The highest-rated female polo player in the world, Claire Tomlinson, died peacefully at home on 12 January, aged 77, from a long illness with dementia.
Born in 1944, Mrs Tomlinson was the daughter of Ethel and Arthur Lucas, who founded Woolmers Park Polo Club in Hertfordshire following World War II.
In 1963 she went to Oxford University where she studied agricultural economics at Somerville College. She earned a squash blue and was shortlisted for the 1964 Olympic fencing team. That year she joined the Oxford University Polo Club (OUPC), and in a time where women had not been allowed to compete previously, Mrs Tomlinson became the first ever female to play in a varsity match. She went on to become the first female captain of the OUPC in 1966, and when the team beat Cambridge 7-0 Mrs Tomlinson earned a half-blue. On leaving university she had a zero handicap.
She met Simon Tomlinson, a polo player in the Army, and they formed a team called Los Locos, which translates as “the Mad Ones”. In 1968 the couple married. They went on to have three children, Emma, Luke and Mark, all of whom went on to play polo at the highest level, and Emma became an equine vet.
In 1972 Mrs Tomlinson became the first woman to win the County Cup, but at the time women were still barred from competing in high-goal tournaments and despite her achievements she was still denied entry to these games.
She went on to petition the Hurlingham Polo Association (HPA) to change the rules to allow women to play, and the rules changed in 1979 – the same year she won The Queen’s Cup. In 1986 Mrs Tomlinson became the first female polo player to reach a five-goal handicap, a record she still holds.
Mr and Mrs Tomlinson revived the Beaufort Polo Club in Gloucestershire in 1989 with the aim of providing top-class facilities and encouraging young players to learn the game. The family also started breeding polo ponies in the 1970s and became the biggest breeding operation of polo ponies, launching the Beaufort Embryo Transfer (now Tomlinson Equine), managed by Emma. Luke and Mark represented England on home-bred ponies out of Mrs Tomlinson’s best mares.
Coaching was a passion of Mrs Tomlinson’s. In 1993 she set up a coaching system for the HPA with Major Hugh Dawnay and David Morley. She went on to coach the England team and the HPA junior development squad and was admired for her ability to work with a range of players, from professionals to novices. She was one of six official HPA team coaches.
Mrs Tomlinson has been described as an “innovative and inspiring coach”, a “trailblazer for women around the world” and a “polo legend”.
Mark Tomlinson said his mother’s qualities were “endless”.
“The respect Mum commanded across so many walks of life has to have been one of her most remarkable qualities. Whether you saw her playing polo or schooling a horse in her prime, was helped or entertained by her, it’s clear she touched so many lives,” he said.
“She was a fierce advocate for equal opportunity without being a feminist. She firmly believed that if you worked hard enough at what you put your mind to you could make significant progress. One of the most treasured gifts Mum has left her children and grandchildren is that in life you have to be determined, while at the same time keeping your head and showing humility throughout.
“Mrs T, Claire Lucas, Claire Tomlinson, Clarita, Vieja, Loca, Mum… whatever name you knew her by, she was simply unforgettable.”
Mrs Tomlinson is survived by Simon, their three children and eight grandchildren.