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Susan, Baroness Masham of Ilton (née Cunliffe-Lister) became disabled in a riding accident in 1958, and went on to compete and win medals at three Paralympic Games.

 Susan Cunliffe-Lister, Tokyo 1964    Head and shoulders black and white photo of Lady Susan Masham

Images ©Baroness Masham of Ilton and ©Alamy

Early life

Susan Lilian Primrose Sinclair, the daughter of Major Sir Ronald Sinclair the 8th Baronet Sinclair of Dunbeath, was born in Scotland on the 14th April 1935.  In 1958 she suffered a T5 spinal cord injury when the horse she was riding in a point-to-point race fell and rolled on top of her. Susan was educated at the Heathfield School, Ascot and London Polytechnic.

In 1959 she married David Cunliffe-Lister, Lord Masham, whose forefather Samuel Cunliffe Lister funded the construction of Cartwright Hall, Bradford, which opened in 1904, and became Lady Masham. In 1970 she took the title The Baroness Masham of Ilton when she was made a life peer. In 1972, when her husband inherited the title Earl of Swinton, she became The Countess of Swinton.

Although the title of Countess is a higher rank, she continues to be known as The Baroness Masham of Ilton. 

Life as a Paralympic athlete

During her time as a patient at Stoke Mandeville, Susan took up archery before being introduced to table tennis which she describes as her “number one sport”.  She also started riding again, using a saddle with a built up back which was invented between herself, her physiotherapist and a saddler from Newmarket.

In 1960 Susan took part in the archery demonstration at the Finmere show, organised by Sally Haynes to raise money for the air fares for around 50 wheelchair athletes to participate at the Rome 1960 Paralympic Games. You can read more about the Finmere show here.

Susan went on to compete at the Rome 1960, Tokyo 1964 and Tel Aviv 1968 Paralympic Games winning medals in swimming and table tennis.

Recollections

She competed in Rome in 1960 and won three medals for swimming, although not all of them survived:

I won one of the first medals for breaststroke swimming. One night we were invited by a friend to go and have dinner by the Trevi Fountain, where I lost my medal, my gold medal. I think I put it in the side of my wheelchair and I think it just dropped out. Anyway it hit the Italian press because they thought I’d thrown my medal into the Trevi Fountain!

Retirement as a Paralympic athlete

On the 30th December 1969, The London Gazette formally announced the life peerage of The Right Honourable Susan Lilian Primrose, Baroness Masham, for “social services and services to the handicapped”. 

Susan recalls,

I then got invited to be a member in the House or Lords in 1970 and Guttmann was very pleased about that. He said to me “Oh you must make them aware of other disabled people."

In a 2018 interview for The House Live, she said that invitation “came as a “total, total surprise” and that she accepted the challenge when Harold Wilson suggested she joined as a crossbencher, something that was a relief to someone who has “never been party political”.    

She made her maiden speech eight weeks after taking the oath, during the second reading of the Chronically Sick and Disabled Persons Bill, later recalling,   

There was a friend of mine who also had a spinal injury, Davina Darcy de Knayth who also took part in some of the sports and she was a hereditary peer. There was Martin Ingleby, another hereditary peer, who’d had polio in the army. There was another point-to-point injury like myself called Mike Crawshaw who was also in the House of Lords. They hadn’t made their maiden speech, so we all made our maiden speech on the 1970 Chronic, Sick and Disabled Persons Act which was an Act of Parliament by Alf Morris, who had been the first minister of disabled people. 

The first legislation in the world to recognise and give rights to people with disabilities, the Act is seen as a ground-breaking step towards equality.

Susan remains an active Peer and is the longest serving female Member of the Lords.

In 1974 she founded the Spinal Injuries Association (SIA) which she is still President of, looking back over its’ history she says,

When I went to live in Yorkshire after my accident, it became evident to me that much had to be improved for people living with spinal cord injury in the community………. I came across several paraplegics and tetraplegics who were being treated in general hospitals with disastrous results, and many other aspects of life, such as access, housing, education and employment also needed addressing.  I came to the conclusion that, as spinal cord injury is such a specialised condition, it needed an association to support people and so SIA was launched in 1974.

Her Parliamentary pages list the following registered interests - 

  • President, East Pennine Association of Churchill Fellows
  • President, Ripon's St Cecilia Orchestra
  • Vice President, British Horse Society
  • Vice President, Disabled Motoring UK
  • Vice President, North East Kidney Association
  • Vice President, Ponies UK
  • Vice President, Riding for the Disabled
  • Vice President, Snowdon Award Scheme
  • Vice President, Speakability
  • Vice President, Wheelpower 

Along with a small rural riding centre (Masham Riding & Trekking Centre), a sheep and highland pony stud (Dykes Hill Highland Pony Stud) and a farm. 

In the 2018 interview for Politics Home, she says she still enjoys the odd game of table tennis but,

I have to watch my shoulders – I’ve worn them out because I played so much.

Achievements and awards

Paralympic Games

Competing in three consecutive Paralympic Summer Games, Rome 1960, Tokyo 1964 and Tel Aviv 1968, Susan won one gold and four silver medals in swimming events and two gold, two silver and one bronze across doubles and singles table tennis.

Other sporting events

Susan represented England at the first Commonwealth Paraplegic Games in Perth, Australia in 1962 and the second Commonwealth Paraplegic Games in Kingston, Jamaica in 1966.

Other awards and recognition

On the 4th February 1976, Susan was surprised by Eamonn Andrews with the Big Red Book synonymous with the ITV show This is Your Life. Among the guests were Sir Ludwig Guttmann and fellow Paralympian Gwen Buck. Listen to her recall the experience here. 

In 2001 the University of East Anglia awarded her an honorary degree, with the citation -   

Baroness Masham of Ilton has made a career of voluntary social work, has worked in disablement and penal affairs, and has done much to support the professions of occupational therapy and physiotherapy. She receives an honorary Doctor of Civil Law.

In 2011, Susan was awarded an Honorary Fellowship by the Royal College of Nursing.

She is also a Dame of the Pontifical Order of Saint Gregory the Great (DSG).

Oral history interview with Baroness Masham

Interview by Dr Rosemary Hall, 18th September 2020

Paralympian, campaigner and Westminster’s longest-serving life peer – Baroness Masham has led the charge on disability, health and penal reform issues in the House of Lords for nearly 50 years. In 1958 she suffered a T5 spinal cord injury when the horse she was riding in a point-to-point race fell and rolled on top of her. In 1974 she also founded the Spinal Injuries Association (SIA). She competed in several Paralympic Games, winning medals for table tennis in 1960, 1964, and 1968.

In this interview she recalls memories from all of these experiences. You can listen to the full interview below or download the transcript.

An interview with Baroness Masham

August 2012, Interviewer Jon Newman

Baroness Masham talks about competing in the 1960 Rome Games

Susan won three gold medals in the 1960 Rome Games and speaks here about her memories, including losing one of her medals.


I went to Rome in 1960 and this was the first international sports abroad so we had a great time. Rome was interesting. There were about 400 competitors from about 24 countries and we arrived in the Rome to find that the Olympic village where we were housed was built on stilts, and how were they going to get 400 wheelchairs up and down? They had to bring the Italian army in. Anyway, there was a huge Olympic swimming pool, very exciting. I won three medals for swimming with Margaret Maughan I won one of the first which was for breaststroke swimming and one night we were invited by a friend to go and have dinner by the Trevi fountain. I lost my medal, my gold medal. What happened I think was I put it in the side of my wheelchair and I think it just dropped out. Anyway it hit the Italian press because they thought I’d thrown my medal into the Trevi fountain. Rome we felt was wonderful because we got very friendly with members of the different teams and it wasn’t too big you know, 400 competitors. Now the sports have become huge and there are thousands. But you know the pioneering stage was a wonderful stage.

Baroness Masham talks about the 1964 Tokyo Games

Susan recalls her experiences at the 1964 Tokyo games and the difficulties she experienced in getting Japanese authorities to believe that a disabled person could also be married.

Just going back to your competitive sporting days, were there significant moments there that stick in the mind?

There was one significant moment in Tokyo when I was playing double tennis with my partner Gwen Buck and I stretched for a ball and my chair tipped over sideways and I landed on the floor. I think we were playing the Italians at the time and it was the Italians who picked me up and put me back in my chair. We continued the game and we won gold and I thought that was a really sporting move, if they’d left me sitting there the others would have won! I remember also doing backstroke swimming and there was a bar across and suddenly I found myself on top of the bar on my back not being able to get off. Luckily a Norwegian coach saw me and jumped into the water and pulled me off. You’ve got to be careful, things happen very unexpectedly.

Download a pdf of the full transcript here

References

  • https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0767725/?ref_=nm_flmg_slf_2
  • https://members.parliament.uk/member/1850/registeredinterests
  • https://www.npg.org.uk/collections/search/person/mp69094/susan-lilian-primrose-cunliffe-lister-baroness-masham-of-ilton
  • https://enacademic.com/dic.nsf/enwiki/2200258
  • http://mashamridingcentre.com/
  • https://www.politicshome.com/thehouse/article/baroness-masham-theres-no-point-in-being-in-the-lords-if-youre-not-going-to-get-involved
  • https://www.geni.com/people/Major-Ronald-Norman-John-Charles-Udny-Sinclair-Sir/6000000017609445950
  • file:///C:/Users/House/Downloads/Fellowship-Roll-of-Honour.pdf
  • https://web.archive.org/web/20070418030958/
  • http://www.uea.ac.uk/menu/admin/com/broadview/files/maysupp01.pdf
  • https://www.spinal.co.uk/about-us/sia-founder-president/
  • http://www.margaretbeaufort.cam.ac.uk/supporters/
  • http://www.bigredbook.info/susan_masham.html
  • https://bradfordunconsideredtrifles.wordpress.com/2019/07/10/working-back-in-time-lister-park-and-cartwright-hall/
  • https://www.papalknights.org.uk/page3.htm
  • https://paralympicanorak.wordpress.com/2013/01/23/the-first-commonwealth-paraplegic-games-perth-australia-1962/
  • https://enacademic.com/dic.nsf/enwiki/2229786
  • https://www.thegazette.co.uk/London/issue/44999/supplement/1