Lady Anne Tree: Prison reformer whose Fine Cell scheme enables inmates to earn money from needlework

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The Independent Online

Lady Anne Tree was a member of the upper echelons of the aristocracy, mixing easily during her 82 years with the nobility and cultural luminaries such as Cecil Beaton, John Betjeman and Lucian Freud. She moved in a world of dukes and duchesses and the most powerful in the land, living in stately homes. Yet she became familiar not just with exquisite drawing rooms but with grim prison cells.

In a striking example of noblesse oblige she spent many years in the company of prisoners, including a particularly notorious murderer. Far from earnestly preaching reform she conceived a practical scheme which has been judged a success by successive governments and prison authorities and, most importantly, by prisoners themselves.

Her unlikely idea was to have inmates – no matter how rough and tough, and whatever their offences – take up needlework for a small amount of pay. To many it seemed risible, and indeed for many years governments refused to contemplate it. But years of campaigning eventually paid off, partly because of her relentless and eventually exasperated letter-writing. Her most famous missive, which has gone down in prison folklore, scolded a recalcitrant minister: "It is shits like you who would let this country down."

Her scornful criticism was evidently productive in that not long afterwards she was allowed to put her idea into operation. Today her needlework programme runs in 26 prisons, with 400 inmates earning a total of £60,000 in a single year by producing work of the highest quality. Their tapestries, quilts and cushions adorn stately homes, castles, museum shops and churches; since prisoners get a share of the proceeds they can build up a small lump sum for use on their release.

But the activity can also, as she predicted, be therapeutic, helping instil self-discipline and self-confidence. According to one former inmate: "It's one of the few things done in prison that has a purpose, is creative, constructive and has a point. It also helped me to earn money to buy stamps and phone cards to keep in touch with my family."

The idea of prisoners doing needlework actually has a long history – sewing mailbags was, of course, traditional work for the incarcerated. Prisoners of war were set to sewing almost 200 years ago, while needlework has for years been known as a mental and physical therapy.

Anne Tree was born into a life of wealth, title and high social connections. She began life as Lady Anne Cavendish, daughter of the Marquis of Hartington, later Duke of Devonshire. Her mother, Lady Mary Gascoyne-Cecil, was Mistress of the Robes to the Queen and a grand-daughter of the Victorian prime minister Lord Salisbury. Anne's elder brother married Kathleen Kennedy, John F Kennedy's younger sister.

Her parents never sent her to school, her father holding strong views on education, and she was instead taught by governesses. When she was 21 she married an Anglo-American interior designer, Michael Tree, whose prestigious family firm, Colefax and Fowler, would later provide a valuable outlet for prison needlework. Soon afterwards she followed in the family tradition of involvement in social work.

The governor of Holloway women's prison, initially dubious about her request to become a visitor, was reassured by one of Anne's aristocratic relatives. This was Diana Mosley of the Mitford family, who had actually been locked up there together with her husband, the fascist leader Oswald Mosley. (Anne found him "a beastly man".) Anne reported that "the girls at Holloway used to scream with laughter at my voice," which she herself acknowledged was "too posh". But she persevered, describing herself as "a Victorian do-gooder who had a calling to help people in prison who weren't being helped otherwise."

One of her most challenging assignments, which she carried out for many years, was to visit the moors murderer Myra Hindley, who was serving life for killing several children. Unlike Lord Longford, who later befriended Hindley, she was opposed to moves to release her – "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. It seemed to me Myra had no pity. I don't think she ever thought about her victims. But I have to say that in our weekly meetings, we kept pretty well off such subjects."

Meanwhile, she bombarded ministers with letters pushing the idea of giving inmates the chance to do needlework. She conceived it in the 1960s but it met stiff official resistance until the 1990s, the authorities frowning on the thought of miscreants making money.

"I could see so clearly the beneficial effects of inmates having something absorbing to do when they were locked in their cells, rather than their pointless prison jobs," she explained. "The noise in prison would drive anyone crazy but you can retreat into sewing, you can block out the noise. It is meditative, a way of thinking, of taking stock. So it's not just the money. It's the feeling of self-worth that is vital."

Finally, permission was granted in 1991 and she set up her enterprise as a charity under the name of Fine Cell Work. She brought in leading fashion names to design cushions and tapestries which, she insisted, should be of high quality. Products were sold via Colefax and Fowler and other concerns: Prince Charles agreed to sell some in his Highgrove estate shop.

Today 80 per cent of the stitchers are men, serving sentences for all kinds of offences. Inmates are taught by 50 volunteer instructors; all the classes have waiting lists. Stitchers spend an average of 20 hours a week doing embroidery in their cells. Numerous commissions have been carried out for livery companies, with heraldic crests and banners made to order. Prisoners receive a share of profits, leaving with perhaps a couple of thousand pounds after several years' work. Fine Cell Work says it helps with self-confidence, anger management, personal and social skills and self-motivation.

Prisoners provide many testimonials. "It helped me change the way I was because I used to be quite an angry fella when I went inside," according to one. "I was quite moody and aggressive. But when I was sewing I used to go back over my life, it gave me the space I needed." Another said: "The work may have saved me from sliding back into my one-time state of deep depression. With the work I found a refuge where my cares became mere shadows for a while. I would feel relaxed enough after a session of needlework to slip into an easy sleep."

A Wandsworth prison officer also voiced approval: "Fine Cell Work gives these men dignity in work and, through this, dignity in life. When a man gains self-respect he may start addressing his offending behaviour."

David McKittrick

Lady Anne Evelyn Beatrice Cavendish, prison reformer: born 6 November 1927; married 1949 Michael Tree (died 1999; two daughters); died 9 August 2010.