The earliest recorded wheelchair games

The earliest recorded wheelchair games in the UK took place as part of the sports day or “Gymkhana” for staff and patients held at the Royal Star and Garter home in Richmond, Surrey in 1923. Paraplegic ex-servicemen participated in an obstacle Zig Zag race in rather primitive wheelchair tricycles and also competed at bowls. However, it was at Stoke Mandeville that the first established wheelchair games began.

First ever wheelchair sports day at the Royal Star and Garter home in Richmond, Surrey, 1923

Dr Guttmann establishes the Spinal Injuries Unit at Stoke Mandeville

In 1943, Dr. Ludwig Guttmann was asked by the Government to establish a Spinal Injuries Unit at the Ministry of Pensions Hospital at Stoke Mandeville in Aylesbury, Buckinghamshire. The Unit was intended to treat soldiers and civilians injured during World War II.  As part of his treatment for the injured veterans, Guttmann promoted different methods of rehabilitation, including sport. The first sport was a hybrid form of wheelchair polo and hockey, first played informally on the ward against the physiotherapists and then developed into a proper team game.

Experimenting with wheelchair polo in the 1940s

Experimenting with wheelchair polo in the 1940s. Image courtesy of NSIC

One day Dr. Guttmann and ‘Q’ took themselves off to an empty ward, and using shortened walking sticks for mallets and a wooden disc for a ball experimented with a type of wheelchair polo. He decided that this should become a team game, its proving to be a stimulating if somewhat rough sport, particularly for local footballers or physiotherapy staff against whom our team pitted their skill. Surveying the carnage after a particularly boisterous match, Guttmann decided that polo should give way to netball and later to basket ball. - Joan Scruton, Administrator

The very first games

Five years later on 29th July 1948, Guttmann organised an archery competition at the hospital to coincide with the opening ceremony of the London Olympic games. For this demonstration, sixteen patients (fourteen men and two women) from Stoke Mandeville and the Star and Garter Home for Injured War Veterans at Richmond in Surrey (where a special paraplegic ward had been established in conjunction with Guttmann) competed against each other for a Challenge Shield.  Following the success of the event, Guttmann decided to make an annual spectacle of the ‘Grand Festival of Paraplegic Sport’ which soon became the Stoke Mandeville Games.  Successive Games added more teams and more sports; in 1949 six teams competed and ‘wheelchair netball’ (later wheelchair basketball) was introduced.

Guttmann's creation of the Stoke Mandeville Games in 1948 was the moment that the Paralympic movement was born.

Memories from the 1940s

Professor Sir Ludwig Guttmann.

A nurse's life.

Memories of early wheelchairs.

The early days of the Paralympics.

Frank Bilson shooting at the Royal Toxophilite Society in 1946.