Lady Anne Tree

Founder of Fine Cell Work

The Oxford Dictionary of National Biography's entry on Lady Anne Tree by Dr. Eve Colpus


Tree [née Cavendish], Lady Anne Evelyn Beatrice (1927-2010), philanthropist and prison visitor, was born on 6 November 1927 at 2 Upper Belgrave Street, London, the third daughter of Edward William Spencer Cavendish, marquess of Hartington and later tenth duke of Devonshire (1895-1950), and his wife, Lady Mary Alice, née Gascoyne-Cecil (1895-1988), younger daughter of the fourth marquess of Salisbury and later mistress of the robes of Queen Elizabeth II.

Educated by governesses, she spent her childhood between Churchdale Hall, Derbyshire, and Compton Place, Eastbourne, socializing with the Mitford sisters (Deborah Mitford married her brother Andrew Cavendish, later eleventh duke of Devonshire) among many others. On 3 November 1949 she married the artist Michael Lambert Tree (1921-1999), son of the politician (Arthur) Ronald Lambert Field Tree and his wife, Nancy, née Perkins, a partner in the interior furnishing company Colefax and Fowler. Through her husband Anne Tree found an entrée into the worlds of an Anglo-American cultural élite. They lived first at Mereworth Castle, a Palladian mansion in Kent, then at Shute House, near Shaftesbury, Dorset, where in 1969 they commissioned Geoffrey Jellicoe to design a celebrated winter garden. In the 1960s they adopted two daughters, Isabella and Esther.

In later life Anne Tree claimed that she knew she wanted to be a prison visitor from the age of fourteen. She took up the occupation in 1949, then a young married woman of twenty-two, and worked in this capacity until 1974. In the early years she experienced difficulties in gaining access to women’s prisons. An eventual entry into Holloway prison came through Deborah Mitford’s sister, Diana Mosley, who had been interned there during the Second World War. In the 1950s Tree held the voluntary post of deputy entertainments officer at Wandsworth prison. She also volunteered as an inspector of prisons and was a member of the Prison Visitor’s Association and the National Association for the Care and Resettlement of Offenders. As a prison visitor, she visited many inmates serving life sentences, including in the mid-1960s Myra Hindley, a case that illustrated her belief in the importance of remorse as well as the humanity of the inmates: she did not get on with Hindley because Hindley was not repentant. It was while visiting women prisoners in the 1950s and 1960s that she came to recognize the benefit to inmates of learning a creative skill to avoid boredom (which she believed was ‘corrosive’) and to help develop vital facets of self-esteem. A keen sewer herself, she hit on the idea of teaching women prisoners needlework, though she also traced an earlier germination of the idea to her work at a Second World War army canteen in Eastbourne, where she observed the therapeutic power of needlework for soldiers.

Trees’ aim was that prisoners should learn needlework of the highest level and be paid for the high-quality work they produced. Fine Cell Work, which became a registered charity in 1997 with Tree as its first chair, achieved this aim (her original name for the charity, Inside Out, had been taken by the Inside Out Trust in 1994). She had lobbied tirelessly since the 1970s for reform to laws that prevented prisoners earning income; she famously joked she was not a political campaigner but a ‘Victorian do-gooder’. Working through political connections, however, was a part of her social inheritance, even if personal connections did not necessarily translate into success. In the early 1990s Robert Gascoyne-Cecil, Lord Cranborne (later seventh marquess of Alisbury), her cousin and then a defence minister, dismissed her hand-delivered letter setting out her case for the charity and legal reform. Friendships rather than family relations, in fact, became more important. The social reformer Robert Oakeshott (founder of Job Ownership Ltd) was eventually successful in pressurizing for legal reform.


Trees’ friendships were also vital to other avenues of Fine Cell Work in its early years: friends from the Royal School of Needlework, such as Liz Elvin, became the first Fine Cell Work volunteers teaching needlework in prisons, while Fine Cell work designs were sold to associates via premium outlets including Colefax and Fowler. The Tree’s friendships among a transatlantic cultural élite contributed to the enterprise’s momentum even before it achieved charity status enabling prisoners to receive income: William Paley, head of the television station CBS, for example, paid £10,000 for a carpet sewn by women prisoners in Holloway prison in the mid-to late 1960s. Family and friendships (including those of Tree’s daughters) among celebrities would become of vital importance to Fine Cell Work’s history again in 2000, when a gala auction of cushions designed by leading names in the worlds of fashion, music, acting and writing propelled the charity into the public eye.

Art and culture were at the centre of Anne Tree’s world vision. Well-travelled, she took every opportunity to explore and reflect upon new cultures. She derived inspiration for early Fine Cell Work designs from the French cartoonist J. J. Grandville’s Les fleurs animées and William De Morgan’s arts and crafts tiles. Partly through her husband’s connection with Christies, she was a friend of the painters Lucian Freud (for whom she sat) and Graham Sutherland, the choreographer John Cranko, the poet Sir John Betjeman, and the photographer Cecil Beaton. ‘Beauty’ was a vital creative force for her and central to her philosophy of social work. She believed sewing, especially, had a spiritual quality similar to meditation and that this helped build self-respect.

After her husband’s death Anne Tree moved to a smaller house, Lower Lane House in Compton Abbas, Dorset. She died there of lung cancer on 9 August 2010, and was survived by her two daughters. She had been born into a generation and class with the social confidence to pursue challenging political goals. Her entrepreneurship- culturally élite and politically Conservative in mould- left a legacy of an important social enterprise in the late twentieth- and twenty-first-century prison system.

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Photographs with permission from Isabella Tree.