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

Susan, Baroness Masham of Ilton (née Cunliffe-Lister) became disabled in a riding accident in 1958, and went on to compete in several Paralympic Games winning medals in 1960, 1964 and 1968.

Her family ancestor, Samuel Lister, funded the construction of Cartwright Hall which opened in 1904.

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!

Interview with Lady Susan Masham

August 2012, Interviewer Jon Newman

Could you start by talking about the accident that resulted in your spinal injury and the treatment that you had for that

Well it was my fiancés 21st birthday and we celebrated it at a nightclub in London and, because I was riding in a point-to-point the next day in Wiltshire, I left at midnight because I wanted to be fit for the race and my fiancé came with me. I was riding in a point-to-point which is a race over about 24 jumps and it was at a place called Cricklade which is quite near Swindon and the horse I was riding, I’d ridden the week before and we’d been third, and I was full of hopes that we might win, and we were going well when suddenly over one of the jumps they put an extra jump in and it had had a warble fly and I’ve always thought at that moment the warble fly may have pressed on its back (and warbles get into the spine of cattle and horses and they’re an absolute curse). Anyway, the horse put this extra jump in and the next thing that happened was it fell and I went down with it and it rolled over on top of me, and one of the horses coming behind kicked me in the stomach. I was then picked up by St. John ambulance - and they would have had to pick me up fairly quickly to get me off the course before the horses came around again - and I was taken off to Swindon Accident Hospital. I did have an enormous haemorrhage and I vomited blood and it poured out from down below and I lost pints and pints of blood. I was rhesus negative and they ran out of blood locally and had to go to Oxford to get more, that saved my life. Also they knew what to do because three weeks before a young Indian girl had been sleep-walking and walked out of a window and fallen and broken her back. So many general hospitals don’t really understand and know about spinal injury but because of this girl and the complications she’d had they were able to save my life. Because the haemorrhage was really one of the important things, I’ve seen a lot of blood but I’ve never seen as much as I lost. That was really quite interesting because later on in the years afterwards my blood group changed from negative to positive which is very unusual, but I’m told it was because I had so many blood transfusions and the antibodies had changed.

Well, 24 hours later I was transferred to Stoke Mandeville hospital and that is a very important part, I think, of the treatment of spinal injury. Many spinal injuries have other complications and those have got to be stabilised and then it is terribly important to go to a spinal unit where people understand and there is the right equipment. I mean how many general hospitals just don’t have the right equipment and the staff who know what to do and how to move you, how to stop pressure sores, how to treat the paralysed bowels and bladders? Anyway, I arrived and my brother by that time had come down to be with me also my fiancé and I remember on the journey from Swindon to Stoke Mandeville he stuffed a bit of chocolate into my mouth and that was one of the most dangerous things I could remember. I had just about enough strength to spit it out but it is an important factor when you’re dealing with someone who is crucially ill you don’t give them anything to eat such as chocolate and he was only being kind because it’s very emotional when someone has an acute spinal injury for the nearest and dearest, they get very emotionally upset.

What were your first impressions of Stoke Mandeville?

Well when I arrived at Stoke Mandeville the first doctor I saw was Dr Jack Walsh, and by that time 24 hours after my injury I was in agony because I not only had a fractured my spine in three places but I’d actually fractured a whole lot of ribs as well. Ribs are agonising, and it was extremely painful and I do appreciate pain, I do appreciate people now who have a lot of pain. But the best thing that happened to me was Jack Walsh saying to me

don’t worry too much, the pain will start going in about three weeks’ time

and that was the sort of light at the end of the tunnel, because at the beginning you were in great pain. Then my next memory (and it was a long time ago, this was 1958) was Ludwig Guttmann, the doctor in charge, the one who had founded the spinal injury unit, he came in to see me. And I remember him saying "Well at least you’ve got feeling in your breasts”. That was the first memory I have of him, and also he said “You must drink, you must drink”. When you’re in spinal shock you lose your taste and your smell, and because you have no taste you really don’t have the urge to eat or drink anything. But he said “it’s very important to drink” and I remember him as a very positive person, forthright.

We were encouraged to do things as soon as possible. The first few weeks with so many fractures were pretty painful. Guttmann did not agree with pain killers and in a way I think it’s a good thing because I think people can get addicted to them. I now work in the health service and work with all sorts of addiction and one of the problems is prescribed drugs and I remember that very well.

We got turned every three hours. If there was an extremely thin person they got turned every two hours and in those days we were placed on large Sorbo-packs with a space in-between so the air could circulate and every three hours we were picked up by orderlies, many of them were from foreign countries they didn’t speak much English, and they used to pick one up and I remember one particularly big strong one from one of the East European countries and he used to pick one up and squeeze one and my ribs! I used to yelp and they used to call me ‘Wait’ because I used to brace myself and say “Wait” because I knew he was going to squeeze me. But the positioning of the pillows was terrible important. If you are uncomfortable and you can’t move then pillows are very important. But they would turn you from side to back to side and back again, and the treatment of skin was very important to stop pressure sores and that’s why one’s got to keep as fit as possible to stop pressure sores. Anyway, we were encouraged to do things. We had physiotherapy from the start and I had a charming physiotherapist who was Australian and perhaps she became one of the most important people in my life. Not only was it the doctors at Stoke Mandeville, it was the physiotherapists and the nursing staff and the orderlies, you know they worked very much as a team. And the occupational therapists. Well on one occasion we were all supposed to make baskets and on the ward round, the ward round always consisted of Guttmann and the ward doctor who was called Dr Michaelis, Dr Walsh and the junior doctor who came at the same time as me, Dr Hans Frankle, he’s now a professor and is actually retired. Then there were some junior doctors and there were post-graduate nurses, there was a sister, there were various nurses and there were the therapists. Anyway, my basket was handed to Dr Guttmann and it fell to pieces in his hand and everybody laughed. He was not amused, and he accused me of not concentrating on basket making.

But then once we got up and after being in bed for really quite a long time, several months, probably about 9 weeks, I got up slowly. First time I got into a wheelchair I passed clean out because of the circulation. Slowly one became acclimatised to the wheelchair.

For a paraplegic with the full use of arms and hands, not being able to feel one’s behind, you felt rather as if you felt you were sitting on a cloud. For tetraplegics it’s even more so, so balancing became a very important part of physiotherapy, and they taught you to balance again.

They did passive movements with the legs and my physiotherapist, one confided a lot in her, I said the one thing I wanted to do was ride a horse again. She didn’t say you can’t, and later with a saddler from Newmarket we invented a saddle with a built up back and later my brother-in-law gave me a Highland pony for a wedding present, who was good and substantial and could carry the saddle. Then my young offender boys (in those days they were called Borstal boys) they dug a pit and the pony walked down into the pit and that was on the same level as my wheelchair and I got on there. But you know it was a way of having contact with a horse again. But you know all these thoughts came up and the physiotherapist was the most important person because she had time to listen, and being Australian she was used to lots of sporty things. It was not long before Guttmann, his inspiration of sport for rehabilitation and me being quite a keen sporty person because I used to play in matches at school and various things, you know I was introduced to sport. It became very much part of our rehabilitation as patients. We are now years later concerned with the modern spinal units in that they are not using sport as part of the rehabilitation as they should in many cases.

Just to deviate a bit, I founded the Spinal Injuries Association a few years after I left hospital because there was not an organisation who spoke for people with spinal injuries, so about 38 years ago now we founded the Spinal Injuries Association with some colleagues because all sorts of people were having problems.

But I had good support from lots of friends, and friends are very important people. Some of my horsy people used to come and help feed me because when I was lying in bed it was extremely difficult to eat, especially with the rib situation and if you’re lying in one position. My brother used to come down and read to me and I used to promptly go to sleep. That often happens to people and it was a calming and good thing, I know lots of people who have similar situations and then they feel guilty because their relatives have come to visit them. Of course my fiancé was there and he used to visit with my dachshund who he looked after, I had a dachshund called Hans who was named after one of my skiing instructors, and on one occasion I gave Hans my supper which was a fried spam fritter and he was promptly sick in the middle of the ward. Stoke Mandeville has never had good food, they still don’t have good food. Hospital food is one of my big issues, that it helps people to get better quicker, and I’m delighted now that there’s going to be, we hope, a Bill in Parliament on better hospital food. But for long term patients it’s very important. Some patients I noticed who’d come from other hospitals were like Belsen people, they were so thin and they were so malnourished so food is very important, as it still is. Nowadays many people in hospital live on supplements and Stoke Mandeville has just never put good emphasis on food. There was a French doctor who was part of the staff, Dr Paul Dolfus and he had had polio so he zoomed around in a wheelchair and became a great friend. In fact my husband was godfather to one of his children who is now an eye specialist. It was good to see people in wheelchairs doing useful things and our philosophy at the Spinal Injuries Association is life doesn’t stop when you’re paralysed.

How soon were you made aware of what the likely outcome of your injury would be for you? How soon did you understand that?

Well Guttmann and the other doctors used to come around and prick pins into one to see how much movement one had and physiotherapists used to try and get ones feet moving and things and then one had procedures where they’d take fluid off your spine and then you measure it. We had a wonderful nun working in our ward and one of her fellow sisters had broken her back in Dublin and had come over and she was in the next door ward, and Sister Mary-Pierre became a great friend of mine but she was a marvellous nurse and one soon realised how important good nursing was. There used to be post-graduate nurses who came down to train from the London hospitals on spinal injury, and that was an important factor. That doesn’t happen quite like it used to happen and it’s very important because there are certain problems, such as your bladder and your bowels, and bowels never work very well in hospital. It wasn’t until I left hospital that I got mine working properly. One has to do a manual evacuation. All that gets taught to you but actually when I left hospital because I was eating a different sort of food I didn’t have to take lots of laxative, which aren’t very good for your really, it’s better if you can make the bowel work naturally. All that one had to take in and I remember one particular night sister who used to say “don’t forget to feel your buttocks every night, if there’s a bump and it’s hot you know there’s a problem – pressure sore arriving”, and it’s something I’ve always remembered because you can feel yourself even if you can’t feel internally, and one’s got to learn to look after oneself because there’s no doubt about it; living in a wheelchair is quite hazardous and of course it’s a challenge. I became great friends with some fellow patients and I’m still very friendly with one and she was an inspiring girl. She’d come off a motorbike and broke her back, same level as mine, but also one of her arms was paralysed so she only had one arm, so she got a special wheelchair with a special wheel to balance it out so she could push her wheelchair. I saw all sorts of different people, I had a huge Swiss friend who had fractured his spine driving his car, I think he was a racing driver, anyway he was very interested in hand controls and cars and recommended Fenian-Johnson hand controls which I have had to this day on my cars because there are so many different types of hand controls the only problem is that my Fenian-Johnson type now are more expensive than any other type of hand controls. But I’ve driven so long I don’t want to change, that’s very important. You know Stoke Mandeville did become part of one’s life.

Then one started doing archery, that was one of the first sports, very good for one’s balance and also good for concentration and I met a fellow jockey who had really tremendously depression and felt that the end of life had come, and then he started doing archery and he got the idea that if he could do archery he could do accountancy and he trained as an accountant and then married one of the nurses and became an efficient accountant. So sport does bring people onto other things and I was introduced to table tennis which was my number one sport and I took part in the international games later on. 

Lady Susan Masham talks about competing in the 1960 Rome Games

She 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.

Lady Susan Masham talks about the 1964 Tokyo Games

Lady Susan Masham 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.

Where was your husband required to be in Tokyo?

Oh we won, we won it out and he was allowed to stay in the pavilion. He and I shared a room and he actually became extremely useful because the other girls in the pavilion always liked a cup of tea in the morning and he used to go and bring them a cup of tea before they got up. I’m not a tea drinker so I wasn’t one of them, but he used to look after the others and he was extremely good. To him spinal cord people were just people, but not to everybody and not particularly to the Japanese. We really felt that we had been useful there teaching them, and now they come over with a big team, so it’s good. But to some of the countries where we went it was a new thing. We also went with the equivalent of the Paralympics to Israel, to Tel Aviv, and because they were in Atlanta in America and America of all countries couldn’t accommodate the wheelchairs, so Israel stepped in and we had a very interesting time there. I was extremely fortunate because I had a friend, another nun, who was very much working and well known to the United Nations and they used to lend me a car with a chauffeur and the driver would drive into the desert and we had a wonderful time. I just loved the desert. One day with one or two of the other paraplegics we went down to Jordan and there was shooting all around us because there were problems there! I’ve never known the driver to turn the minibus more quickly and we shot off up the road. In our travels we did have some experiences.

I also went to the Commonwealth Games and on our way to Australia, we went to Perth Australia, we stayed in Sri Lanka en route and we were unloading all these wheelchairs from the hold, getting the right person the right wheelchair not an easy job, and the monsoon rain came so we experienced the monsoon getting into out wheelchairs. We had all sorts of adventures. I think it was in Japan before we left, I’m always a bit wary of flying and I noticed there was some oil on the ground which I wasn’t too happy about because I thought “oil leak” and a few hours into our flight we had to turn back because there was an oil leak, so I had let it be known that there was an oil leak. But it was a huge feat, even in the early days, getting people in and out of the aeroplane. We had wonderful helpers, the volunteers really are important people. In the early pioneering days some of the coaches would come with us and some of them, two of them particularly I remember, were trained physical gymnasts who had been in the RAF. The RAF seemed to do a lot of this sort of physical sport and they were really dedicated people. Nowadays everything has changed. We used to raise a lot of money through various means, we used to run a horse show up here in Yorkshire for supporting the paraplegic games. Now they are so huge and they’ve got sponsorship, and I think without sponsorship they wouldn’t be what they are today, because everything’s got big, important, special wheelchairs. And some of the basketball players go through many a wheelchair, you know they’re quite strong games they fall out of their wheelchairs, they crash into them. And the rugby which is new to me I think is even more than the basketball. Some of the developing countries don’t have sponsorship and they don’t have the sort of wheelchairs that our competitors have, so I think it’s good because one’s teaching other countries what can be done.

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 Bugg 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.

You know there’s always people much worse than yourself when you’re in a spinal unit. Speaking of Norway, there was a Norwegian at the games who had no use of his arms and he played table tennis in the high cervical category. They would place the ball on his bat which he held in his mouth and he played the most amazing game. Huge shots with spin all sorts of things; so even the very disabled could take part in sport. He impressed me hugely. There were all sorts of different characters but it’s the international spirit which I found really interesting and one made some good friends. Different countries are good at different sports, and the Americans and Israelis always used to be in the finals of the basketball. Actually in recent years the Israelis seemed to have lost that huge competitive side of it. The Italians and the French were always good at fencing. My biggest competition in table tennis was an Austrian woman of the same lesion as me. Sadly she’s now died from cancer. People with spinal injuries can get all sorts of problems that other people get, and that’s why you want to look at the whole person when you’re treating them. This is one of the dangers; various things like cancer can be forgotten. One had to compete in the national games to take part in the international games, one had to qualify.

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