The National Games

Mary and Jimmy Brennan, both nurses at the hospital, with their daughter watching the 1955 Games at Stoke Mandeville.

Mary and Jimmy Brennan, both nurses at the hospital, with their daughter watching the 1955 Stoke Mandeville Games. Image courtesy of Mary Brennan

The Games retained a small-scale and almost home-spun quality in the 1950s: the sports events were run by nurse and physios who Guttmann ‘expected’ to help out. The participating teams were put up in empty hospital wards and fed and attended to by volunteers from Aylesbury and the surrounding villages. But there was little sense yet of the games being an event that local people would want to come to watch; the audience was still mostly the friends and relatives of participants and of the hospital staff.

Every June the National Games would take place at the hospital; competitors would come from other spinal units, the Star and Garter home and disabled sports clubs from around the country. They would empty out one or two of the wards for the other competitors to stay in and also put them up in some of the huts at the back of the hospital. I first saw the 1959 games when I was still at the hospital; one of the nurses took me out to watch. - Margaret Maughan, Athlete International Games

The International Games

Front cover of the programme for the Stoke Mandeville 1956 Games with an illustration of a flag Dr Guttmann receiving the Fearnley Cup from the IOC in 1956, presented by Sir Arthur Porritt The teams from Yugoslavia and Great Britain at the 1956 opening ceremony
Flag image from the front cover of the 1956 Stoke Mandeville Games programme. Image courtesy of NSIC
Guttmann accepting the Fearnley Cup from the IOC in 1956. Image courtesy of IWAS The teams from Yugoslavia and Great Britain at the 1956 opening ceremony. Image courtesy of NSIC

In the 1950s, the pattern of games at Stoke Mandeville was for the National Games to take place in June, attended by teams from various spinal units and disabled sports clubs around the country. Later in the summer this would be followed by the International Games, attended by a growing number of national teams from other countries.

Various nationalities were represented by 1951, but the first ‘international’ competition at Stoke Mandeville occurred on the 26th July 1952, when a small team from the Military Rehabilitation Centre at Aardenburg near Doorn in the Netherlands competed against a number of British teams. 

By 1956, there were 18 different nations participating in what was arguably the first truly international games: USA, Australia, Israel, South Africa, Malaya and Pakistan were among the competitors.

The Stoke Mandeville Games were presented with the Fearnley Cup by the International Olympic Committee in 1956, an award for outstanding contribution to the Olympic ideal.  Guttmann saw this as acceptance of the Stoke Mandeville Games into the Olympic family.  However, it was to take over thirty years for the Games to truly be on a par with the Olympics.

The 1957 Games was the first time that all five continents had been represented, and in 1958 the competition to take part was such that the British team had to hold a national Games prior to the main Stoke Mandeville Games in order to select the team.

An international model

One of the great things about Stoke Mandeville was the way it affected the international treatment of paraplegia. By the 1950s physios were coming from around the world to train here and Guttmann had introduced an educational programme for the doctors accompanying the teams running parallel to the games.  In 1950 several members of the French team that came to the games at Stoke all had pressure sores; they hadn’t yet learnt the importance of treating these; but after the French doctors saw the British team then they were able to learn from that and treat accordingly.

Ida 'Brom' Bromley, Physiotherapist.

Memories from the 1950s

Film of swimming races in the first Stoke Mandeville pool in 1955.

Margaret Maughan and other patients at Stoke Mandeville Hospital.