Obituary: The Countess of Oxford and Asquith

Click to follow
The Independent Culture
ANN OXFORD led an adventurous and varied life until well past middle age. She was the daughter of a diplomat, and grew up in Japan, China and Bucharest, among other places; helping her father decode his diplomatic messages led eventually to code-breaking work at Bletchley Park during the Second World War. Later, in the WAAF, she was posted to Palestine, and her travelling continued as the wife of a colonial governor in Libya, Zanzibar, St Lucia and the Seychelles.

As well as her great physical beauty, she was remarkable for her independence and originality of mind, and for the high standards of behaviour and manners which she set herself, and expected of others, though this in no way reduced her sometimes irreverent sense of fun and amusement. Another characteristic was her spontaneous generosity: visiting a newly married nephew, she immediately handed his wife a dress which she had just bought for herself, as well as the handsome wedding present that she had brought with her.

She was born Anne Mary Celestine Palairet, in Paris in 1916, soon after her parents had been received into the Catholic Church together in Notre Dame. She inherited from them a vigorous faith which was to remain her guiding light, and helped her to bear the cruel disablement she suffered in her later years as a result of two serious road accidents. Her mother, born Mary Studd, was a considerable beauty who was painted by Augustus John. Her father, (later Sir) Michael Palairet, was a diplomat of natural distinction, related to the two famous Somerset cricketing brothers L.C.H. and R.C.N. Palairet; but Ann would become a little weary of inquiries about these old heroes. She also had an improbable pair of connections of her mother's, the practical joker Horace de Vere Cole, and Mrs Neville Chamberlain.

Anne spent part of her childhood at the home of her maternal grandmother in Ireland, and she retained a slight nostalgia for the Irish lifestyle of that time. But at the age of six she was taken with her parents to two postings in the Far East, where they survived the great earthquake at Tokyo in 1923 in which 300,000 people perished, and the Civil War in China soon afterwards. From 1929 to 1935 the family were in Bucharest when her father was Minister at the British Legation, and where she learned French at the Lycee and took the first part of her baccalaureat. Sixty years later, when her son-in- law was posted to Romania, she greatly enjoyed revisiting her old home in the capital.

When her parents were next posted to Stockholm, she finished her schooling in Paris before going on to St Anne's College, Oxford, where she met her future husband, Julian, the son of Raymond and Katharine Asquith, and grandson of the Prime Minister. His father had been killed in the First World War, and he had as a schoolboy succeeded him as second Earl of Oxford & Asquith in 1928.

When the war came, she was with her parents at the Legation in Athens. After the Germans invaded, they were evacuated, in company with the King, first to Crete, where they lived for a time in a cave, then to Egypt, and later to South Africa, along with the Greek government in exile.

When they succeeded in returning to England, Anne Palairet's acute intelligence, together with her experience in decoding diplomatic messages for her father, equipped her admirably for code-breaking work at Bletchley Park. Later, she joined the WAAF and tracked German air raids. In 1945 she was posted to Palestine, and very narrowly escaped the bomb attack by Irgun Zvai Leumi on the King David Hotel in Jerusalem, where she worked. Another girl, who also worked there, had asked her to exchange their afternoons off, and while Anne was consequently off duty her friend was blown off the roof by the explosion into the branches of a nearby tree, but almost miraculously escaped serious injury. Partly perhaps, though not wholly, as a result of this experience, Anne sometimes surprised those who had had no direct knowledge of that country by her blunt views on the rights and wrongs of the Palestine question.

Travelling by night on one occasion across Sinai with her future husband, their car broke down and Anne set off at once in near darkness to collect scrub from the desert to give enough firelight for their resourceful Arab driver to repair it. Their bodyguard and friend, a Bedouin who knew of their engagement, congratulated Lord Oxford in Arabic, saying "You couldn't do better, even if you were to choose a Bedouin wife", a compliment she greatly treasured.

She and Lord Oxford had planned to marry in Jerusalem early in 1947, but women and children were compulsorily evacuated, and their wedding took place in Brompton Oratory in August. His work as Assistant District Commissioner had brought him into the Colonial Service (later subsumed into the Foreign & Commonwealth Office) and the Oxfords were to spend the next 20 years very happily in a variety of exotic postings: first in Tripoli (1949-52), and next in Zanzibar, where the Sultan would wave genially to the small Asquith children from his scarlet open Daimler.

Next came St Lucia (1958-61), where they cultivated bananas, and where the extensive grounds of Government House would be tended willingly by convicts from the local prison, wielding machetes during their periods of exercise. Impressed by Lord Oxford's skill at archery, one of the West Indian guards was heard to exclaim "Lordship bloomin' Robin Hood".

Their last posting was the most distant of all, to Government House in the Seychelles, which could only be reached, in those idyllic pre-tourist days, by two ships a month plying between Mombasa and Bombay. One of them, The State of Bombay, was often referred to as "The State of Decay".

Anne, with their children, would accompany her husband on their own sometimes perilous voyages to the remoter islands of the colony, seldom visited by their predecessors. They would take with them a doctor and a priest to attend to the physical and spiritual needs of those living there. One such voyage (of 600 miles each way) took them in a small boat to the Chagos archipelago in the British Indian Ocean Territory which had been added to her husband's responsbilities.

Their infrequent home leaves did much to enliven the family home at Mells in Somerset, and these visits were looked forward to there with great excitement. Anne Oxford's interests included a love of literature, both French and English, and of music and the arts. All her five children, the fruit of an enviable and successful marriage, received their early education at her hands and she brightened their lives, and those of all her friends, with her quick mind, her infectious enthusiasm, and her sympathetic understanding of the needs of others.

John Jolliffe

Anne Mary Celestine Palairet: born Paris 14 November 1916; married 1947 Julian, second Earl of Oxford and Asquith (two sons, three daughters); died Frome, Somerset 19 August 1998.