying the ointment to cuts and grazes to minimise the risk of infection.

Soon they became known as Zam-Buk Men, a name that was supported by their black and white uniforms, the colour of the Zam-Buk tin.

From there it was but a short step for the first aiders to become known as “zambuks” or “zambucks”.

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From the website of Rose & Co, which revived the brand and name, and is the present day distributor of the ointment:
The Zam-Buk Company was formed in the early 1900s by CE Fulford in Leeds, Yorkshire. The name suggests that it is African in origin, and although rarely heard today, it was used in Australia and New Zealand to describe the first-aid officers present on the rugby pitch who would administer healing antiseptic ointment to wounds and injuries. It quickly became available in Canada, Australia, New Zealand and South Africa and was a household name for the majority of the 20th Century.
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