Author: Christine Pittman-Corner formerly Cox, September 2023

Volunteering at the Games

I was first involved with Stoke when in 1955 as a member of Aylesbury Air Rangers I did voluntary work prior to the Games. This consisted of cleaning out the four prefabricated huts used to house visiting paraplegic teams, then making up beds etc. During the Games we dished up meals which were delivered from the main hospital kitchen and generally made ourselves useful. I worked alongside my schoolfriend, Judith Franks who was volunteering through the St John Ambulance Brigade.

Black and white postcard of the archers outside the huts at Stoke Mandeville.

Postcard of the archers at Stoke Mandeville Hospital, 1950s. Image ©Christine Pittman-Corner

The following year we volunteered, not through our respective organisations but as ourselves. The previous year had left an indelible mark on us. We had a lot of fun in the evenings when impromptu social get togethers would take place and friends were made. 

I continued to help out with the Games but also started to visit the lads on the wards. This came about as one year at the National Games I asked where one of the boys was who I had met the previous year and was told he was an in patient at the time. So I went to visit him and that was the start of my deeper involvement. 

There was always a terrific upbeat atmosphere in the wards. The average stay for newly injured patients was 2 years but that wasn't the end of the story. People would come back regularly for check ups and of course there would be flare ups of urinary infections and pressure sores etc that needed in patient treatment so you got to know practically everyone in those days and we became very attached to them and romantic liaisons were frequent. The wards were very relaxed places and I would make tea and toast on a regular basis, chat to everyone and help out where I could. 

We would also go to the local pubs, The Bell, The Bull and the Woolpack. We would also go into Aylesbury to see Rock n' Roll shows which were popular at the time. 

In the 1950s the vast majority of paraplegics were ex servicemen. From the two World Wars, the Korean War and Cyprus etc. Mostly gunshot wounds but also car and motorbike accidents and high lesions caused by diving into shallow water! it was also the time of the National Service hence the large numbers of ex service personnel. 

The Welfare Office

In 1958 I was fortunate in getting a job at Stoke Mandeville Hospital, starting off as an Administrator in the Admin office and moving to my dream job in the Welfare Office. 

Miss Doris French was the Welfare Officer. Employed by the Ministry of Pensions to look after the interests of ex servicemen in the Spinal Unit. Miss Schnell was the Almoner who looked after the civilians. 

Miss French also took on the job of posting out a magazine called 'The Cord' which I would help with. I also updated medical records and allocated garages to those who required one. All this gave me greater contact with the patients which I loved.

I should explain why the magazine was so called. Whichever point you broke the spinal cord you are paralysed from that point down. Those who broke their necks, the cervical vertebrae, did not usually survive but the quicker we could get injured people to Stoke the better their chances of survival and it was in 1960 that the first patient was brought in by helicopter from Beachy Head following a cliff fall. Those who broke the higher cervical vertebrae would be paralysed from that point affecting their hands and arms. Although the injury of most paraplegics were caused by military action and accidents, there were people whose paralysis was caused by other medical causes and of course polio of which there was an epidemic in the early 1950s.

There were several spinal units round the country. The ones I recall were Lyme Green Settlement Macclesfield, Lodge Moor Sheffield, Star and Garter Richmond, Chaseley Eastbourne, Kytes Estate Watford and Duchess of Gloucester House lsleworth. All different in their own way. Lyme Green comprised residential accommodation and bungalows for married couples with workshops on site. Star and Garter and Chaseley were residential homes. Kytes Estate was bungalows for independent living. D.O.G House was accommodation for single men who worked in local factories. Unsure about Lodge Moor. There were others whose names I cannot recall including one from Wales. Individual paraplegics would also compete.

All these units competed against each other and visiting teams from overseas. With the Games gaining in popularity we would hold the National Games in June from which a team would be picked to play in the International Games held the following month. 

Black and white photo of Christine and athletes outside the huts at Stoke Mandeville.

Christine and athletes at the 1959 International Stoke Mandeville Games. Image ©Christine Pittman-Corner.

I was now working in the office during the day and spending evenings and weekends on the wards. Stoke Mandeville Hospital became an essential part of my life. My 'bible' was a book called 'Physiotherapy in Paraplegia' by Elvira G. Hobson. Another book I remember fondly is 'I Walk on Wheels' by Elisabeth Sheppard-Jones who was injured in a bombing raid on the Guards Chapel during the 2nd World War. 

My friend Judith went to the Royal National Orthopaedic Hospital in Stanmore to do her nurse training and I met another girl, Janet Woods who worked in the Spinal Office and she was also very interested in paraplegia so we became firm friends and would go out together with our boys. Janet eventually married a paraplegic as did many of the Physio's and Occupational Therapists. 


In March 1960 I went to Sunderland in Co. Durham with Manny Stirling. Manny worked in a colliery and had been paralysed in a pit accident and on his discharge from Stoke after his initial injury I went home with him to assist with his rehabilitation. The Coal Industry Social Welfare Organisation were very good to their injured miners and well looked after with generous compensation, homes and holidays. 

Some of my deepest and dearest friendships were made during my time with Stoke Mandeville Hospital. Dear Paddy Weir, such a character, lived at the D.O.G. House in lsleworth but was a regular in patient back at Stoke. John Hearn who was a PT Instructor in the RAF training for the Royal Tournament when he had an accident with the vaulting horse. The last time I saw John was in 1991 when he was living at the Star and Garter Home. 

Brian Powell from Stockton on Tees, Paddy Moran from Lyme Green. 'Ticky' Wright from Gorleston, Norfolk. Jim Gibson from Belfast. Johnny Hinchcliffe, Bill Thornton, Bill Manning, Mick Claridge, John Ewens, Hughie Stewart. Dick Hugman and Don Knights from Chasely. Manny Stirling from Sunderland - a former coal miner and John Hearn - a former RAF P.T. Instructor.  These were a few of the very special guys who made my life so unforgettable. 

The People at Stoke Mandeville Hospital

Black and white photo of the first patient arriving by RAF helicopter at Stoke Mandeville Hospital.

The first patient to arrive to Stoke Mandeville Hospital by RAF helicopter,1950s. Image ©Christine Pittman-Corner.

I must mention some of the incredible Doctors and Nurses who worked in the Spinal Unit in the 1950s and early 1960s. Ward 1 was ruled by Sister McElhinney, an ex Army nurse who stood no nonsense but had a heart of gold. Dr. Walsh, Dr. Melzak and Dr. Michaelis were Doctors on the Spinal Unit that I remember, not forgetting of course Dr. Guttmann fondly known as 'Poppa'. The man who transformed the lives and expectations of spinal injured people. 

Stoke Mandeville Hospital in those heady days was a very friendly place - very much like a big family. Miss Tobin was the Matron. Mr. Dryden the Administrative Officer. Miss Bell the Head Physiotherapist. Mr. Smith the Catering Officer. Mr. Davies the Chief Engineer. 

The Porters and Drivers were a very jolly crowd, always willing to help out with anything that came their way. The Domestic staff and Ward Orderlies consisted of a large proportion of Italians, all of whom were very dedicated. There was just something very special about the Spinal Unit at the time I was there and it was all down to Poppa Guttmann who started it all. 


In 1969 after having travelled around and service in the Royal Air Force I was married and again living in Aylesbury. For a while I worked as a part time night Nursing Auxiliary on the recently built residential hostel for paraplegics at Stoke Mandeville Hospital but I felt that the old atmosphere had gone, nothing was quite the same.  Over the years I have visited Aylesbury on a regular basis. I watched the building of the new General Hospital and saw houses being built on what was the drive to the old main entrance and to my dismay the destruction of the wooden huts which had been the iconic Spinal Unit and so much a part of my life. I thought one of these huts should have been kept in place as a museum. 

I was delighted to discover the Paralympic Heritage Centre and the Mandeville Legacy which have now been combined and even more delighted to discover on their website profiles of some of the former patients including those who I knew so well which bought a tear to my eye and many happy memories.