‘Swimming to Recovery’: Polio in 20th Century Belfast

Hannah Brown shares the oral histories of two polio survivors from Belfast, demonstrating how the Northern Ireland Polio Fellowship (NIPF) helped promote a social conscience around disability.

One of the striking cultural memories of the polio outbreaks of the 1950s is the widespread closures of public pools to stop the disease’s spread, yet swimming was in fact often used for rehabilitative purposes. Poliomyelitis (polio) is a highly contagious disease, usually spread via contaminated food or water. While polio did not kill as many people as some other epidemics, it often left children with lifelong paralysis and other disabilities. Sadly, for a person over the age of 18, it often proved fatal. Using oral history, this article will share the experiences of two polio survivors from Belfast: Christine Connolly and Eddie McCrory. Both contracted polio in Belfast during the 1957 epidemic and participated in swimming rehabilitation sessions run by the NIPF. Christine now lives in Greenisland with her husband Ronnie and has one grown-up son. Eddie continues to live in Belfast with his wife Susan; he has two daughters and one son, all now adults.

Polio in 1950s Belfast

Public health measures increased during the 20th Century, which reduced childhood exposure to the polio virus. Polio was first detected in Northern Ireland in 1913 and Belfast reported its first case in 1923. Belfast had a unique experience with polio when compared to the rest of the United Kingdom or even the world. In 1956, Polish virologist Hillary Koprowski was welcomed by Queens University Belfast to trial his live polio vaccine. The trial was supervised by Queens University Belfast Professor George A. W. Dick. Northern Ireland was a prime location to trial a vaccine, as it had its own parliament and posed fewer bureaucratic procedures (Gould 1995). However, the trial vaccine was an ultimate failure, and Professor Dick recommended that ‘we do not consider that the vaccines should be used at the moment on a large scale.’ The Belfast vaccine trials were abandoned, and while the rest of the UK obtained supplies of an American/British-manufactured vaccine in 1956, Northern Ireland did not receive its share until mid-1957. The prevalence of polio steadily increased from 1950 in Belfast until a swell in 1957, when 171 cases of type I polio were notified and 121 were classified as ‘paralytic polio’.

Belfast during the 20th Century, much like the rest of the world, was an inhospitable environment for disabled people. Disability was viewed as the person’s fault: they simply needed to help themselves. In 1956, a local Belfast newspaper, the Northern Whig, announced in a headline: ‘Self-Help is Half the Cure for the Disabled’, adding unsympathetically that ‘it was possible to offer too many facilities’ to those with disabilities. Clearly, the newspaper’s agenda was to promote the idea that the cause of the disability lay with the person, not with society. The social structures in Belfast in the 1950s did not support those with disabilities. Michael Oliver theorised that disability is a capitalist social concept, and that disability is not the individual’s issue. Rather the blame lies with the social barriers faced by disabled people (Oliver 1995). Tom Shakespeare is sceptical of this and maintains that a ‘disability’ would continue even if all social barriers were removed, as the impairment would continue to restrict functioning (Shakespeare 2006).

Erving Goffman theorised that polio was an attribute that could conceivably ‘discredit’ a person’s identity and produce much stigma (Goffman 1963). While both Christine and Eddie recall instances of being stigmatised in society, it did not stop them from living life to the fullest. Christine aptly stated that she did not give a ‘hoot’. Eddie offered a similar sentiment when he said, ‘I just feel normal.’  The Northern Ireland Polio Fellowship offered an alternative to a hostile society. It fostered opportunity and created an environment of acceptance.

A black and white photo of a small boy in a suit with shorts smiling and holding a first communion card
Eddie McCrory on his first communion, c.1960s. Courtesy of the McCrory family.

Northern Ireland Polio Fellowship

The Northern Ireland Polio Fellowship (NIPF) was established in 1948, originally an offshoot of the Infantile Paralysis Fellowship, a British organisation, as a support network for polio survivors. The NIPF was devised to provide training, relieve loneliness, and foster a ‘social conscience to the needs of the disabled’. The NIPF was located on Antrim Road in Belfast and later became known simply as ‘Polio House’. Christine was introduced to the NIPF by her family doctor, and similarly, following discharge from hospital, the NIPF reached out to Eddie’s mother. By 1966, there were 700 members of the NIPF, made up of survivors and supporters.

Polio House provided traditional physiotherapy for its members. The members gathered at Polio House every Wednesday at 4.30pm. Following an hour of play, at 5.30pm, physiotherapy began. The physiotherapists, fondly remembered by Christine as Miss White and Miss Kennedy, would command the children to touch their toes or do exercises lying down. Then, to conclude, they would play a game like ‘Mr. O’Grady Says’ or pretending to be on a ship.

Hydrotherapy and swimming

Hydrotherapy is a general term that refers to using water in any of its states for medical treatment or health maintenance. Hydrotherapy was used in Britain following the First and Second World Wars for the rehabilitation of injured soldiers. Treating disabled children with hydrotherapy has been commonplace in medicine since the late 19th Century. Doctors recommended physical exercise for injured soldiers and polio survivors. Swimming tendered gravity-defying rehabilitation (Shell 2009).

It was swimming that played a major role in Christine and Eddie’s rehabilitation. Although an alternative form of physiotherapy was organised for a Saturday, Christine warmly remembers that ‘swimming was on a Saturday… we had a very busy social life.’ Christine explains that members of the NIPF would have learned how to swim from an early age. In October 1956, the NIPF hosted its first swimming gala. The secretary of the NIPF, Harold Rankin (who had polio) stated that it was a ‘wonderful success’. It was hoped that some swimmers would go to London to participate in a national gala. The instructors were W.J. Foster, J.H. Kidd, and W. Bell. The winner received a cup, runners-up were given medals and the consolation prize of chocolates was shared among participants. Later that month, the Belfast Telegraph published an article for a ‘polio gala’ in which it was requested that Ormeau Avenue Baths be made available between 6 and 7pm for children’s practice.

Similarly, in England, there were swimming clubs for those who had polio and the British Polio Fellowship hosted swimming lessons. The first National Swimming Gala was hosted in 1955 (North 1999). Eddie shared how they learned to swim:

When you were nearly ready to swim, he [Mr Foster] would put a rope around you, you were sort of swimming. He was holding the rope; he would let go of the rope. Then if you went down, he would pull the rope up again. Until you were able to.

Eddie stated that teaching ‘polios how to swim takes a lot of commitment’. Christine detailed that volunteers would come in to dry and dress the children after a lesson. In 1957, a Belfast Telegraph headline read: ‘Polio Cases Swim to Recovery, Best Method of Strengthening Limbs’. The article talks about Mary Hart, 23 years old and ‘chairborne’, as she ‘fights her paralysis in the water’. By October 1957, many were hoping to compete for ‘British titles’ at the National Gala. In 1958, 19 ‘Ulster polio victims’ competed in Newcastle at the National Gala. In 1962, NIPF hosted its fifth annual swimming gala, and the participants went to Birmingham to compete. Similarly, in 1964, the NIPF sent 24 boys and girls to compete in Birmingham. That year, Helen McClean of the NIPF won the 100 yards girls’ freestyle race. Eddie describes the swimming galas, where the Fellowship went to Derry, Dublin, and England. Eddie stated that it was ‘great to be picked’. Eddie explained that to get to England, there were heats to pick the best swimmers and that only a small group could attend. He went to Birmingham and Wolverhampton, and he tenderly remembers getting to go to Birmingham: ‘I’ve made it, I’ve actually got to be here.’

A colour photo of a small girl in a black swimming costume with a logo on it holding two trophies
Christine Connolly in her Northern Ireland Polio Fellowship swimming costume, showing her trophies, c. 1960s. Courtesy of the Connolly family.

When Mr Foster was interviewed by the Belfast Telegraph in 1959, he stated that swimming ‘builds confidence to help overcome their handicap’. In a photograph, Christine proudly shows her trophies from swimming. Eddie stated that he ‘felt most at home swimming’ and that it made him feel equal: ‘I’ve got polio and I’m every bit as good as you.’

The world in the 20th Century blamed the person for their disability, ignoring the impact of society’s social barriers. Swimming for polio survivors offered a twofold benefit, first for rehabilitation purposes and second, an opportunity to build self-esteem and agency. The NIPF offered polio survivors in Belfast and surrounding areas a social centre, which promoted a social conscience around disability.

About the author

Hannah Brown is a first-year Ph.D. researcher at Ulster University. Her research focuses on the experiences of polio survivors in Belfast, Glasgow, and Liverpool. Hannah also works at the Museum of Free Derry as a guide. You can find her on Twitter @HannahBBro and Instagram @HannahHistory_. Hannah would like to thank Christine and Eddie, and everyone at the Northern Ireland Polio Fellowship, for their continued support and encouragement with this work.

References

Goffman, E. 1963. Stigma: Notes on the Management of Spoiled Identity. Englewood Cliffs: Prentice.

Gould, T. 1995. A Summer Plague: Polio and its Survivors. London: Yale University Press.

North, B. 1999. Something to Lean on: The First Sixty Years of the British Polio Fellowship. South Ruislip: British Polio Fellowship.

Oliver, M. 1995. Understanding Disability: From Theory to Practice. London: Red Globe Press.

Shakespeare, T. 2006. Disability Rights and Wrongs. Milton Park: Taylor & Francis.

Shell, M. 2005. Polio and its Aftermath: The Paralysis of Culture. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

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