Joseph (Joe) Thompson was treated for a spinal injury by Dr Guttmann in the late 1940s at the National Spinal Injuries Centre and competed in the early Stoke Mandeville Games in archery and javelin.

Clare Chamberlain, Joe’s granddaughter said:

 You know what, actually, it was as big a deal as he made it out to be even in 1948

Sandra Chamberlain, Joe’s daughter said:

If you can do it, you do, you have to do it. You don't sit and fester, never ever. That's the way he was taught here. That's what he said 'you do not sit indoors and feel sorry for yourself'. If you can play sport, if you can do anything, and you can do a job you do it.

Early life

Joe Thompson was born on 31 October 1927 in Burgh, Carlisle.  One of thirteen children, the whole family were farmers, so he worked on a farm from the age of 14.  

He had his accident at the age of 19 in 1946 when the brakes on his pushbike failed and he went over a fence and broke his spine.  He wasn’t spotted for 24 hours until the farmer found him in his tractor and took him to Carlisle Hospital.  In those days it wasn’t commonly known how to deal with spinal injuries so they covered him in full body plaster.

The farmer found out about the pioneering treatment for spinal injuries being carried out at Stoke Mandeville at this time by Sir Ludwig Guttmann and campaigned for him to be sent there. So after about a year he was transported there by ambulance in a coffin as he was still completely covered in plaster – it took 12 hours to drive there.  He was told that if he hadn’t have been transferred he would only have had 6 months to live.

Stoke Mandeville 1947 - 1951

Joe was in a terrible state when he arrived at Stoke Mandeville Hospital – covered in bed sores.  The first thing they did was take off the plaster cast and turn him every two hours to help with the bed sores.  They also taught him bladder control and then had physiotherapy every day to start to get him walking.  

Sport played a massive role in his rehabilitation.  Joe loved sport and would spend hours training to build up his strength and aid his movement. For example they were taught to throw a medicine ball against the wall to build up core strength.

He also learnt a vocational trade at Stoke Mandeville – he was taught electronic skills and went on to be an electrician – and electrified the tube and train lines in the 1960s.

Life as an athlete

Joe was passionate about sport – he enjoyed training in archery, javelin and wheelchair basketball at Stoke Mandeville.

Sandra Chamberlain:

He loved sport: archery javelin and wheelchair basketball. He won many medals and shields and talked about Stoke Mandeville fondly.

Javelin throwing was a new sport for the 1950 Stoke Mandeville 1950 Games.  Joe Thompson won first place in the two-member team combined distance event along with John Cain – with a total distance of 80 feet 3.5 inches.

Joe Thompson's 1950 trophy for javelin throwing.

There is also a family rumour that Joe took part in the Stoke Mandeville 1948 Games in archery and that there is a medal in existence that he won – but this is still to be confirmed.

Life after Stoke Mandeville

When the time came for Joe to leave Stoke Mandeville, he went to the Duchess of Gloucester House in Isleworth, which was a residential hostel for people with paraplegia.  This was where he met his wife who was head cook there.

Joe went on to have as normal a life as possible.  He worked as an electrician and had a family.  He spent most of his adult life walking using sticks and callipers and only had to start using a wheelchair much later in life. Joe died aged 74 in 2001 which was a phenomenal achievement when he was only given 6 months to live at the age of 20.

Joe's legacy

The legacy created by Joe and others from the early days of Stoke Mandeville was that a spinal injury was not the end of your life.  With the right mindset, skills and rehabilitation, the barriers to what can be achieved are lifted.

Sandra Chamberlain:

I hope that's how people are treated now that if they do have this disability and it happens, you can do things. It's not a death sentence. It's not the end of your life.

Oral history interview

Interview by Dr Rosemary Hall with Clare (granddaughter) and Sandra Chamberlain (daughter), 12th September 2021

Sandra Thompson and Clare Chamberlain, Joe’s daughter and granddaughter at the Paralympic Heritage Centre, September 2021

Joe was a patient at the National Spinal Injuries Centre in the 1940s. Clare and Sandra talk about Joe's accident, being the first resident of the Duchess of Gloucester House, and competing in the early Stoke Mandeville Games.

You can also listen to the full interview below or download the transcript.


  • - oral history transcript - Clare (granddaughter) and Sandra Chamberlain (daughter) recall Joe’s life