Head and shoulders photo of James Gibson

James Edward Anthony Gibson (16.10.1936 - 03.2005) – widely known to his friends as ‘Jimmy’

Early Life

Jimmy had an accident in 1955 when he was on a push bike on Queen’s Bridge in Belfast coming home from work and a lorry caught his back wheel. His father advertised in the local press for witnesses, one came forward but proved to be ineffective in court and so James was awarded a relatively small amount of compensation.  He later decided that the interest did not generate significant income so cashed it in and bought a Jaguar car!

He was first treated in Belfast Musgrave Park Hospital. There was no specialist spinal centre in Northern Ireland until the 1970s. His injury was a T6 (not T7 or T8) and he was transferred to the Spinal unit at Stoke Mandeville Hospital.  The confusion about the level of damage was probably due to his abilities. I think he attributed his enhanced abilities to 2 trips that he made as a young man driving his Mini to Lourdes, he often spoke of the miracles there.  He arrived at Stoke Mandeville at the same time as Father Leo Close who went on to set up the Irish Wheelchair Association 1960, and the New Zealand equivalent where he remained for the rest of his life.

He also met Jim Jamison in hospital who also later attended the same Irish University. According to Jim both him and Jimmy use to smoke with their heads hanging over their beds, lying on their fronts with ash falling on the floor. The Almoner use to tell them off, but she was such a miserable character they found themselves having to cheer her up when it was her role to support them. 

Paralympian Angela Hendra MBE recalls meeting Jimmy when she was only 13/14 years of age in the 1960s.  Angela also from Northern Ireland had been transferred to Stoke Mandeville for treatment and Jimmy then in his 20’s came looking for her, having heard there was someone else from Northern Ireland in the Spinal Centre.

Angela had Margaret Maughan in the bed next to her and Sally Haynes on the ward too, all went on to achieve great things as both athletes and as pioneers in the Paralympic Movement.  Jimmy at this time was living in the DOG (Duchess of Gloucester) House in London, a residential place for spinal injury patients to live independently and work in a nearby factory. Angela said,

Jimmy took me out for fish and chips and made sure I was being looked after, and keen to encourage my sport. He was way ahead of his time, he drove a Jaguar whilst we had no transport. He was a real character, very charismatic. 

Life as a Paralympic Athlete

He competed at the 1960 Rome and 1964 Tokyo Paralympic Games his sport being table tennis at which he won a silver medal in 1964. His memory of the Rome Games was how they hadn’t really a clue about preparing for wheelchair users. He had one story of jumping into his Chair from a height over a stairwell. He was talented at table tennis and snooker and played some wheelchair basketball. In later years he played bowls. 

He also attended the Commonwealth Games in New Zealand meeting up with his old hospital friend Father Leo Close, and impressing Angela and others by getting a date with an air stewardess before they landed! Other Commonwealth Games he took part in were Perth (travelling by boat) and Jamaica. Whilst in Perth he met a young woman and found work in Australia but when he tried to move out there to live he was not allowed as he had no relatives there and was disabled.  He also attended the Paralympic Games in Tokyo, Tel Aviv and Toronto.

Retirement as a Paralympic Athlete

He was from a working class Belfast background and found that the factory work offered to him as a wheelchair user did not suit him.  He had hoped to become a merchant seaman and travel the world.  He had been successful as a school student so once back in Northern Ireland he decided to study for his A levels and then studied law at Queen’s University Belfast though never practicing. 

Back in Ireland he met his wife Marion a physiotherapist. Due to the Troubles they moved to Wendover, Buckinghamshire, with Jimmy getting a good job with the Civil Service in England and Marion a job at the National Spinal Injuries Unit at Stoke Mandeville hospital. Marion was also involved in the Paralympics and went to Jamaica as a physiotherapist for the Commonwealth Games. It was during this time, when Jimmy was also studying through Open University that Susan Cooke met him.

We had a local study group that met in Aylesbury and we became visitors to James’s house in Wendover.

Jimmy returned to Northern Ireland after his wife’s death and was very involved with setting up NIPA, the Northern Ireland Paraplegic Association, with Angela Hendra, and other wheelchair users, all volunteering and working on a shoe string, raising their own money. They had other jobs, for example Angela worked in a laboratory in Belfast City hospital on cancer diagnostics. Jimmy continued to work in the Civil Service and worked in the Child Support Agency in Belfast.

Jimmy was very good at motivating other wheelchair users especially if he thought they were lazy. He was very direct, saying things as they were without too many niceties to get people motivated and going.  He was very well liked and had a way with the ladies. Jimmy was also controversial and like other pioneering Paralympians had disagreements with Poppa Guttmann, opting to represent Ireland not England at many Games. He was also told off for dating women on the ward.

Jimmy lived a full and very interesting life including marriage, employment, travel, and pioneering for disabled sports people. He lived for 50 years as a paraplegic thanks to Dr Guttmann’s radical intervention and the parallel availability of antibiotics. Guttmann warned him that controlling infection was crucial. There was great sadness at his death and some felt that he had not been taken care of properly and that infection got the better of him as a result.

Jimmy knew all the UK Paralympians well, spinal injury had and has no class, and in the past peer support was important and very strong.  Jimmy and all of the athletes of his generation were pioneers of their time, campaigning for a better life eventually leading to the Disability Discrimination Act DDA.