The Very First Stoke Mandeville Games

Physiotherapist Dot Tussler:

"In those days the relationship between the hospital and the stadium was close and symbiotic in comparison to the more separate and independent organisations they are today. The sports department in the hospital was run by Harry Metcalfe, a very enthusiastic remedial gymnast. He made every physiotherapist aware of the events that were occurring at the stadium.

Stoke Mandeville hosted, 3 years out of 4, the International Stoke Mandeville Games, there was the annual National Games and various other events that also took place. During the 2 weeks of the International Games limited annual leave was available to the physiotherapists due to the need for them to assist at the event.

I can still recall the instructions for what to wear for the Archery tournament and the correct procedure for marking, scoring and removing arrows from the targets… On the stadium car park there would be all these cubicles for the international visitor: banks, telephone booths, taxis, coaches, cafes, souvenirs, etc."

I can vividly remember thinking,

Why do I need to travel around the world, when the world is actually travelling around me?

The different sports played

Experimenting with wheelchair polo in the 1940s

First stages of wheelchair polo being played at Stoke Mandeville. ©NSIC

Nurse Joan Newton:

They got in wheelchairs, and they had shortened sticks, and a disk for the puck, and they went up and down an empty ward hitting this puck. It was played against the physiotherapists, and later against the local football clubs. After some players received minor injuries in the fierce competition, polo was replaced by basketball, just as furious a sport but with less risk of damage.

Spectator sports

Two patients in beds outside watching sport through binoculars in the 1940s

'Spectator sports' ©Joan Newton

Nurse Joan Newton:

The man using binoculars was a patient watching one of the wheelchair games in the late 1940s. You can see other spectators in their chairs in the background. But he has been brought out in his bed to watch because for some reason he couldn’t yet use a wheelchair; possibly he was still recovering from pressure sores, so we wouldn’t have been able to take him of his packs.

Support among patients

Patients playing on the bowling green at Stoke Mandeville in 1966

The bowling green at Stoke Mandeville in 1966. ©Margaret Maughan

Patient Margaret Maughan:

“Back then we would spend all our time with other sports people and you would all support each other. It was smaller scale and everything was taking place around the same arena so you would go and support all your other team mates. And back in the clubs you all did a variety of sports and met people who did a range of other sports.

Now everything is split up by sport, by association or club and everyone meets separately so you don’t meet anyone outside your specialism. Of course the standards have improved by leaps and bounds – but at the loss of a certain camaraderie that we had back then.

Guttmann always watching

Physiotherapist and patients in wheelchairs outside with medicine balls

Physiotherapist and patients in wheelchairs with medicine balls. ©Wheelpower

Patient Sally Haynes:

I remember when I had first learnt how to do archery and was feeling really pleased because I had just taught myself how to use a bow right-handed. Guttmann came up and said, “Now, you ‘vill do it ‘ze other way.” He wanted to make me use the bow left-handed, the hard way, because he knew that would make me use more of my upper body muscles. He was always watching each patient individually like that.

First archery, then table tennis

Patients practising archery at Stoke Mandeville

Patients practicing archery at Stoke Mandeville. ©Wheelpower

Patient at the hospital:

After three months at Stoke I felt at home. I had learnt to wash myself and shave and I was pushing myself around in a wheelchair having learnt how to put my thumbs into the spokes; and then there was the sport.

It was really strange in this wheelchair world, meeting all the others, seeing the paraplegics flying around the wards at great speed in their chairs. As a quadriplegic they started me out on archery. They had to tie my body to the back rest of the chair to support it; then they strapped the bow to the left hand; then they strapped a hook to my right hand.

I was so tied and strapped up that I couldn’t find a way to hold the arrow! So I tried table tennis instead and I learnt how to spin the ball and that became my world.