THEY LIVED IN LEEDS
Sue (Margaret Susan) Ryder (1924-2000)
Baroness Ryder of Warsaw, Lady Cheshire - Humanitarian and Aid worker
You will know Sue Ryder’s name. Perhaps you’ve rummaged through the racks in one of the many Sue Ryder shops around the country, or visited someone in a Sue Ryder hospice. The name’s familiar not just here but world-wide. Yet the woman behind the name is not so well known nowadays, and her start in life here in Leeds is often forgotten. This small, slight woman turned her personal experience of the devastation of war into an international movement for the relief of the victims of conflict, persecution and disease. Gritty and determined, she was one of the inspirational women of the twentieth century.
She was born in Leeds in 1924, the youngest of the nine children of Charles Foster Ryder and his second wife, Mabel. Her father, formerly a director of the huge Tetley’s breweries, owned and farmed land in Yorkshire and Suffolk. Sue was brought up in the comfort of Scarcroft Grange, on the edge of Leeds, with its seven servants, beautiful gardens and country setting. She was particularly close to her mother, shared her devout faith, and joined her in her charitable work in the Leeds slums, where she saw the suffering caused by disease and poverty. When Scarcroft Grange had to be sold in the early thirties the family settled on their estate in Suffolk, at Thurlow. At 12 Sue was sent to Benenden School in Kent, whose ethos encouraged independence, courage and compassion. But this was a time of anxiety, as the depression bit hard, refugees told of persecution and violence, and the threat of another war loomed closer.
When war was declared in 1939 everything changed. She briefly trained as a nurse, then, fudging her age as 17, volunteered for the FANY (First Aid Nursing Yeomanry) in 1940. This group of women supported Churchill’s Special Operations Executive, the ‘secret army’ of agents working behind enemy lines. FANYs were trained to operate wirelesses, drive and maintain trucks, and provide operational support. In 1943 she was specially selected to serve overseas: Egypt, Italy, Poland, just behind the dangerous front line. And when the war ended in ’45 she witnessed the chaos and human and physical wreckage left behind. She was there when the concentration camps were liberated, a horrifying and unspeakable experience. She was just 21. In August ’45 she chose not to join the cheering crowds celebrating victory but worked alone in the fields at Thurlow.
She spent the next years on relief work across Europe, offering practical help to the homeless, the stateless, the imprisoned, the sick – sourcing food, medicine, clothing, shelter. When the official relief agencies withdrew she continued, funded only by family and friends. Her thoughts focussed on creating a charity as a ‘living memorial’ for the millions who had died, by providing places of safety and care. On her return home in 1952 she founded the Sue Ryder Foundation, and set up her first Home in her mother’s house in Cavendish, Suffolk. Some of those who found refuge there were from the concentration camps.
She continued to work across Europe, setting up Homes in Germany, Czechoslovakia, Yugoslavia and Poland, working with local people, sourcing sites and building materials, re-visiting regularly. She travelled thousands of miles every year in her truck or Land-Rover, mostly alone – mechanically competent, she believed all drivers should be the same! She had a particular affection for Poland, and when made a peer in 1979 she chose the title Baroness Ryder of Warsaw in remembrance of the city’s suffering and sacrifice. She is not forgotten: Warsaw now has its Sue Ryder Museum.
All this required a lot of money, year by year. She oversaw recruitment of an army of devoted volunteers, organised imaginative fund-raising events, and had the idea of charity shops – there are some 400 of them now and more overseas, alongside 13 hospices/care centres in this country. Ever hands-on, she aimed to visit them all personally every year.
In 1955 she met Leonard Cheshire, the distinguished airman who after the war had set up the Cheshire Homes for the disabled. They had both converted to Catholicism and shared a strong faith. They married in 1959 in India. They set up a joint Foundation but also maintained their personal charities world-wide, often necessitating long separations, though they tried to fit in family life with their two children. He was made a peer in 1991 but died a year later.
In 1998 she resigned from her main Foundation (now called simply ‘Sue Ryder’) over updating issues and set up a new Memorial Trust dedicated to the relief of suffering, her guiding vision. She died in 2000. Focussed, energetic, practical, a lover of music and poetry, she left an enduring legacy which, from her Leeds beginnings, reached out across the world.