There are numerous Sue Ryder charity shops throughout the UK, but few shoppers know much about their founder. Miss Ryder was a determined and philanthropic woman who created homes for those who were damaged by trauma and injury experienced in the Second World War. She was born into a privileged family and, when only 16, left school to join the First Aid Nursing Yeomanry. This led to Special Operations Executive work where she met Polish airmen. This was the beginning of her admiration of Poles and Poland. In the chaos of the post-war period she provided food, medicine and clothing to those who were abandoned and had nothing. In 1953 she established the Sue Ryder Foundation as “a living memorial to the victims and opponents of tyranny”. This required her physical and psychological strength in addition to her strong Catholic faith. In 1955 she married the famous Group Captain Leonard Cheshire, and the couple co-operated on more projects. Sue Ryder made a huge and positive difference to thousands, despite – or perhaps because of - having a character which could be as downright difficult as it could be inspiring. Over the years she was awarded civic, military and academic honors, including several from Poland. In 1979, when she was made a life peer, she took the title Lady Ryder of Warsaw. Sue Ryder was brought up to help others and she committed her life to doing so. Unfortunately, after decades of charitable work, there was a bitter, fundamental disagreement between her and her trustees, which ended in them separating. She died soon after this, in 2000. This book is written so that Sue Ryder’s name, work and life are not forgotten.
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About the Author
After attending a Quaker school, Tessa West trained to be a teacher, though soon found herself working in prisons rather than in schools. A Winston Churchill Travel Fellowship enabled her to study prisons in Scandinavia, and this was followed by a Cropwood Fellowship at the University of Cambridge. She also spent a term at the Crime Prevention and Criminal Justice Department at the United Nations in Vienna. Later she served as an Independent Member of the Parole Board. Since her retirement she has focused on writing, both fiction and nonfiction. While writing her first biography, The Curious Mr Howard, she was awarded an Arthur Welton grant. Sue Ryder: Her Life, Work and Times is her second biography.
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There is some discrepancy as to the date of Margaret Susan Ryder's birth in Belmont Nursing Home, Leeds, West Yorkshire. While her birth and death certificates give it as July 3 1924, she herself claimed it was July 3 1923. The difference appears to be due to her desire at the start of WW2 to join the First Aid Nursing Yeomanry while still a year below the required age. In order to be accepted she chose to give the authorities incorrect information. No one could count this action as revolutionary – other keen volunteers have also adopted this ruse – and it does not seem to have mattered to her parents, though they may never have known. Nevertheless, she was a schoolgirl at the time and brought up to speak the truth, so her undetected deception – if that's what it was – can certainly be seen as an early indicator of her lively spirit, her ability to find ways of doing what she wanted, and her determination to contribute her energy to an important cause.
Those qualities of independence and resolve are key factors governing what Sue Ryder achieved, as did her formidable physical energy, staying power and willingness to work. Furthermore, for most of her life she was supported by a strong Catholic faith, the importance of which cannot be over-estimated.
It may be that even if she had grown up in different circumstances she would have put others first and done what she could to relieve suffering, but in her autobiography, Child of My Love, she acknowledged the vital influence of her charitable, intelligent and wealthy mother and father.
She never forgot that being born to such parents was her greatest fortune. Her father Charles Foster Ryder had wide-ranging interests which included politics, fine art and fox hunting. By the time his youngest daughter Sue was born, he had been a partner in a brewery which became so successful that he had turned himself into a gentleman farmer. He bought elegant residences with many acres of land and sent at least some of his children to expensive private schools. He read widely, enjoyed discussion with dinner guests, rode round his farms and took on responsibilities in his community such as serving on committees and being a Justice of the Peace.
Born in 1856 he grew up in Headingley, Leeds, and later read maths at Trinity College, Cambridge. Sue Ryder wrote that he would have preferred to have read history, and perhaps he should have done so, for although he was awarded a degree he also had the dubious honour of winning the Wooden Spoon. In Cambridge, this was given to the student who passed the Maths. tripos with the lowest marks. Charles Ryder was also a keen rower who became a Blue. It was after university that he worked in the Tetley Brewery and was made a director. Sue's birth certificate gives his occupation as a brewer, and Tetley's was one of the biggest employers in Leeds. Ryder's highly successful employment with the company came through a family connection.
Charles Ryder married twice. His first wife was Anna Potter (born 1863), who, when she and Charles married in 1888, was living with her widowed mother Agnes in Cleveland Square, London. Her father had been a merchant, possibly with the East India Company.
The Ryders' principal home was The Grange, a large house in the village of Scarcroft between Leeds and Wetherby in Yorkshire, but they spent four months of each year in Suffolk. Charles Ryder's desire to buy more land and property is quite understandable given the fact that he could easily afford to do so. (His father, also named Charles, left a huge fortune in 1902. So, over a period of many years Charles (the son) came to own various properties in and around the villages of Carlton-cum-Willingham in Cambridgeshire, and Great Bradley and Little and Great and Thurlow in Suffolk. By far the most significant of these to the family – and of course to Sue – was The Hall in Great Thurlow, almost on the Cambridgeshire border.
Each of Sue's two childhood homes provided space, stability and classic beauty. The Grange in Scarcroft, first recorded in the late 1600s, had twenty rooms, excluding sculleries, lobbies, landings and so forth. Charles Ryder bought it in about 1905 from the W.H. Smith family who had built up a highly successful business in selling books and stationery. Ryder already owned the Little Thurlow estate, which had belonged to the Soames family who were amongst the several benefactors in that village.
Every year the Ryders de-camped from Yorkshire and moved south to Suffolk by train. At considerable expense they travelled in their own private carriages, probably boarding at a station whose name at that time was Scarcroft and Thorner. Their huge amounts of luggage were specially bound with red tape for the long journey to Haverhill North. Presumably some of the servants accompanied them and worked in both households.
Anna bore her husband five children: Daniel, Rosamund, Stephen, Agnes and William. Anna died in 1907, leaving Charles, then in his fifties, with a family of growing children.
The 1911 census shows Charles, a widower, as being at Scarcroft with two of his daughters (Agnes, aged 16 and Rosamund aged 12) and seven servants, all of whom were women. This was just a few months before he re-married. His second wife was a young widow, Mabel Elizabeth Sims. Her deceased husband, Herbert Marsh Sims, had studied at Cambridge. A keen cricketer, he had played cricket for the university and, later on, for Yorkshire. He was ordained and, though born in Tavistock in Devon, moved to Yorkshire at some point. He died at the age of only thirty-two, when vicar of St Cuthbert's Church in Hunslet, Leeds.
Mabel's mother, also named Agnes, brought Mabel up on her own because of her husband's early death. She gave her daughter as broad and rich an education as she could. She took her to the continent, encouraged her to learn French and Italian, and – most importantly – made her value her own good fortune, drew her attention to those who were poor and ill, and showed her how they could and should be helped.
This second marriage produced another three children (and perhaps even a fourth who did not survive) before Mrs Ryder gave birth to Sue six years later in 1924. Sue was therefore virtually a generation away from her oldest half-brothers and sisters, and though she grew up in the same two houses as they did, her childhood must have differed markedly from theirs.
At one point Mrs Ryder employed not only a nanny for Sue but an under-nanny, a girl named Lily Stones. It is possible that she met Lily through the Armley Babies' Welcome Association, of which she was a committee member from 1923 to 1924. This was a valuable Leeds-based organisation that supported and educated young women who lacked adequate skills and resources to cope with their babies. A notice in the Yorkshire Post announced some of what was happening as part of Leeds Baby Week:
"Do you want your baby to thrive? Bring it to the Babies' Welcome." This is the injunction to working class mothers at the Model Babies' Welcome in Trinity Schools, Boar Lane, Leeds; and those who have not time to visit the many institutions which are open for inspection this week will do well to look in at so convenient a specimen centre, and see the whole system demonstrated, from the registration and weighing of the child to the medical examination and nursing provision.
And here are further details about the talks at the Welcome:
The talks included practical demonstrations on how to make a cot from a banana crate so that a baby need not be exposed to infection, particularly TB, by sharing a bed, and how to make the linseed poultices and pneumonia jackets that were recommended for coughs, colds and bronchitis.
Baylis, I. Leeds Babies' Welcome Association, p.7
Lily's daughter, Sue Freck, can still recall her mother saying that Mrs Ryder, while buying good quality clothes for her family, was very keen that out-grown garments should not be wasted but passed on to younger children – a habit that Sue would always adopt.
It was only at Lily's funeral in 2012 that her daughter realised, with delight, that she had been named Margaret Susan after Margaret Susan Ryder whom her mother had cared for when she (Sue) was still usually known as "Baby". Moreover, both Mrs Ryder's daughter and the undernanny's daughter were always known by their second given name, not their first.
Although the life of the second family had much in common with that of the one which preceded it, it also had significant differences for the children. In addition to having a different mother, their inter-familial relationships, home and not least, their father's status and age, were also all different. By the time Sue Ryder was born Charles was at least seventy and quite probably a grandfather, but although he was a man who dressed conservatively and brought his children up formally he was by no means stuffy. Indeed, his outlook was modern for the time in that he insisted that Sue became competent at practical tasks on the farms, and made it clear that she should be able to earn her own living. He also used to take her and some of her siblings with him when he went into bookshops in Cambridge.
A crucial feature of Sue's early years was her very close relationship with her mother. The two spent hours together. While Sue, who had her own small dairy herd, was encouraged to learn many domestic skills such as milking, butter-making and cooking, it was the visits she made with her mother to people who lived in squalor, disease and hopelessness that mattered most to her and strongly influenced her later life. The pair ventured into the most deprived parts of Leeds and other similar cities where living conditions were appalling, and they went to the almshouses in the local villages at Scarcroft and Thurlow. Mrs Ryder, like her own mother, clearly did this not only to make Sue aware of how poor people lived but to instill in her a belief that it was her duty and responsibility to do something about it. Did Mrs Ryder take her other children to such places? There are no reports of it, so it seems that Sue, the youngest of the family by far, developed a special relationship with her mother both because of their shared altruistic activities and because of their warm pleasure in each other's company.
During Sue's childhood the shadow of World War I was still present, and in the years between the wars life in cities like Leeds was, for the thousands of people who lived in the slums, miserable, dangerous and painful. Accommodation was unfit for habitation. There was inadequate access to clean water or to proper sewage disposal. Though charitable societies and individuals provided help where they could, they could do little to prevent or treat diseases such as typhus, cholera, consumption and TB. Nor could they do anything about the smoke from mills and factories and domestic fires in homes. It polluted everyone's lungs.
It must have been a huge relief to return to the countryside, breathe clean air and enjoy the comfort of a privileged home. Sue could not but have been struck by the difference between her life and that of children in Leeds. On the first page of her autobiography she wrote:
The bad housing conditions appalled me. It was usual to find only one bedroom in a house which meant that children had to sleep with their parents and sometimes a sick person too. Several children would share the same bed. The dreariness of their surroundings with no lavatory, often no tap, little to eat and frequently no change of clothes or shoes horrified me.
Ryder, S. Child of My Love, p.17
One thing which she learned to do early was to pray. Christian belief and prayer were very important to the Ryders. When in Scarcroft, it seems as if they attended the churches in the neighbouring villages of Shadwell and Bardsey more often than the nearest church which was in Thorner. When in Suffolk they alternated between the church at Great Thurlow, right next door to The Hall, and the one at Little Thurlow, a mile or so up the road. The family was high Anglican, and though Sue reports that her father sometimes fell asleep during sermons, her mother made a point of going to Holy Communion almost every day. Later Sue converted to Catholicism, the faith which became a key feature of her life.
It was in the mid 1930s, when the country was in depression, that Charles Ryder realised he could no longer avoid the impact of the dire financial crisis. He decided to sell the house at Scarcroft and move his entire household to Thurlow permanently.
It was a dramatic decision and the family's contact with Yorkshire obviously diminished greatly, although Mrs Ryder drove herself back there every Christmas with the presents she had prepared for people she knew would otherwise receive none. But she soon involved herself in Thurlow village life, focusing her attention on the local area where unemployment was increasing and there were many needy people. There were also some very eccentric characters whose activities Sue described in her autobiography, and whom Mrs Ryder just took in her stride with her natural good humour. She also threw herself into organising cultural and social events, and it is said that she was on over thirty committees. Clearly, Sue's mother was a woman who rarely stayed still.
The following extract is from the South West Suffolk Echo, published after a fete whose sports events included a swing pole pillow fight, women's potato races and blindfold cutting at the ham. Though it was written in July 1914, ten years before Sue was born, it illustrates the good regard in which the Ryders were held. Prizes for Sports Events distributed by Mrs Ryder July 18 1914:
The prizes were afterwards distributed by Mrs Ryder following which Mr George Bedford said it was a great pleasure to propose a hearty vote of thanks to Mrs Ryder for being present to distribute the prizes to the winners. It needed no words of his, he was sure, to tell Mrs Ryder how grateful they were to have her whenever she came to the parish. They all had proof of the great interest she took in sport and in the welfare of the poor and of all who lived in the parish. They only wished they could see more of her. She gave as much time as she could to the benefit of the parish when she visited it for about three months each year, but they all wished she could live amongst them altogether. [Applause]
Hearty cheers having been given for Mrs Ryder, Mr Charles Foster Ryder said he desired to thank those present very sincerely for the cordial way in which they had received the remarks made by Mr Bedford. It had been a most successful show and he hoped it would quite equal the highest expectations. In his opinion, what they all wanted to cultivate in these days was neighbourliness. Newspapers told them of what was happening in all parts of the world but he thought they wanted to cultivate the sense that their first duty lay with their neighbours. He trusted that Mrs Ryder and himself would always endeavour to remember that. [Applause]
A similar article could have been written about the Ryders when they were in Yorkshire, for they were equally respected and liked there.
The Ryder household was clearly a place with plenty going on. For a start, there would have been comings and goings of young people of different ages. Sue had some full siblings (three of whom were brothers she particularly liked), and another group of half-siblings. Some of them would have spent much of the year away at school or university, and others would have already left home, but there must have been a fairly constant stream of visitors including Sue's piano teacher, businessmen, dinner guests (such as the artist Alfred Munnings), tramps (who were always given a decent meal, and sometimes even a bed, a gesture that Sue was known to make later on) and a large number of servants. In addition, Mrs Ryder invited the Girls' Friendly Society – and probably other societies – to hold their meetings in Great Thurlow Hall.
Charles Ryder employed numerous men and boys to work on his land and when he was 80 he was presented with a list of his employees. Totalling 205, it consisted mainly of farm workers (140) and general estate workers (43) and gamekeepers, blacksmiths and stable workers. In addition, the house must have had a large number of maids and man-servants, cooks and cleaners. Such figures help give a modern reader some idea of the size of the operation required to run a large estate.
Another member of the Ryder household was Mabel's mother, known as Simmie. She too was a positive influence on Sue who described her as strict, alert and tidy. (She was also an authority on Bradshaw's railway timetables). Yet another important person was Miss Bainbridge, known in the family as Bay. Though she was officially employed as head housemaid, that title does not reflect the close companionship which existed between her and Mrs Ryder for more than four decades.
Mrs Ryder's appetite for enjoying and helping people appears to have been many-faceted. In 1938 she planned and directed the Thurlow Fete whose proceeds were to be divided between the Chinese Red Cross and the Village Hall Fund. This is how the South West Suffolk Echo whetted the public's appetite:
Practically all Thurlow – by which is meant all Great and Little Thurlow – is frightfully busy at the moment preparing for the very ambitious venture which is to be presented on Saturday July 9th at Little Thurlow Park. What is referred to, of course, is the presentation of "The Pageant". All the women and girls of the two parishes of Thurlow are actively engaged in making costumes, and some idea of the extent of the work may be gauged when it is stated that in the pageant there will be something like 200 performers, all of whom will appear in period costumes.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Lady Sue Ryder of Warsaw"
Copyright © 2018 Tessa West.
Excerpted by permission of Shepheard-Walwyn (Publishers) Ltd.
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Table of Contents
List of Illustrations ix
1 Childhood 5
2 FANY and SOE 18
3 Audley End and Cichociemni 27
4 Voyage to North Africa, On to Italy, The End of the War 39
5 But Some There Be 48
6 Life in the Camps, A Visit to Suffolk 54
7 Relief Work 60
8 Boys and Driving 77
9 Start of the Foundation, Shops 86
10 St Christopher 95
11 Early Days at Cavendish 100
12 Early Days at Konstancin, Management Style 111
13 Leonard Cheshire 118
14 Publicity and Recognition 127
15 Joining Forces, India 133
16 Holidays, The Work Goes On 144
17 Raphael Thrives, Sue Ryder's Personality, A Consul's Impressions 151
18 Marriage, Back to Cavendish, Hickleton and Homes 161
19 Children, More Homes, Remembrance, Concerts 177
20 Tales from Two Volunteers, More Publicity 187
21 Sad Events 193
22 Autobiographies, Homes, Plaudits 202
23 Lochnagar, Museum, House of Lords 215
24 Family Week in Rome, Friendship with Poland 223
25 Cheshire's Illness and Death, Carrying On 229
26 Division, Sue Ryder's Death 235
27 Obituaries and Memorials, Continuations, The Will and End Word 243
Time Line 253