Nurses at Stoke Mandeville describe the celebrations that took place on the hospital ward.

“First Time Up”

In the early years at Stoke Mandeville the moment that a patient was first able to sit up in a wheelchair was recognised as a key milestone. It was an event to be celebrated with a bit of a party. It is a ceremony that has now completely disappeared from hospital life. Improvements in treatment of spinal injuries mean that what was once a remarkable event is now routine and not worth marking on.

Nurse Joan Newton:

It was a big thing back in the 1940s. Because nobody had expected them to ever sit up. Those men who had been wounded during the War had maybe been lying in a hospital bed for three or four years without moving.

So they would hold a party in the early days because it was a big moment, a cause for celebration; there would be drink and something to eat. All the staff would turn up, even Guttmann came in the early years. If it was a nice day they would be wheeled outside and photographed.

Harry Newton

In 1948 Harry Newton's "first time up", three years after having been shot in the war.
The photo was sent back to his mother in County Durham. © Joan Newton

Men drinking on the ward in the 1950s

Men celebrating on the wards in the 1950s. © Joan Newton

St. Patrick’s Day

Ward sisters at Stoke Mandeville had a great deal of autonomy. Sister Mary Brennan who was born in Ireland not only made a point of choosing her ward’s name 'St Patrick' but also celebrated the saint’s day each March 17th with her patients.

Mary Brennan and her patients during St. Patricks Day. ©Mary Brennan

Nurse Mary Brennan:

St Patricks was my ward and each year on St Patrick’s Day, I would arrange a special lunch for the patients. That’s Eddie on the left who was one of the volunteers who came onto the ward to help. I used to get all my Irish friends like Cath and Anne to bring in Soda bread and cakes and I would ask the kitchen to make boiled bacon and cabbage. I would always make an apple pie and they would have Guinness to drink.

Christmas and New Year

Christmas is always a difficult time for patients on a hospital ward and this was particularly the case for the spinal injury patients at Stoke Mandeville who were unable to leave their beds. Perhaps because of this a tradition of lavish Christmas celebrations quickly developed on the wards. Guttmann, who was Jewish, made a point of never missing Christmas Day on the wards where he would carve the turkey and visit patients, often accompanied by his wife and children.

Dr. Guttmann on the wards at Stoke Mandeville at Christmas.

Dr Guttmann on the wards at Stoke Mandeville at Christmas. ©Ida Bromley

New Year’s Eve was a particular high point. The nurses weren’t able to leave their duties, so it fell to the physiotherapists to lay on a fancy dress party. Each year there would be a theme like ‘the Pasha and his harem’  or belly dancing.

Physiotherapist Ida Bromley recalls the celebrations at New Years Eve:

"It became a tradition that the physiotherapists did a routine dance to music in each ward between 8.00 and midnight each New Year’s Eve. I am not sure when it began but it was certainly happening between 1962 and 1977. Once started it happening every year."

Patients who were back in hospital for some reason looked forward to it and told the others what to expect, but they never knew what routine was to be performed because we all kept it secret!We practised after work in the big gym and had a look out to see that no one took a peep at us.

"It would be impossible to do these things now because of Health and Safety. We may be safer but we all of us kids and adults are not permitted to have fun any more. I am afraid alcohol, unless prescribed for medical reasons, is not allowed on wards now and as for taking in to the wards all that foreign stuff like tinsel, straw and odd materials that we all wore – no way!

It was great fun. The physios would do a routine with music and dressing up and we would process around the hospital. There were eight wards and on each one the ward sister would give us a drink, so by the end of the performances we were certainly a lot freer in our dance routine, maybe even a bit tipsy.

New Years Eve Party on the ward in the 1960s New Years Eve Party on the ward in the 1960s

New Years Eve Parties in the 1960s. ©Ida Bromley

I remember one year we were all dressed up as a Pasha and his harem in veils and all the patients were trying to work out which one of the girls was their physio behind the fancy dress and the veils.

The mostly young chaps all joked a lot with each other across the ward and with and about the staff. The physiotherapists were popular, did not get offended and gave as good as they got for the most part so the patients really enjoyed seeing the PT’s dressed up.”