Before the Paralympics: sports for amputees at the Royal Pavilion during World War One

Next week, the 2012 Paralympic Games will open in London. The Paralympics are based on the pioneering work of Dr Ludwig Guttman, who began using sport as a means of rehabilitating men with spinal injuries shortly after World War Two. But you may be surprised to learn that sport was used for a similar purpose in the Royal Pavilion as far back as 1916.

The Royal Pavilion’s use as a hospital for wounded Indian soldiers is well known, and now marked by a permanent gallery. Its use as a hospital for limbless men is less famous, yet it is perhaps an equally fascinating story. It opened in the summer of 1916, and retained many of the same medical personnel who had run the Indian hospital. It continued to care for men who had lost arms and legs in World War One until 1920, when the Pavilion was returned to the Brighton Corporation.

Postcard showing the Pavilion hospital for limbless men, c1917
Postcard showing the Pavilion hospital for limbless men, c1917

The contrast with the earlier hospital is striking: the primary focus of the Indian hospital was to make the men fit enough to either return to the front or be invalided back to India. Although the men were celebrated for their bravery in combat, little official concern seems to have been given to what happened to those men who returned home. By contrast, the hospital for limbless men was established with the aim of equipping its patients with new skills with which to rebuild their lives. This is made clear in the speech which opened the hospital:

‘I know that when you come here many of you have sad feelings. You think that life is not going to be much good to you any longer; but when you come on to Roehampton and see the fellows walking about with their artificial legs and using their artificial arms, and when you know what good work they are able to do in the workshops – many have become skilled workers instead of unskilled, as they were before the war… You will be filled with hope… For hope welcomes all who enter here!’
Viscountess Falmouth, quoted in Brighton and Hove Herald, 26 August 1916
Patients of the hospital for limbless men, c1917
Patients of the hospital for limbless men, c1917
The Pavilion hospital for limbless men was modelled on the Roehampton House hospital. A workshop named after Queen Mary was constructed on the northern grounds of the Pavilion, where the patients could learn new skills in carpentry and engineering. But it was not all about work: the men were also given a good deal of leisure time, and sports were regularly enjoyed.
A cricket team from the Pavilion Hospital for Limbless Men, 1917
A cricket team from the Pavilion Hospital for Limbless Men, 1917
Cricket, and the old Sussex game of stoolball, were popular in the hospital. As with the Paralympics today, technology was used to enable the men to take part in these sports. The photograph above shows the Pavilion cricket team from 1917, and the crossed cricket bats both appear to have pointed ends. It is likely that these were used to support batsmen with only one leg while they waited at the wicket.
Anticipating the games that Guttman founded at Stoke Mandeville over thirty years later, competitive matches were played between the Pavilion patients and those at Roehampton. Football may have been amongst the other sports played. Although it predates the Pavilion hospital by several months, a postcard exists which shows men on crutches playing football at Roehampton
Football game at Roehampton, March 1916. Courtesy of Penny Howard-Hill.
Football game at Roehampton, March 1916. Courtesy of Penny Howard-Hill.

Much of what we know about life in the hospital for limbless men comes from the Pavilion ‘Blues’, a newspaper produced by the patients. Copies of this are available to view at the The Keep.

Kevin Bacon
Digital Development Officer

2 Responses

  1. Anita Broad

    Hello, I’m the Education & Research Officer for Stoolball England. I notice you have mentioned stoolball in your ‘before the Paralympics’ piece. Stoolball was at its most popular nationally and internationally after its success with WW1 soldiers. Is there a chance you could include a link to the Stoolball England website for more information on the history of the game in WW1? This link goes to the Stoolball England website. There is an article from the Sussex County Magazine of 1928 which mentions the ‘Pavilion Blues’ and charity matches at Lord’s in 1917.

    If you have any records of stoolball at the Pavilion I would be really interested to see them if I may. Many thanks.

  2. Royal Pavilion & Brighton Museums

    Hello Anita,

    Thanks for the link and the further information. I’ve included a link out to the suggested page in the blog post.

    If any further information is available on stoolball at the Pavilion, it will probably be found in newspapers of the time. These are all held at The Keep:

    We will soon be posting all our digitised copies of the Pavilion Blues online, amongst our digitised material relating to the First World War:


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