Retired Newcastle businessman Joe Fisher has led an extraordinary life. Now 91, Joe’s ultimate personal and professional triumphs could scarcely have been predicted when he contracted Polio in 1945 yet he transformed not just his own life but the lives of others, masterminding a Polio Hostel and Training Centre in Jesmond in 1954. It was the first of its kind anywhere in the world. (Joe is now telling his story to help raise awareness of Polio and Post Polio Syndrome (PPS) in the UK, for British Polio Month (July-August 2013)).
Joseph was a young officer serving with the British Army in India when he contracted Polio aged 23. Polio is usually associated with the very young so to have survived the horrors of the Second World War and to contract the disease aged 23 in the prime of life was a devastating event. He returned to England and in Joe’s words, was “98 percent disabled.”
Having improved somewhat by the age of 26 Joe was still coming to terms with living a life with Polio when he came across the Infantile Paralysis Fellowship in London – the organisation that was ultimately to become The British Polio Fellowship. He asked to become a member and instead was invited to form a branch in Newcastle. While not what he had envisaged, Joe took up the challenge and the start of a 60 year partnership that was to transform not just Joe’s life but the lives of other Polio sufferers throughout the UK. As Joe explains, 1940s Britain was a very different place from today’s Britain: “You have to understand what it was like post war in the UK and in Newcastle in particular,” explained Joe. “The war was only just over, the country was in ruins and Polio was rife. There was very little welfare and things were in a very bad state. People cannot imagine what life could be like if you had a disability like Polio, but we got great support from the people of Newcastle.”
After just five months, the Newcastle branch had over 100 members and in addition, Joe had become a successful businessman in his own right as well. By 1954, the Newcastle branch of The British Polio Fellowship had got a place of their own, too.
Thanks to the proceeds of the King’s College Rag Appeal some £13,500 was raised (an amazing sum at the time) which enabled them to buy a house in Jesmond and convert it into a hostel and training centre for 15-20 Polio sufferers to live in – and live in it they did, with a welcome extended to people from throughout the UK. There had never been anywhere like it before, anywhere else in the world where people with Polio could live and learn a trade. The centre was visited by doctors from Scandinavia and Europe to find out more. A revolutionary approach at the time, Joe’s pioneering project in Newcastle was to be imitated and adopted by governments and charities alike in years to come.
“The hostel was a great success and managed by and for people with Polio. I am very proud of its achievements,” explained Joe. “But after just a few months I received a complaint from some residents, saying they had nothing to do! So, I came up with an idea for a business.” Joe’s idea, with the aid of a graphic designer, was to come up with a printing and fretwork business, with the intention of supplying the Polio branches throughout the UK with flyers and posters and collection boxes; commonplace now, but a revolutionary idea in the 50s.
“A graphic designer in the south had been making Christmas cards and when he died as I was the only businessman on the executive committee, I was asked how we could save the business with him gone,” added Joe. “So, the Christmas card business was moved north and I put it on a more business-like footing and thirty polio sufferers were employed full time and in three years we had a turnover of over £3million in today’s money. We were not doing them a favour, they did a proper job and they received a proper rate of pay in return.” Such was the success of this venture in its heyday that other than Boots, the businesses was the biggest buyer of Advent Calendars in the UK and producing 9 million Christmas Cards; while the Newcastle branch had grown to more than 400 members. The business was more than an excuse to give people a dead end job, but to prove those with Polio could lead a full a life and with it, the conviction that no one with Polio was unemployable if they had the skills to take into other employment. With these skills, would come the same respect taken for granted by the able bodied.
“The business was never intended as a ‘dead man’s shoe’ place at all,” explained Joe. “People were fully trained in the role they performed and these skills allowed them to secure mainstream employment. We trained people in the print side, invoicing, accountancy, banking, packing and order receipt, you name it. Once they had the skills, they could get out into the community to live normal lives and get work. And instead of this being brought about by someone else’s charity it was organised, paid for and run by those living with Polio and to support those with Polio who had nowhere else to turn.”
As a businessman, Joe was determined the Fellowship should not only be run correctly but be seen to be run correctly too. Insisting that employees were properly trained and paid the correct wage for the job was all a key part of this. So much so that he visited the chairman of the Fellowship to ensure this happened not just in the North East but in all the dealings of the Fellowship.
“I went to London and had a meeting with the then Chairman,” explained Joe. “I insisted that not only did we have to do the right thing, but we had to be seen to do it too. Polio was the charity of the moment post war and with money coming in, we had to be able to properly account for it. This was the most important thing for me and the chairman agreed. Ever since our accounts have always been sent in time and have never been questioned. I’m proud that and that even after all these years we are still doing it right.”
The hostel and business drew people from all over the UK, in a bold move to actively find and help those with Polio, up to the late 50s and early 60s, when less people were arriving. A decline in numbers was due to welcome improvements in social welfare and other charities starting to follow the example set them in Newcastle.
“As other charities started to get their act together and social services improved, it was inevitable that this, coupled with the welcome decline in new cases of Polio in the UK would see fewer numbers of people needing to seek us out,” explained Joe. “As we started to get empty rooms and our ideas on Advent Calendars and Christmas cards were copied, the decision was mide to wind down the business and sell the house.”
When the house was sold, it made over ten times what the Fellowship paid, making the whole venture an outstanding social and financial success. The building was taken over by a housing association and the Fellowship bought back two units to use. Now in his 60s, ill health saw Joe take more of a back seat, but he was to serve as an honorary trustee for 20 years and is now a trustee and patron of the charity he dedicated so much of his life to and has done so much to serve over 60 years.
Up to 80% of people who have Polio may get PPS. Over 120,000 people live with PPS today, and The British Polio Fellowship and its branches (Newcastle included!) works to support those with Polio and PPS, as well as their families and friends.
“The British Polio Fellowship is fortunate to have so many members with amazing life stories and I am proud to call such an inspirational figure like Joe not just a Trustee and patron but a friend,” said Ted Hill MBE, CEO of The British Polio Fellowship. “Not only did Joe overcome Polio, he dedicated his life to helping countless others do the same. Joe is also an example of those who contract this terrible condition in adulthood, who can too easily be forgotten.”
Joe and his family’s connection with charity is far from over. In addition to his continuing role as a patron, his sons Daniel and Mark are fundraisers for the charity too. Mark ran the London 10K for the charity in July this year.
You can hear his story on the Polio – A Living History web site.