A woman stood in an office surrounded by people, files and documents

Lady Sue Ryder in her office at Cavendish

I recently finished Lady Sue Ryder’s autobiography ‘Child of my Love’ a book for those of us who enjoy a long and detailed biographical read. While reading it I became aware of the contrasts and similarities between her life and the life and career of Florence Nightingale, whose 200th anniversary of her birth was in 2020.

Both had a history of training in care and had worked as a Nurse, both came from established middle class families and had an association of service with the military. Both had private educations. Nightingale trained in care at the Kaiserswerth Institute for Deaconesses in Germany where there was an emphasis on hygiene and the organisation and management of care. Ryder lied about her age in order to join the First Aid Nursing Yeomanry (FANY) where she was attached to Special Operations Executive (SOE) and looked after secret agents preparing to go on missions in occupied Europe. Both organisations put an emphasis on order, discipline, communication, compassion, and good organisational management. This made a lasting impression on both of their lives. They both gave the impression that they liked to know who was in charge, and often it was them.

In their lives they both founded and developed systems of care and went on to advise and liaise with governments and politicians. Both wrote and lectured on care and care systems.Sue Ryder’s main interest was with the civilian survivors of war and wartime atrocities in eastern Europe mainly in Poland. This developed into providing care for those who dropped through the net of national health systems and with an emphasis on cancer care later as war shattered countries recovered post war. This she did by encouraging the establishment of care homes both at home and abroad financed by ingenious and varied methods of fund raising both private and in some cases government funding.

Florence Nightingale first came to public attention when the government of the time asked her to organise military nursing during the Crimean War. After this she used her fame and public regard in addition to her social contacts to develop a system of civilian nursing, nurse training and hospital design.

Their private lives differed in that Nightingale never married even though she had admirers, and chronic illness meant she was a disabled person during her later years. This did not stop her involvement in the development of care as she was consulted by governments and politicians throughout her life and wrote many books, letters, essays and notes on nursing and the organisation of care.

Ryder remained fully involved even though married to Leonard Cheshire and having two children. She travelled widely through Eastern Europe establishing homes for ill and disabled people. She liaised with politicians and government agencies and worked to develop methods of fundraising based upon local volunteer involvement. At the end of her career there were difficulties in relationships between her and the organisers of the charity she founded, and she founded a new charity, which operates today as the Lady Ryder of Warsaw Memorial Trust.

Both were strong women who knew what they wanted and how they thought things should be done. Both were religious. Both were leaders, well organised and organising.

Perhaps in these two women we may detect a diversion between history and modern myth. Both came from backgrounds that had traditional attitudes towards the lives and careers of women. Both did not let these stand in their way and in their own way were positive revolutionaries and examples.


The historical speeches linked in this article were digitised as part of the Resonate project, thanks to the National Lottery Heritage Fund and Foyle Foundation.