All posts by Graham Snowdon

The Family of Oscar Wilde — Dr Michael Collins — 5th February 2018

We all knew that Oscar Wilde was a bit of a lad, and those of us who enjoyed Mike Collins’s enthralling talk about the Irish poet and play­wright now also know that he was some­thing of a chip off the old block. For while Oscar played a cent­ral part in the story, Mike’s present­a­tion – sub­titled Genius, Eccentricity and Tragedy — helped us under­stand how Wilde’s char­ac­ter was to a large extent shaped by his intel­lec­tual and upper middle class family.

Oscar was born in 1854 to William (later Sir William) Wilde, a prom­in­ent Dublin ear and eye sur­geon, and his wife Jane Elgee, a noted poet, fem­in­ist and social­ite. He was home edu­cated to the age of nine, with French and German gov­ernesses, and became fluent in both lan­guages. After uni­ver­sity in Dublin and Oxford, where Wilde proved him­self an out­stand­ing clas­si­cist, he moved to London and into fash­ion­able cul­tural and social circles.

He embraced the rising philo­sophy of aes­thet­i­cism, a lit­er­ary and artistic move­ment which was devoted to ‘art for art’s sake’ and which rejec­ted the notion that art should have a social or moral pur­pose. He pub­lished a book of poems, and lec­tured in the United States and Canada on the new English renais­sance in art, before return­ing to London where he worked pro­lific­ally as a journ­al­ist.

Known for his biting wit, flam­boy­ant dress and glit­ter­ing con­ver­sa­tional skill, Wilde became one of the best known per­son­al­it­ies of his day.

Oscar’s wife Constance, with their son Cyril

He had been intro­duced in 1881 to Constance Lloyd, daugh­ter of a wealthy QC. She happened to be vis­it­ing Dublin in 1884 when Wilde was lec­tur­ing at the Gaiety Theatre. He pro­posed to her, and they were mar­ried at the Anglican St James’s Church in Paddington, London.

But Wilde was lead­ing a double life. At the height of his suc­cess, Wilde had the Marquess of Queensberry pro­sec­uted for crim­inal libel after the latter had left a call­ing card at Wilde’s club, the Albemarle, on which he scribbled: “For Oscar Wilde, posing as Somdomite (sic).” The Marquess was the father of Wilde’s lover, Lord Alfred Douglas. The libel trial unearthed evid­ence that caused Wilde to drop his charges and led to his own arrest and trial for gross inde­cency with men. After two more trials he was con­victed and sen­tenced to two years’ hard labour from 1895 to 1897.

Upon his release from Reading Gaol, Wilde left imme­di­ately for France, never to return to Ireland or Britain. There he wrote his last work, the Ballad of Reading Gaol (1898), and he died des­ti­tute in Paris from cereb­ral men­ingitis at the age of just 46.

Mike Collins gradu­ated from University College, Galway, in 1973, and his interest in Wilde and his family stems largely from the fact that he grew up in the same town, Castlerea, Co Roscommon, as William Wilde, him­self the son of a prom­in­ent local med­ical prac­ti­tioner.

Mike drew com­par­is­ons between Oscar and his father. For although Sir William became pre-eminent in his field, becom­ing wealthy enough to open his own private hos­pital in Dublin, St Mark’s Opthalmic Hospital, in 1844, and being appoin­ted as Oculist-in-Ordinary to Queen Victoria, his later life was also mired in con­tro­versy.

Sir William Wilde, Oscar’s father

His repu­ta­tion suffered irre­par­able damage when Mary Travers, a long-term patient of Wilde’s and the daugh­ter of a col­league, claimed that he had seduced her two years earlier. She wrote a pamph­let crudely par­ody­ing Sir William and Lady Wilde and por­tray­ing him as the rapist of a female patient anaes­thet­ised under chlo­ro­form.


Jane, Lady Wilde (sketch attrib­uted to George Morosini)

Lady Wilde com­plained to Mary’s father, Robert Travers, which res­ul­ted in Mary bring­ing a libel case against Lady Wilde. Mary Travers won the case but was awar­ded a mere farth­ing in dam­ages, while legal costs of £2,000 were awar­ded against Lady Wilde.

Then, three years later, the Wilde’s daugh­ter Isola died of fever at the age of nine. In 1871, the two ille­git­im­ate daugh­ters of Sir William burned to death in an acci­dent, and in 1876 Sir William him­self died. The family dis­covered that he was vir­tu­ally bank­rupt.

Lady Wilde, who wrote under the pseud­onym Speranza, was an early advoc­ate for women’s rights and gained a repu­ta­tion for pro-Irish inde­pend­ence and anti-British writ­ing. She wrote an art­icle for The Nation call­ing for armed revolu­tion in Ireland, as a result of which the magazine was per­man­ently closed down by the author­it­ies.

Oscar and Constance Wilde had two sons, Cyril (1885) and Vyvyan (1886). After Oscar’s impris­on­ment, Constance changed her sur­name to Holland and, although not seek­ing a divorce, denied par­ental rights to Oscar.

According to Vyvyan Holland’s accounts in his auto­bi­o­graphy, Son of Oscar Wilde, Oscar was a devoted and loving father to his two sons and their child­hood was a rel­at­ively happy one.

At the start of his present­a­tion Mike had run a few of Oscar Wilde’s wit­ti­cisms past us, includ­ing one of the best known: “What is a cynic? A man who knows the price of everything and the value of noth­ing.” Personally, the one I like the best was reputedly uttered as he lay dying in a dingy hotel room in Paris. “My wall­pa­per and I are fight­ing a duel to the death. One of us has to go.”



Footpads, Kings and Highwaymen — Ian Morgan — 29th January 2018

This was local his­tor­ian Ian Morgan’s third visit to us in con­sec­ut­ive years and, as some­body who was born and raised vir­tu­ally on the Great North Road, I had a cer­tain affin­ity with his latest offer­ing.

Ian spe­cial­ises in crimes and pun­ish­ments from times past – most of us will remem­ber his talk entitled Inspector Hopkinson’s Discovery – and Footpads, Kings and Highwaymen gave us an insight into darker times on the Great North Road over its 34-mile jour­ney through Nottinghamshire.

The first ques­tion Ian had anti­cip­ated was, what was a foot­pad? It was, simply, a high­way­man oper­at­ing on foot rather than on horse­back.

The basic prob­lem facing trav­el­lers on what has become the A1 – Britain’s longest trunk road from London to Edinburgh – was one of nav­ig­a­tion. Ian showed us a fine John Speed map of the county of Nottinghamshire dated 1610, which would look attract­ive enough in a frame but was of lim­ited use for some­body trying to make their way from one town to another. The idea of join­ing up these places with lines of vary­ing thick­ness to por­tray roads or even dirt tracks as they would have been at the time had not struck Britain’s lead­ing car­to­grapher of the day as import­ant, apart from a few street plan inserts of major towns.

John Speed’s 1610 map of Nottinghamshire

Next came the so-called strip map – we were shown one from London to Dover — in which con­sec­ut­ive stretches of the road one was trav­el­ling would be laid out ver­tic­ally, across a page, with vari­ous vil­lages and local fea­tures illus­trated – not unlike an RAC route plan­ner of more recent times.

A later strip map, show­ing con­sec­ut­ive sec­tions of the same road


In stage coach days, just ven­tur­ing out even on what was to become Britain’s best known trunk road, then often axle deep in mud, was a haz­ard­ous occu­pa­tion, and an altern­at­ive route appar­ently took trav­el­lers by way of Nottingham during the winter months. But Grantham, though in Lincolnshire, estab­lished itself as the main East Midlands town on the road and, from the south, Nottinghamshire is entered just after Long Bennington, and a couple of miles before the start of the Newark-on-Trent bypass.

Although the Great North Road con­tin­ues through the centre of Newark, it is nowadays des­ig­nated the A6065. Newark remained Royalist through­out the Civil War, and the town was often dubbed ‘the key of the North’ because of its stra­tegic pos­i­tion. To this day, Newark is per­haps best known for its castle, the Civil War and its market.

Newark Castle

King John breathed his last in the castle in 1216. It was sus­pec­ted at the time that his food or drink had been poisoned, but dys­en­tery seems the most likely cause and, after suf­fer­ing for two or three days, he died. A tower still stand­ing at one end of the castle ruins is where his death was affirmed, and this is still known as King John’s Tower.

Just north of Newark, Smeaton’s Viaduct car­ries the A616, part of the ori­ginal Great North Road, over the River Trent in 125 arches near South Muskham. John Smeaton, often regarded as the father of civil engin­eer­ing, is better known as the designer of the third Eddystone Lighthouse.

John Smeaton’s 125-arch via­duct

Toilet waste from Newark castle would drain straight into the River Trent, which is why most people in those days would drink beer rather than water, and our next stop-off of Tuxford seems to have had a sim­ilar repu­ta­tion, having once been described as a ‘stink­ing, rancid hole.’

Tuxford was at one time known as Tuxford in the Clays, One trav­el­ler speaks of the ‘clayey grounds’ in this vicin­ity, over which his steed could not travel more than two miles an hour. ‘

At West Markham we passed The Milton Mausoleum, a Grade I listed redund­ant Anglican church built by the fourth Duke of Newcastle in memory of his wife and two daugh­ters. It was con­sec­rated by the Archbishop of York in 1833 and closed as a parish church in the 1950s.

The Milton Mausoleum at West Markham

The A1 now takes a route to the west of Retford, but we fol­lowed the Great North Road straight through the town which takes its name from the sand­stone on which it is built – Red Ford.

The Scrooby con­greg­a­tion were Protestant sep­ar­at­ists who lived in the vil­lage of Scrooby, close to where we end our jour­ney. In 1607-08 the con­greg­a­tion emig­rated to Leiden, in the Netherlands, to seek the free­dom to wor­ship as they chose. William Brewster Jnr, one of the lead­ers of the move­ment, even­tu­ally sailed to New England on the Mayflower as one of the so-called Pilgrim Fathers.

Ian didn’t have a par­tic­u­larly old shot of Scrooby, so here’s one of today’s blog­ger and club sec­ret­ary Graham Snowdon, taken in around 1953! Drop handle­bars to boot!

Just north of Scrooby is Gibbet Hill Lane, named after a brutal murder that took place in July 1779 when John Spencer killed the Scrooby toll-bar keeper William Yeadon and his mother. He was executed after a trial at Nottingham Assizes and his body hung in a gibbet cage on a slope south of the River Ryton.

Continuing north into Bawtry it is clear to see we have left Nottinghamshire behind us because the first house on the right hand side as one enters the town, which is offi­cially 1 South Parade, Bawtry, has long been known simply as “No 1 Yorkshire.”

The house in Bawtry known as No 1 Yorkshire

So our jour­ney was over, and so was another enter­tain­ing present­a­tion by Ian Morgan.



This was John Taylor’s fourth visit to Stumperlowe Probus Club, but this time it felt more as though we were the vis­it­ors and he was lead­ing us on a fas­cin­at­ing day out, vir­tu­ally in our own back­yard.

It’s amaz­ing what undis­covered treas­ures there are on one’s own door­step, and John’s talk took us on a  guided tour either side of the bound­ary between South Yorkshire and Derbyshire.

That wavy line has of course been changed many times over the years. The Sheffield suburb of Dore, which once stood on the border of the Anglo-Saxon king­doms of Northumbria and Mercia, was in the county of Derbyshire until 1934, and neigh­bour­ing Norton was trans­ferred to Sheffield in two tranches, in 1901 and 1934.

John’s present­a­tion could have been sub-titled Connected Jottings, but in fact there wasn’t a jot­ting in sight as he took us through an eclectic mix of local his­tory without a single note in front of him. John is a pro­fes­sional his­tor­ian with a broad know­ledge of his sub­ject. He is a writer, his­tor­ical con­sult­ant and researcher, and often acts as a guide for English Heritage and other public bodies.

More import­antly to us, per­haps, he also believes that his­tory should be a fun sub­ject appeal­ing to all tastes and back­grounds.

I like to look beneath the sur­face and link things together, so that the talk has con­tinu­ity,” he told us in his intro­duc­tion. “Horace Walpole coined the term ‘serendip­ity’ [mean­ing a for­tu­nate hap­pen­stance or a pleas­ant sur­prise], but the dif­fer­ence with me is that I actu­ally look for serendip­ity.”

Our meander star­ted in Norton, birth­place (in 1781) of Sir Francis Chantrey, the lead­ing por­trait sculptor of Regency era Britain. Chantrey, who died at the age of 60 and is buried in the church­yard at Norton, was a friend of the Bagshawe family, which gave us a link to Oakes Park, home of the Bagshawes for almost 300 years until 1987.

Sir Francis Chantrey, sculptor

Francis Chantrey designed the ter­race in front of the house, but Sir John Nash laid out the grounds of Oakes Park and the lake there was dug by Napoleonic pris­on­ers between 1803 and 1804. So on now to Dronfield, where the Lucas Arch marks the site of Lucas’s steel foundry which pro­duced can­non­balls which were used in the Napoleonic Wars and, in all prob­ab­il­ity, at the decis­ive Battle of Waterloo.

The Napoleonic link then took us on to Chesterfield, where French officers who were pris­on­ers of war were bil­leted at the Falcon Inn, now a branch of the Yorkshire Building Society.

Chesterfield’s crooked spire.

The town is prob­ably most famous for its crooked spire, and in the church­yard of St Mary and All Saints is a memorial stone to a French pris­oner who was cap­tured in Sardinia, imprisoned on a float­ing hulk ship and then offered parole in Chesterfield.



Tapton House

We went, appro­pri­ately, via the only remain­ing build­ing which made up the ori­ginal Chesterfield rail­way sta­tion to Tapton House, which was the home of rail­way pion­eer George Stephenson for the last ten years of his life. The house was then bought by the Markham family of engin­eers and col­li­ery owners and it was the birth­place in 1872 of the prom­in­ent suf­fra­gette Violet Markham.


George Stephenson, engin­eer and inventor

George Stephenson, whose statue stands out­side the present Chesterfield sta­tion, is best known as the father of the rail­ways, but he also designed a miner’s safety lamp and even a glass cucum­ber straight­ener, an example of which is on dis­play at the town’s museum. Not a lot of people know that.



At Ashover we saw the Crispin Inn, dating back to the time of Agincourt, and — next door to it — All Saints’ Church which houses a lead font dating back to 1150 which the rector, Emanuel Vaughan, buried in his garden for five years during the Civil War.


The wind­ing house for the former Matlock tram­way

Hold tight! Our next stop was Matlock, and what was pre­vi­ously the wind­ing house for the steep­est road­way tram system in the world, beat­ing even San Francisco. Smedley’s Hydro in the town became a School of Military Intelligence during World War Two, when Dirk Bogarde (who would end his ser­vice as a major) was among its stu­dents.


The former Rowsley sta­tion

Rowsley Retail Park was built as the sixth    Duke of Devonshire’s rail­way sta­tion. No doubt Chatsworth’s garden designer Joseph Paxton used the sta­tion in later years, but his first jour­ney to Chatsworth had been via the Chesterfield coach and a long walk over the moors. Paxton, who coin­cid­ent­ally was the mater­nal grand­father of Violet Markham, of Tapton House, is buried in the family tomb in the church­yard at Edensor.


The Rutland Inn, Bakewell

Who knew that Jane Austen wrote, or at least revised the manu­script of, her novel Pride and Prejudice while stay­ing at the Rutland Arms in Bakewell, where the first eponym­ous pud­ding was made by an Ann Wheeldon?


Frederic Barker, Archbishop of Sydney from 1854 to 1882, was born in Baslow and is buried in the church­yard there.


The Round House, Ringinglow

Almost back in Sheffield now, and the Round House at Ringinglow, built in 1893 at the con­ver­gence of two turn­pikes, isn’t round at all but octa­gonal. Totley Tunnel, which cuts beneath the Derbyshire-Yorkshire bound­ary, was opened in the same year but the memorial to the nav­vies killed during its con­struc­tion is in the cemetery at Crookes, tra­di­tional centre of the Irish com­munity in Sheffield.


Our run-in to the centre of Sheffield was via the city’s first tram shed at Heeley, built in 1878, and the Botanical Gardens, to the Wicker Arches, designed by Sir John Fowler, of Wadsley Hall, whose later work included the Forth rail­way bridge.

After a diver­sion to Ecclesfield, where Nelson’s per­sonal chap­lain Alexander John Scott is buried (he was the father-in-law of the vicar), we ended up in para­dise. Well, Paradise Square to be pre­cise.

The afore­men­tioned Francis Chantrey had his first studio at No 24, and other occu­pants of the square included the phys­i­cian David Daniel Davis, who was present at the birth of Queen Victoria in 1819 and was later appoin­ted first Professor of Midwifery at the University of London.

Never again need we be short of ideas for a local day out!



Keith Booker, making his fourth visit to Stumperlowe, brought with him greet­ings from his home club of Dore, and explained that his latest selec­tion of pho­to­graphs from around the world was put together by request after he gave us Part One just over two years ago.
“I’ve gathered together a new selec­tion of pic­tures taken on a few of our adven­tures fea­tur­ing some less seen sub­jects, and others better known, which my wife and I found absorb­ing, sur­pris­ing and some­times amus­ing,” he explained. “You and I all have one thing in common today,” he added, “and that is that we are seeing this latest com­pil­a­tion for the first time!”
The cynics amongst us per­haps thought we were in for a slideshow of hol­i­day snaps, but this was a travelogue with a dif­fer­ence. Jules Verne’s Around the World in Eighty Days has noth­ing on Keith Booker’s Around the World in Fifty Minutes.

From the ancient city of Petra …

The open­ing theme was the Ancient World, and we star­ted off in the city of Petra, in Jordan. At its peak Petra – which trans­lates as ‘rock’ — was home to 20,000 people who, in the midst of the desert, built an ingeni­ous system of water­ways and a huge amphi­theatre. Next stop was the Great Pyramid of Giza, which at 480 feet was the tallest man­made struc­ture in the world for nearly 4,000 years, con­struc­ted out of 2.3 mil­lion stone blocks. The Great Sphinx of Giza, which meas­ures 238 feet from head to tail, is estim­ated to have been built earlier than 2500 BC.

Time to move on, and the ancient Greek city of Ephesus (now actu­ally in modern day Turkey) was one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. Olympia, site of the ori­ginal Olympic Games, The Temple of Posiedon, near Athens, and Old Corinth, famous as a trad­ing centre, were next on the itin­er­ary.
Back on the magic carpet, and Rome was our next stop. The Colosseum, built in 72 AD, could seat more than 50,000 spec­tat­ors and it is thought that half a mil­lion people and twice as many anim­als were killed in the man versus beast con­tests.
Versuvius looms over both Herculaneum and, more fam­ously, Pompeii, the city which was des­troyed by vol­canic ash in 79 .
On now to India. Traditional house­boats can be hired on the Kerala back­wa­ters near Cochin, or Kochi. They are related to the dhow and were ori­gin­ally designed as spice trad­ing ves­sels. Today, spices are mainly trans­por­ted by road, giving the boats a new lease of life as leis­ure ves­sels.
We saw sim­ilar scenes in Thailand and Vietnam before ringing the bell for the next stop, Venice, where today there are still 400 gon­dolas ori­gin­ally used to trans­port goods from the mar­kets to the palaces along the canals.
North now to Lake Garda, where we saw part of the hull and bow of the Italian naval cruiser Puglia, launched in 1903, installed in a garden high above the lake and bring­ing a new slant to the craze for deck­ing.
Across the Atlantic now for a look at the impress­ive bridge of the Queen Mary, which oper­ated between 1936 and 1967 and is now pre­served as a hotel and con­fer­ence centre in the har­bour at Long Beach, California.
Its suc­cessor the QE2 was launched in 1969 and retired in 2008, having sailed a greater dis­tance than any other vessel of any type, and Keith cap­tured it in Hong Kong har­bour for his photo col­lec­tion. In an instant, Keith then whisked us off to Scandinavia for the QE2’s last visit to Norway and her appear­ance at an annual steam­ship fest­ival, which in 2008 was held in Stavanger.
Continuing the mari­time theme, the Titanic’s first and (as it tran­spired) only port of call on her ill-fated maiden voyage from Southampton was Cork, in Ireland, where we saw an appro­pri­ate memorial. A number of the Titanic vic­tims have their final rest­ing place at Halifax, Nova Scotia, and Keith was on hand with his camera there, too, to show us the grave­stones laid out in the shape of a ship’s bow.
On next to New York, worth a whole show in its own right, and then to Greenland, the largest island in the world but with a pop­u­la­tion of just 56,000.
From basalt form­a­tions in Iceland we flew as if by magic to the sim­ilar Giant’s Causeway on the Antrim coast in Northern Ireland, and then headed north via Tromso and its Arctic Cathedral to the North Cape, the most north­erly point in Europe.
The old com­mer­cial dis­trict of Quebec has some remark­able murals, giving it a link with Cannes, in the South of France. Soon we were back in Ireland, and Dublin in par­tic­u­lar, and the North Yorkshire fish­ing vil­lage of Staithes also had its moment of fame before we jetted off to Australia, and the Sydney Opera House.

… to the iconic Sydney Opera House

After a stop-off in Bangkok, it was time to board Japan’s famous bullet train for a dis­tant view of Mount Fuji.
Then it was back towards home, call­ing in at Istanbul, the ori­ginal ter­minus the Orient Express. Keeping to the rails, we saw the Blue Train in South Africa and the Panama Express, which runs along­side the canal.
We didn’t go to Zywiec, in Poland, so Yalta – scene of the famous post­war powwow between Churchill, Roosevelt and Stalin – was a good place alpha­bet­ic­ally to wind up our magical mys­tery tour.
Keith was asked which places he would still like to visit, and his reply was Machu Picchu and Easter Island. He has no plans to turn this present­a­tion into a tri­logy but, as they say, watch this space …

* Keith kindly donated his fee to St Luke’s Hospice.

A Visit to The Yorkshire Air Museum

A small but select group of Stumperlowe Probus Club mem­bers enjoyed an inspir­a­tional and at times emo­tional visit to the former RAF Elvington air base near York which now houses the Yorkshire Air Museum or, to give it its full name, the Allied Air Forces Memorial and Yorkshire Air Museum, on Wednesday, September 13.

Our select group, minus the pho­to­grapher of course, with some of the exhib­its on show behind us.

As with other visits in the past, for example to the National Rail Museum, the four and a half hours we had allowed proved barely time enough to explore all the exhib­its, indoor and out­door, as well as the archive mater­ial and cinema screen­ings, not to men­tion a lunch­time visit to the NAAFI where many of the British and French air­crew lost during World War II would have enjoyed their last meal.

No 77 Squadron suffered heavy losses during its time at Elvington, with over 500 air­crew killed, miss­ing or taken pris­oner and almost 800 Halifax bombers lost as it played a major part in the Battle of the Ruhr and the bomb­ing of Berlin. In May 1944, 77 Squadron moved to the newly opened nearby RAF Full Sutton and was replaced at Elvington by two French squad­rons, num­bers 346 ‘Guyenne’ and 347 ‘Tunisie’ who both played lead­ing parts in the bomb­ing of Germany.

The Handley Page Halifax Mk III

Elvington is the largest ori­ginal war­time RAF Bomber Command sta­tion open to the public any­where in the world. Retaining the authen­tic atmo­sphere of an oper­a­tional base, the site con­tains the 77 Squadron Memorial, the French Air Force Memorial, the Royal Canadian Air Force Memorial, the Commonwealth Air Training Plan Memorial and the Air Transport Auxiliary Memorial.

Elvington was the war­time home of the only two French Air Force Heavy Bomber Squadrons, who flew the huge Halifax four-engined bomber on mis­sions over occu­pied Europe. The museum, which is held in spe­cial affec­tion by many vet­er­ans and the des­cend­ants of those brave airmen , has there­fore enjoyed a unique rela­tion­ship with the people of France, and the French Air Force and gov­ern­ment, since its found­ing more than 30 years ago.

Of the out­door exhib­its, the high­light for many was the French Mirage IV nuc­lear bomber which had been offi­cially inaug­ur­ated at its new home at Elvington only ten days earlier. The Mirage, which was Western Europe’s fast­est mil­it­ary jet cap­able of sus­tained speeds of Mach 2.2 (1,400mph), was trans­por­ted by road on a four-day jour­ney from the Chateaudun air base in France.

The French Mirage IV nuc­lear bomber

The new attrac­tion, which was first pledged to the museum by the French gov­ern­ment more than 12 years ago, was offi­cially unveiled on September 3 by Général Laurent Lesellier, rep­res­ent­ing the Chief of the French Air Force. It joins the much smal­ler Mirage III fighter which is also the only one of its type in Britain.

The Elvington museum opened in 1985 and had only a hand­ful of air­craft to dis­play. In those early years, volun­teers were con­cen­trat­ing on refur­bish­ing the cent­ral build­ings of the ori­ginal war­time site as well as focus­ing on restor­ing an ori­ginal Halifax bomber. The French vet­er­ans who, 40 years after the war, were still very active, were anxious to help and to ensure that their own his­tory within RAF Bomber Command was not for­got­ten.


Dr Rod Amos, a retired con­sult­ant rheum­at­o­lo­gist at the Royal Hallamshire and Sheffield Children’s Hospital who last spoke to us in January 2014 on Changing Concepts of Medicine (from Sorcery to Science), returned with a fas­cin­at­ing account of the almost total erad­ic­a­tion of polio­my­el­itis.

Specifically, his talk centred on the involve­ment in fun­drais­ing of Franklin D Roosevelt, the 32nd President of the United States, who was him­self struck down with a para­lytic ill­ness (there is some debate as to whether it was actu­ally polio)  in 1921, at the age of 39.

Roosevelt, who would sub­sequently be elec­ted to the first of his record four terms as pres­id­ent in November 1932, was the only child of a rich and polit­ical family, and was at his hol­i­day home at Campobello Island, a pop­u­lar summer retreat for wealthy Canadians and Americans, when he was taken ill with exhaus­tion, deep muscle aching and fever­ish­ness. Within a day he was show­ing signs of para­lysis which even­tu­ally left him unable to walk or even stand without some kind of sup­port.

President Franklin D Roosevelt in 1944

He was crippled, as Rod poin­ted out, at a time when such a dis­ab­il­ity was a major prob­lem to someone who wanted to be prom­in­ent in public life. He labor­i­ously taught him­self to walk very short dis­tances while wear­ing cum­ber­some iron braces on his hips and legs by swiv­el­ling his torso and sup­port­ing him­self with a cane, and he was care­ful never to be seen using his wheel­chair in public.

Although his ill­ness was gen­er­ally known, the extent of his para­lysis was kept from public view, helpedby a gentlemen’s agree­ment with the Press that there would be no pho­to­graphs or cari­ca­tures reveal­ing his dis­ab­il­ity, and he would often stand for two or three hours while making speeches at public meet­ings, his leg irons and hip brace locked in pos­i­tion but con­cealed by a spe­cially con­struc­ted three-sided podium.

A rare pho­to­graph of FDR in a wheel­chair, 1941

Roosevelt tried a wide range of rem­ed­ies, and par­tic­u­larly favoured hydro­ther­apy. He believed that swim­ming in the warm, buoy­ant min­eral water of the Warms Springs resort in Georgia was bene­fi­cial. “Franklin Roosevelt will swim to health,” pro­claimed one news­pa­per head­line of the day. He became obsessed with it, to the extent that in 1926 he bought Warm Springs and turned it from a resort to an insti­tute for polio rehab­il­it­a­tion, set­ting up a non-profit organ­isa­tion able to bene­fit from tax-free gifts and char­it­able dona­tions.

The Georgia Warm Springs Foundation was renamed the National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis in 1927 and Keith Morgan, a suc­cess­ful insur­ance sales­man, was brought in to sell the idea to pro­spect­ive wealthy pat­rons, a busi­ness plan which fell victim to the Wall Street crash of 1929. Carl Byoir, a PR expert, was hired to raise the foundation’s pro­file and sug­ges­ted a nation­wide party to cel­eb­rate FDR’s birth­day in 1934, organ­ising 3,000 ‘birth­day balls’ around the coun­try. This became an annual event from which 70 per cent of the profits were retained by local com­munit­ies to provide care for polio vic­tims and 30 per cent went to the found­a­tion.

The name March of Dimes – a play on the title of a con­tem­por­ary American radio and news­reel series, The March of Time – was coined by Eddie Cantor, who was a radio show host as well as a pop­u­lar singer, comedian and screen star. The found­a­tion had decided at Byoir’s sug­ges­tion on a nation­wide fun­drais­ing cam­paign which would encour­age large num­bers of small dona­tions rather than a few large bequests, and Cantor inspired a fun­drais­ing cam­paign in the week before President Roosevelt’s birth­day on January 30, 1938.

Lapel pins were sold at ten cents (a dime) each, and thou­sands of people mailed cards and let­ters, each con­tain­ing a dime, to the White House. On the first day 30,000 dimes were received, on the second day 50,000 and on the third day 150,000. Along with the pro­ceeds from spe­cial events held by nightclubs and cab­arets, and spe­cial fea­tures pro­duced by motion pic­ture stu­dios and the radio industry, Cantor’s appeal raised more than $85,000 in what the Press called ‘a silver tide which actu­ally swamped the White House.’ Over the years, half a bil­lion dol­lars would be raised in the fight against polio.

The word polio­my­el­itis comes from the Greek words polios, mean­ing grey, and meulos or myelós, mean­ing marrow or spinal cord. It would often cause res­pir­at­ory para­lysis and Rod, who was born in 1948, struck a note with many in the audi­ence when he said: “In my early child­hood, when polio was men­tioned, the image which came into my mind was the iron lung.”

An iron lung ward in an American hos­pital

The big break­through in the erad­ic­a­tion of polio came in the period 1951 to 1953 when Dr Jonas Salk, a med­ical researcher and vir­o­lo­gist, was given more than $1 mil­lion in fund­ing by the National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis in his quest to find a cure, and the Salk Vaccine was intro­duced in 1955. Salk’s ‘killed’ vac­cine was effect­ive in elim­in­at­ing most of the com­plic­a­tions of polio, but did not pre­vent the ini­tial intest­inal infec­tion.

But in late 1954, Salk’s rival Dr Albert Sabin had tested his ‘live’ atten­u­ated oral vac­cine, and between 1955 and 1961 the oral ver­sion was tri­alled on at least 100 mil­lion people in the USSR and other coun­tries. This provided the impetus for large-scale clin­ical trials of the oral vac­cine in the US, in the face of con­sid­er­able oppos­i­tion from the National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis.

Dr Jonas Salk (1914–1995)

Salk and Sabin hated each other,” Rod revealed. “There was a lot of rivalry. Many sci­ent­ists had long thought that a live, oral ver­sion made more logical sense, but the National Foundation wouldn’t sup­port the cost of another massive vac­cin­a­tion pro­ject before the Salk vac­cine was up and run­ning,”

However, from 1962 onwards the USA and much of the world switched to the Sabin ver­sion.