Sue Ryder Thorpe Hall: The early days

Sue Ryder with the keys to Thorpe Hall
Sue Ryder with the keys to Thorpe Hall
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By the mid 1980s Thorpe Hall lay empty, a sad relic to its past – vandalised, looted and overgrown.

And then Lady Ryder – Sue Ryder – stepped in. She was already revered for her work with patients with life-limiting conditions and was no stranger to refurbishing old buildings to create hospices providing specialist care.

Prinecss Diana's visit to Thorpe Hall alongside Sue Ryder

Prinecss Diana's visit to Thorpe Hall alongside Sue Ryder

With the help of others who shared her vision, she began fundraising and campaigning to buy and renovate Thorpe Hall, creating a Sue Ryder hospice for Peterborough.

It was a lengthy process with lots of bureaucracy to cut through. But Lady Ryder, often described as ‘formidable’, did it.

In February 1991, Princess Diana paid a formal visit to see the renovation work in progress. Around that time, nurse Liz Pugsley was applying to become a founding member of the Thorpe Hall team.

“I was working at Edith Cavell Hospital and saw the advert calling for nurses for a new hospice,” said Liz. “I felt drawn to palliative care and so applied.”

Liz received the invitation to attend an interview in a second-hand envelope – one of Lady Ryder’s trademarks: “I came to realise she never used an envelope only once!”

Builders were still renovating the building when Liz and the other 24 staff walked through the door in April 1991.

“We had a desk and a chair in The Parlour – and that was about it,” said Liz. “But we were so excited about what we were here to create. We said yes to the offer of everything – even a three piece suite which turned out to be riddled with fleas – and had to develop processes and procedures by pooling our experience.”

There was one kitchen staff, a maintenance man - ‘we always knew where Brian was because he whistled all the time’ - two cleaners, doctors and the nursing team.

“Between us we did the laundry and the ironing, we fundraised and we had to establish Thorpe Hall’s reputation,” said Liz. “A number of local people had wanted to see Thorpe Hall turned into a museum or visitors centre. And because there had never been a hospice in the area we had to do a lot of education, for medical professionals as well as the public, about what exactly we could offer.

“We believed so passionately in what we were doing. We all wanted it to work so badly. So we went out and talked to people, we encouraged those people to talk to others and, slowly, we changed people’s minds.”

Liz remembers one particular patient whose father had vigorously opposed the plan to turn Thorpe Hall into a hospice. Liz said: “After his son died, the father said he wished he hadn’t wasted his life opposing us – now he understood why we were here.”

A few months after opening the doors Liz and the team witnessed their first hospice wedding.

“A patient married his ex wife because he wanted his daughter to be able to say her parents were together at the end,” said Liz. “We’ve seen dozens of weddings since – and birthdays, anniversaries and family celebrations.”

When the wards were moved into Thorpe Hall’s new in-patient unit last July, Liz and another original nurse Sheila Marshall, now a volunteer, had the honour of moving the last patient out of the mansion house.

“It was very emotional but it’s about progress and giving patients what they need,” said Liz. ‘”It’s about what we do that other places can’t. That’s what being a Thorpe Hall nurse is about. It took us a while to understand that - we didn’t really know what being a Thorpe Hall nurse was in the beginning. Now it’s what I am proud to be.”