A unique display charting the on-going struggles of Wearsiders struck down by a potentially deadly virus is to open this week.
The month-long presentation of polio memorabilia, at Sunderland Museum and Winter Gardens from August 1, marks the 60th anniversary of the city’s branch of the British Polio Fellowship.
The Fellowship is still as important today as it was in the early years, as many members are now developing Post Polio Syndrome. Not all doctors have been trained to treat people suffering from the late effects of polio, so we are here to offer support.Shirley Williams, chair of Sunderland’s branch of the British Polio Fellowship.
“We believe this is the first display of its kind in Britain,” said chairperson Shirley Williams. “We are very proud of our fellowship, and delighted to celebrate it in this way.”
Dozens of Wearsiders fell victim to polio – a virus which attacks nerve endings – during the 1930s, 40s and 50s. Some died, while others were left with major health problems.
“Polio causes lifeless and withered limbs. Limbs also stop growing, as they are deadened by the virus,” said Shirley, who had eight operations after developing it as a child.
“Most survivors faced years of lengthy hospital stays and surgery. After that, many had to wear surgical shoes, full-length leg callipers or body splints. Some spent years in Iron Lungs.
“Sadly, it was a disease many people didn’t want to recognise, and which got pushed aside. A lot of doctors still don’t recognise that people are now showing post-polio symptoms too.”
But two sufferers, Patricia Carey and Frederic Morena, refused to let the matter drop and set up the Infantile Paralysis Fellowship in 1939 – now known as the British Polio Fellowship.
Just over a decade later, in 1955, a Sunderland branch opened. Original founder Frederic Morena attended the inaugural meeting on April 27 at Park Road Methodist Church.
“In the early days polio was known as Infantile Paralysis, as it was wrongly assumed that only children were affected by the polio virus,” said Shirley, who lives in the East End. “Later it was realised that any age group could be affected and disabled by the virus. After that, the name of the organisation was changed to the British Polio Fellowship.”
Wearside polio survivor Pat Wyper, then 22, was chosen as the original branch secretary. Despite being in constant pain, and needing sticks to walk, she became a “mother” to dozens of Wearside youngsters.
Indeed, she continued to support the group until her death in 2012 aged 81, and in 2008 told the Echo: “We were the first support group really for any disability at the time.
“Even if you are disabled you can lead a normal life, although you may have to do things in a slightly different way. It may be harder or different for people like us, but it can be done.”
Wearsiders quickly took the local Polio Fellowship to their hearts, helping to raise funds to send survivors away on holiday – as well as paying for club rooms at Fulwell from 1960.
But, although the young members took part in a host of sports, including horse riding, they were banned from swimming at High Street Baths for two years – due to fears of infection.
“When I applied to take the children to the pool, the staff said no at first,” recalled Pat. “They thought they would have to empty the pool every time we had used it.
“There was a lot of ignorance about the condition back then, as well as widespread prejudice against people with polio disabilities. But I eventually managed to get them to say yes.
“Indeed, by 1959 around a dozen young polio sufferers were regulars at the baths each week, with tuition provided by English schoolboy champion Richard Manning.”
Town-wide fund-raising events, such as selling Christmas cards and diaries, help fund dances at The Alexandra, barbecues at Seaburn and galas at High Street Baths.
Firms such as Vaux, Redby Travel and Pyrex also contributed to funds, with week-long holidays at Wooler Youth Hostel in Northumberland being a highlight of the group’s social calendar.
Shirley, a retired welfare rights manager at Sunderland Social Services, believes the Fellowship was instrumental in helping her on the road to success - as well as many others.
“Pat encouraged you to overcome your problems and not feel disabled. She gave me strength as a child, and even helped when I was looking for my first job,” she said.
“Disabled people weren’t encouraged to get a job, but the Fellowship paid for shorthand typing lessons. I ended up getting my first job at Vaux - one of firms which supported us.”
Almost 90 youngsters were members of Sunderland’s British Polio Fellowship at its peak, before immunisation from the mid-1950s onwards helped slow down the spread of polio.
Since then the club rooms at Fulwell have been sold, to help members with welfare grants, but the group still meets regularly each month at Pennywell Community Centre.
“The Fellowship is still as important today as it was in the early years, as many members are now developing Post Polio Syndrome after having led very active lives,” said Shirley.
“Not all doctors have been trained to treat people suffering from the late effects of polio, so we are here to offer support and advice on potential problems – as well as a helping hand.”
In addition to the display at Sunderland Museum, members of the Fellowship are also planning an anniversary celebration at The Rosedene on August 1, starting at 6pm.
“We hope people will join us to celebrate not only our group’s longevity, but also to acknowledge those who have worked tirelessly to support polio sufferers,” said Shirley.
“Unfortunately, our members are getting older and their health is deteriorating. Will the branch survive another anniversary? Well, we hope so - but can’t be sure of that.
“This is why we are asking members past and present to join us at The Rosedene and make our 60th celebration something to remember. We would love to see all our old friends again.”
l The event at The Rosedene costs £3 per ticket. Contact Linda Lee on 520 3571 for further details.
Wearsiders are being urged to search their attics and drawers for polio memorabilia following the launch of a history group by Sunderland’s British Polio Fellowship.
“We are proud that the Fellowship is still in existence after 60 years and, to celebrate our anniversary, we have developed a project to retain our history,” said Shirley.
“We are asking if Echo readers could donate any old metal callipers, splints or support equipment - to help us document how people have lived with polio over the decades.
“We would also like to hear from people with childhood memories of the Fellowship, stories of being in hospital in the early days and what it was like to try and overcome polio.”
l Anyone with items or memories to share can contact Shirley on 07901584567.