Author: Sam Brady, 19th April 2022

One of my favourite aspects of working on the WheelPower collection is ‘uncovering’ items and objects. Currently, we’ve boxed up about a third of the collection, organising loose items on shelves into proper archival quality boxes. With that comes an aspect of discovery[i], unearthing items we didn’t realise were hiding in plain sight. One such item that has piqued my curiosity since the start of my placement is a mysterious suitcase, pictured below. As we focused initially on items like books and documents, we hadn’t gotten around to taking a proper look at the suitcase and its contents until recently, when we grabbed it from the storeroom. However, knowing it was linked to a subject of another project I’ve been working on made exploring it all the more satisfying.

The suitcase in question. A black leather suitcase, with gold embellishments and the name ‘G. M. Buck’ also written in gold. 
©WheelPower Stoke Mandeville Stadium Archive.  

The suitcase in question is relatively nondescript. It is a simple black leather suitcase, with gold embellishments. The name of the owner is also helpfully printed on the front in gold: G. M. Buck – better known as Gwendoline Buck. Gwen Buck was an accomplished Paralympian and athlete who came to Stoke Mandeville Hospital as a patient with a spinal injury in 1946 – only a few years after Guttmann’s transformative techniques with the National Spinal Injuries Unit began.[i] Over her athletic career, she won numerous medals across different sports including table tennis, lawn bowls, swimming and shot put, and was also the recipient of other awards, such as a BEM in the early 1970s.[ii] Furthermore, her husband, John Buck, was a wheelchair athlete in his own right and later became the Chairman of the English Paraplegic Sports Association, also joining the International Stoke Mandeville Games Federation Executive Committee in 1980.[iii] Clearly, the Bucks had many successes in the world of wheelchair sport, and so it is great to have a piece of their history as part of the archive.

In fact, there’s already a catalogued box in the WheelPower collection stuffed with records from Gwen and John. This included certificates for medals they won at different games, newspaper clippings from their various achievements, and photos of their time together. These photos almost create a personal archive, featuring the two of them at events, meeting important figures or going about their lives. Knowing how much we already held from them in the collection, it made me all the more excited to crack open the suitcase and see what was inside.


On the left are various items from Box 8 of the WheelPower archive, containing items donated by Gwen and John Buck. Items here are all related to Gwen’s Disabled Sport Personality of the Year award, given to her in 1973 by the Sports Writers’ Association. This includes three newspaper clippings, an invitation letter, and a photo of Gwen and John at that event. On the right is the award Gwen won, a cup engraved with her name from the Association. ©WheelPower Stoke Mandeville Stadium Archive.  

Like their existing box, the suitcase is packed with items and records that flesh out their experiences and achievements as athletes. The most obvious thing is the abundance of medals, helpfully organised by year. They range from 1959 to 1978 and hail from events such as the Stoke Mandeville Games and the Commonwealth Paraplegic Games. As well as these, I found several plaques (pictured below) in the top compartment of the suitcase from sporting events ran by the Stoke Paraplegic Athletic Club (S.P.A.C.) and the Lyme Green Settlement – a charity that provided rehabilitation and accommodation for paraplegic ex-servicemen. One of the things that interested me the most, however, was the British Empire Medal Gwen earned, simply placed in here amongst the other medals. As mentioned, she received this honour in the early 1970s, although I have not been able to pin down a firm date on when she received the award.



Multiple items all contained inside Gwen’s suitcase. On the top left are four medals from the 1970 Commonwealth Paraplegic Games in Edinburgh: two gold and two bronze, all for table tennis. On the top right are three plaques, from left to right titled ‘Österreich’, ‘S.P.A.C. Winner 1968’, and ‘Lyme Green 1964’. The bottom left features a gold coin from the XXV International Stoke Mandeville Games. The reverse features the old symbol of the International Stoke Mandeville Games Federation: three interlocking spoked wheels with the words ‘Friendship’, ‘Unity’ and ‘Sportsmanship’ curving alongside the wheels. On the bottom right is Gwen’s British Empire Medal – a silver medal on a red ribbon. © WheelPower Stoke Mandeville Stadium Archive.  

The other interesting aspect of the suitcase’s contents were the paper documents. One thing that immediately stood out to me was an invitation from the office of then Prime Minister Harold Wilson and his wife Mary Wilson, addressed to Gwen and John, to a reception at No. 10 Downing Street in honour of the athletes who competed at the 1964 Tokyo Paralympics on Friday 18th December 1964. It was really exciting to find documentation of this type, and it also serves as an indication of the recognition athletes like Gwen and John gained even in the early days of the Paralympic movement.


On the left, the invitation from then Prime Minister Harold Wilson to a reception at No. 10 Downing Street to Gwen and John Buck in honour of the British athletes at the 1964 Paralympics in Tokyo. On the right is an image of the contents of Gwen’s suitcase. Some of the items previously pictured can be seen, such as Gwen’s BEM award. Other items in view include a photo of Gwen and John, other newspaper clippings and documents, and a programme for the reception at No. 10 Downing Street. © WheelPower Stoke Mandeville Stadium Archive.  

One of the newspaper clippings also stood out to me given the very personal nature of its subject matter. The article is about Gwen and John’s relationship, particularly John’s proposal. As the clipping cuts out the date of the newspaper and the publication, I can’t be certain when it is from, but as they were married in 1951, I would imagine it would have been written shortly before this. With that date in mind, the language of the article shouldn’t be too surprising, framing their romance as successful despite the chromium wheelchairs ‘keeping them apart’. This clipping links nicely to other aspects of the collection that highlight their relationship. In the catalogued box, there are numerous photos from their wedding day, of them sitting at home or at social gatherings, or with family. There is a very personal quality to their donated items, and I’m glad I was able to view the suitcase with the knowledge of the rest of their donated items, as it really helps to paint a picture of their life and achievements. It is also worth noting that the presentation of Gwen and John’s romance in the newspaper clipping, whilst a little voyeuristic, almost embodied the aim of the new rehabilitation techniques at Stoke Mandeville. Guttmann wanted to ensure that spinal injuries were no longer death sentences and worked to make sure his patients went on to lead independent lives. At the time, the idea of independent living, let alone romance or a family, for disabled people would have been shocking. So, it is really great to see the Bucks’ relationship represented in the archive in this way.


On the left is the newspaper clipping mentioned in the text, describing Gwen and John’s engagement and stories of how they became wheelchair users (with some questionable language!). On the right are four pictures of Gwen and John at a social gathering – potentially a social related to a sporting event at Stoke Mandeville. The images show Gwen and John together, as well as with friends. One image shows them kissing, emphasising the personal nature of some of the archival materials related to them.
© WheelPower Stoke Mandeville Stadium Archive.  

Being able to explore the contents of this ‘mysterious suitcase’ was all the more valuable with the existing knowledge I had of the WheelPower collection, as it allowed me to better appreciate the significance of the items inside. However, this experience also taught me about the impact a personal narrative can have in a collection. In the case of Paralympic history, where people’s lives were transformed through sport and community, seeing the impact of this on a personal level is really touching, and breathes new life into the archiving experience.

Read more about Gwen Buck and her Paralympic athlete profile here

[i] To say the suitcase in question has been ‘uncovered’ is a little disingenuous. Once opened up, it is clear the contents have been reviewed in some way, as the medals are organised into years, and some things have been used as display items. However, the objects inside the suitcase have not been properly catalogued, so I never knew what was inside until opening it up! As well, it’s debatable how much some archives can be considered ‘discoveries’ when they are inherently curated, even if they haven’t been properly organised or used. But that is different conversation!
[ii] Gwen Buck, NPHT library.
[iii] Ibid
[iv] Joan Scruton, Stoke Mandeville: Road to the Paralympics, The PeterHouse Press, Aylesbury, 1988. P 140