Lady Anne Tree – Obituary from the Telegraph

Lady Anne Tree was Debo Devonshire’s sister-in-law and a friend to Paddy.

Duke’s daughter who became a prison visitor and persuaded inmates to earn money from needlepoint.

First published in The Telegraph 13 Aug 2010

Lady Anne Tree, who died on August 9 aged 82, was a scion of one of England’s most famous families, with friends and connections that ranged from John Betjeman to Lucian Freud, Oswald Mosley to John F Kennedy; but she became best known for her tireless campaigning on behalf of the incarcerated, and set up a successful, if unlikely, scheme that paid prisoners for needlepoint.

One of her prison acquaintances was the infamous Moors murderer Myra Hindley. Having been a regular prison visitor for more than a decade, in the late 1960s Lady Anne was appointed to see Hindley on a weekly basis, and introduced her to Lord Longford, who subsequently embarked on a quixotic campaign on the killer’s behalf. Unlike Longford, however, Lady Anne never saw reason to grant Hindley parole “because she wasn’t fit to come out. I don’t believe she was safe. She didn’t feel sorry and if you don’t feel sorry, you can do something again.”

The two women discussed books, and “kept pretty well off” the subject of Hindley’s crimes; the visits ended after a decade, to the relief of both.

Lady Anne continued to be involved with Britain’s growing prison population, and she wrote incessantly to the Home Office in an attempt to change the rules so that prisoners could earn money by working while they were locked up.

Lady Anne Tree (2nd left), her sister Lady Elizabeth Cavendish, John Betjeman (right) and the choreographer John Cranko Photo: GETTY

The work she had in mind was embroidery. “I noticed over the years what a terrible waste of time there was,” she said. “And I got such a lot of fun out of embroidery.” A long campaign finally brought a change in prison rules and the setting up, in 1997, of Fine Cell Work, a scheme in which prisoners are taught to produce high-quality needlepoint cushion covers, quilts and rugs – some to designs submitted by famous names.

Prisoners are allowed to keep a share of the proceeds (37 per cent), creating a small lump sum to help set themselves up on release. The financial attraction of Fine Cell was obvious, but embroidery also became popular as a “bird-killer”, or method of getting through jail time.

Perhaps surprisingly, 80 per cent of those inmates involved were men, with Lady Anne giving short shrift to those who considered themselves too manly for the pursuit. Her standard retort, delivered in an accent which she confessed was “too posh” for the surroundings, was: “If you feel this is poofy, don’t bother us, because we don’t want to train you.”

Anne Evelyn Beatrice Cavendish was born on November 6 1927, second daughter of the 10th Duke of Devonshire and Lady Mary Gascoyne-Cecil, Mistress of the Robes to the Queen. She grew up at Chatsworth in Derbyshire, but was never sent to school because her father disapproved of the idea. During the war she moved with her governess to Eastbourne, where she worked in an Army canteen.

Lady Anne began visiting prisons aged 22, shortly after marrying Michael Tree, a son of the Anglo-American Conservative MP Ronald Tree, whose house, Ditchley Park, had been used as a retreat by Churchill during the war. Michael was well-known in London society, where he was nicknamed “Radio Belgravia” because he was always first with the news. He was attached to Christie’s and was a good amateur painter.

In May 1944 Anne’s elder brother, William Cavendish, the Marquess of Hartington, had married Kathleen Kennedy, younger sister of the future president John Kennedy. But four months later, in September, he was killed in action while serving as a major in the Coldstream Guards. Kathleen “Kick” Kennedy herself died young, in a flying accident, in 1948.

The Kennedy connection reinforced Lady Anne’s interest in helping prisoners. “Kick Kennedy had a close friend who went to prison,” she said. “When he came out, I thought him in very bad shape.” Diana Mosley (née Mitford), who had been locked up with her husband Oswald during the war, was another source of advice. The two women had a family connection because Lady Anne’s brother, Andrew, had married Deborah, youngest of the Mitford girls.

Lady Anne described Oswald Mosley as “very charismatic, but a beastly man”. She had much more admiration for the artist Lucian Freud. Lady Anne introduced the artist to her brother Andrew Cavendish in 1959, by which time he had become the 11th Duke. More than a dozen Freuds now grace the collection at Chatsworth. Among Freud’s sitters were both Lady Anne and her sister Elizabeth.

Lady Anne cited two reasons for focusing on needlepoint in her campaign. Her mother-in-law, Nancy Lancaster, owned the interior designers Colefax and Fowler, so “I had the possibility to sell good-quality needlework for good prices through shops.” She was also convinced that sewing was therapeutic: “It is meditative, a way of thinking, of taking stock.”

Lady Anne did other prison work, at one point serving as deputy entertainments officer at Wandsworth jail. Under her stewardship prisoners were treated to a display of samurai swords brought in by a former general, and to a talk from John Betjeman. “He came waddling on and was funny, but too highbrow,” Lady Anne noted.

Within a decade Fine Cell work was generating £200,000 in sales from the prisoners’ creations (cushions cost £95; quilts up to £1,000), and today more than 60 volunteers train 400 prisoners. The work has been exhibited by the V&A, commissioned by English Heritage and sold to leading interior designers. Prison systems in other countries have expressed interest in starting similar schemes.

The Trees lived in fine houses, notably the Palladian house Mereworth Castle, in Kent, in the 1950s and 1960s, and later Shute House, near Shaftesbury, where in 1969 they commissioned Sir Geoffrey Jellicoe to design the superb water garden.

Lady Anne could be fabulously outspoken. When Lady Diana Cooper was entertaining Harold Macmillan to lunch at her London house in 1982, Lady Anne noticed her hostess reach down for something in her handbag on the floor. “Diana’s got Uncle Harold by the privates and he doesn’t like it!” she called out across the table.

Michael Tree died in 1999, and Lady Anne is survived by her two daughters.

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