Claire Tomlinson, glass-ceiling-smashing polo player who taught Princes William and Harry – obituary

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Claire Tomlinson - David Hartley/Shutterstock
Claire Tomlinson - David Hartley/Shutterstock

Claire Tomlinson, who has died aged 77, was widely regarded as the greatest female polo player of all time; a mainstay of the sport for years, she was an influential former England team coach and matriarch of a family often described as Britain’s leading polo dynasty.

In 1989, with her husband Simon, she revived the old Beaufort Polo Club, which in the 1930s had been based at Down Farm, the estate they owned in the Cotswolds, where they were neighbours and good friends of Prince Charles at Highgrove.

Claire Tomlinson with the Prince of Wales and Prince William at Beaufort Polo Club in 2002 - David Hartley/Shutterstock
Claire Tomlinson with the Prince of Wales and Prince William at Beaufort Polo Club in 2002 - David Hartley/Shutterstock

Claire Tomlinson attracted wider press attention when she agreed to coach Princes William and Harry to play the game. Her sons, Luke and Mark, who both played polo for England, Luke as captain for 10 years, became good friends of the princes and Prince Harry stayed on the Tomlinsons’ ranch in Argentina during his gap year.

But Claire Tomlinson was unmoved by titles and she was particularly admired in the polo world for her determination to brush aside the game’s elitist image and open up opportunities to more young people. “I find that once people get a taste of the game they find the excitement and challenge difficult to resist, “ she told an interviewer.

Claire Tomlinson at a Riding for the Disabled charity polo match at Beaufort Polo Club in 2005 - David Hartley/Shutterstock
Claire Tomlinson at a Riding for the Disabled charity polo match at Beaufort Polo Club in 2005 - David Hartley/Shutterstock

She led the way in creating a new three-a-side playing league, County Polo, designed to encourage novice players and those on modest budgets to give the game a go: “In three-a-side games everyone can get more involved,” she explained, “tactics become easier to read and newcomers to the game get a real chance to develop their skills... We need new blood coming to the game.”

In 2004 she put in an appearance on Channel 4’s Faking It, on which, in 28 days, she turned Malcolm Woodcock, a Manchester bicycle courier covered in tattoos and piercings, into a good enough player to fool three judges into thinking he was no novice, though he had never ridden a horse before. “I would like to think that having watched the programme people will come away thinking that this isn’t just a game for toffs,” Claire Tomlinson concluded.

Not surprisingly she had little patience with the polo groupies (known as “stick chicks”) who had contributed to polo’s off-putting, elitist image. “Polo is a game to be played and enjoyed,” she declared, “not to be seen at.”

She was born Claire Janet Lucas on February 14 1944. Her father, Arthur Lucas, a chartered surveyor and businessman, had a passion for equine pursuits of all sorts, but particularly polo, and in 1949 he bought Woolmers Park, a 250-acre estate in Hertfordshire, where he founded Woolmers Park Polo Club, and was instrumental in the revival of polo in England after the Second World War. In June 1955 the Woolmers Park team enjoyed a major success in the second-ever trophy at Guards – the Smiths Lawn Cup.

Arthur and his wife, Ethel (née Daer), both played (Ethel had also played county tennis) and they passed the love of the game to their three children: their son John, and daughters Pat and Claire.

Claire was educated at Wycombe Abbey and Millfield, from where she went on to Somerville College, Oxford to study agricultural economics.

Claire Lucas in 1964 - Phillip Jackson/ANL/Shutterstock
Claire Lucas in 1964 - Phillip Jackson/ANL/Shutterstock

While there, she managed to scoop squash and fencing blues and get herself short-listed for the Olympic fencing team. At the time, women were not allowed to play polo in the Varsity Match, but since she was the best player at the university she contrived to get the rule changed, though as the first female player in the 1964 event she was entered as “Mr Lucas”. But it was as Claire Lucas that she earned a half-blue captaining the Oxford Polo team of 1966 that beat Cambridge 7-0.

Claire Lucas in 1966 - Beverley Goodway/ANL/Shutterstock
Claire Lucas in 1966 - Beverley Goodway/ANL/Shutterstock

She met her husband Simon, a polo player from his days in the Army, at Oxford. They married in 1968 and formed a polo team called Los Locos – “The Mad Ones” – which became a successful low-goal side in the 1970s playing at Earl Bathurst’s Cirencester Park estate. In 1972 Claire became the first woman to win the County Cup.

But women were still barred from high-goal (ie top-class) polo and despite her handicap being higher than many male players, she was repeatedly denied entry to the high-goal tournaments by the sport’s governing body, the Hurlingham Polo Association (HPA).

Claire Tomlinson being presented with the Queen's Cup in 1979
Claire Tomlinson being presented with the Queen's Cup in 1979

In 1979, however, armed with a petition signed by the best Argentine and British players, she persuaded the HPA to change the rules and that year her team, Los Locos, won the Queen’s Cup, one of polo’s four high-goal “majors”.

In 1986 she became the first woman in the world to rise to five goals and she continued to hold the women’s high-goal handicap record until her death.

After she and her husband revived the old Beaufort Polo Club, of which Prince Charles is patron, Claire Tomlinson captained the English Team which triumphed in the first worldwide Ladies’ International Polo Tournament in 1991, and with her husband and daughter Emma, an equine vet, qualified polo coach and a skilled player, established one of the biggest polo pony breeding and training enterprises in Britain.

But she poured much of her energy into her work as a polo evangelist and coach. In 1993, with Major Hugh Dawnay and David Morley, she developed a world-class coaching system for the HPA. She became an HPA senior coach at both Pony Club and International level, coaching the England team for the World Cup in 2001 and 2004, and for the test series against Argentina in 2002.

Claire Tomlinson receiving the Cowdray Park Challenge Cup Trophy from the Prince of Wales at the Princes Trust charity polo match at Cowdray Park, West Sussex, in 2003 - David Hartley/Shutterstock
Claire Tomlinson receiving the Cowdray Park Challenge Cup Trophy from the Prince of Wales at the Princes Trust charity polo match at Cowdray Park, West Sussex, in 2003 - David Hartley/Shutterstock

There were setbacks. In 1996 a blaze, possibly caused by an electrical fault, tore through the Tomlinsons’ Gloucestershire home, destroying heirlooms worth tens of thousands of pounds. After her marriage was dissolved, she passed on the management of Beaufort Polo Club to her sons.

But in 2017 she was included in Horse & Hound magazine’s “Greatest 50 Horsemen of All Time”.

Her children survive her.

Claire Tomlinson, born February 14 1944, died January 12 2022

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