Baroness Masham, the longest serving female member of the House of Lords and a former Paralympic table tennis champion, has passed away at the age of 87.
Born Susan Sinclair in 1935, she became Lady Masham in 1959 following her marriage to David Cunliffe-Lister, Lord Masham. She suffered a T5 spinal cord injury in 1958 in a riding accident and during her time as a patient at Stoke Mandeville she took up archery before being introduced to table tennis which she described as her “number one sport”.
In 1960 she took part in the archery demonstration at the Finmere Show, organised to raise money for the air fares for around 50 wheelchair athletes to participate at the inaugural Paralympic Games in Rome. She went on to compete in Rome, winning a gold and silver in swimming and bronze in table tennis in the women’s doubles.
She competed in the Commonwealth Games in Perth in 1962, winning silver medals in table tennis and swimming. At the Tokyo Paralympics in 1964 she again competed in both sports, winning gold in the women’s doubles with Gwen Buck and silver in the women’s singles as well as three silver medals in the pool. She added further medals in the Tel Aviv Paralympic Games in 1968 – silver in table tennis in the women’s doubles and bronze in swimming, after which she retired from competitive sport.
In 1970 she was announced as a life peer and became The Right Honourable Susan Lilian Primrose, Baroness Masham, for “social services and services to the handicapped.” She sat as a crossbencher taking particular interest in disability rights, health, and penal reform and spent a total of 53 years in the House of Lords, more than any other female peer in history. In February 1976, she was the subject of the popular BBC television show This Is Your Life, hosted by Eamonn Andrews.
Lady Masham was a passionate campaigner for the disabled and in 1974 she set up the Spinal Injuries Association to address a lack of specialist care or advice available to newly injured people and served as its president until her death. She was also Vice President of the Snowdon Trust, founded by the Earl of Snowdon, which provides grants and scholarships for students with disabilities, and a long-time supporter of Disability Action Yorkshire, becoming Patron in 2011.
In 2021 Lady Masham visited the British Para Table Tennis team at their training base at the English Institute of Sport in Sheffield as they prepared for the Paralympic Games in Tokyo.
“It was a lovely experience to meet her,” recalls three-time Paralympic medallist and former world champion Ross Wilson. “She was kind enough to come to the EIS to share her experiences of going to the Paralympic Games in Rome in 1960 and Tokyo in 1964 and give me her memories of what it was like.
“I got the chance to play against her a little bit on the table as well which was really fun. We had a good laugh and she was saying she could feel it coming back when she was playing so it was a really lovely experience and it is obviously a big loss for everyone.”
BPTT Chairman Karen Tonge OBE said: “It is with great sadness that we learned that Baroness Masham had passed away. She was an amazing woman – one of the first Paralympians, a Paralympic table tennis champion and a pioneer in Parasport.
“She also had an amazing influence in the House of Lords, campaigning tirelessly for the rights of disabled people and she leaves behind an incredible legacy. She was patron of the Yorkshire Table Tennis Association and a huge inspiration to our athletes when she visited the EIS a couple of months before the Tokyo 2020 Paralympics. All our thoughts are with her family at this sad time.”
Photo courtesy of Roger Harris/UK House of Lords