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Lady Sue Ryder of Warsaw: Single-minded philanthropist  by Tessa West

04 May 2018

This biography is a tantalising portrait, says John Arnold

SUE RYDER was one of the best-known women of the second half of the 20th century, rivalled only by Mother Teresa for Catholic compassion and Diana, Princess of Wales, for personal charisma. She was also one of the least well-known, such was her skill in covering her tracks and hiding her true self.

Her achievement was prodigious: she inspired hundreds, and she cared for thousands; she founded 24 residential homes in several countries, and 500 shops to fund them, with hands-on involvement in all of them. Just under five feet tall, blonde, pretty, and with piercing blue eyes, she scarcely slept and hardly ate. She began every day with prayer and claimed, “through prayer we can make more progress.”

She left school at 16 and had no formal qualifications; and, though later heaped with honours and honorary doctorates, she preferred just to wear a sprig of rosemary “for remembrance”. She had no hobbies or means of relaxation, but poured her life into the relief of suffering.

She had been born into wealth and privilege with splendid parents, and her mother, Mabel, was to be her strength and stay for many years. Her break came in 1941 when she lied about her age (as one did) to join the fabled FANY (First Aid Nursing Yeomanry). She soon transferred to the SOE (Special Operations Executive) Polish Section in Audley End, North Africa, and Italy. From then on, her life and destiny were bound up with Poland and the Poles. This book even has a foreword in Polish. When elevated to the House of Lords, she took the title “of Warsaw”; even her conversion in 1955 seems to have been just as much to Polish as to Roman Catholicism.

She wrote two autobiographical works, of about 300 and 600 words respectively, but she says nothing about her parents, siblings, children, fiancé, and first husband (both killed in the war), nor about two suicides, and practically nothing about her marriage to the admirable Leonard Cheshire. After a shattering boardroom coup in 1998, which separated her from the Trust and deprived her of her home, she immediately founded another trust; but she tried to destroy the records, and in her will specified that “any book about me should be . . . taken only from material . . . compiled by me.”

The result is that, when it comes to her inner life, her thoughts and emotions, the author has to adopt a speculative approach with “must have” occurring many times on most pages, sometimes tipping over into banality, “She must have longed to share her experiences with her mother. Or perhaps she didn’t.” For a more definite and definitive portrait of this remarkable woman, we may have to wait for the release of the archives in Poland.

The Very Revd Dr John Arnold is a former Dean of Durham.

Lady Sue Ryder of Warsaw: Single-minded philanthropist
Tessa West
Shepheard-Walwyn £19.95
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