Lady Anne Tree is sitting at her dining-table having her photograph taken. At 82, she is troubled by arthritis, so I am concerned about it all being a bit of an ordeal for her. "I'm fine," she reassures me, with the "stop your fussing" implicit. "When I was deputy entertainments officer at Wandsworth Prison, the men were always painting portraits of me. I'd pose and primp myself. I loved it." As if to prove the point, she sits bolt upright, absolutely still, and gazes, as encouraged by the photographer, out of the double doors, towards the rolling countryside that envelops her rural Dorset home. After a pause, and without her lips seeming to move, she adds, to no one in particular, "Cecil Beaton used to take pictures of me."
It is offered as a sudden recollection from a long life well lived, definitely not as name-dropping. That has never been Tree's style in six decades as an indefatigable but largely unheralded prison campaigner. Indeed, she has declined all previous offers to be interviewed about her lifetime's work; she has preferred behind-the-scenes letter-writing to publicity-seeking, spending four of those six decades battling with government ministers – some of the Tory ones her own cousins – for permission to set up a charity to provide prisoners with "real" work to do while in jail that would pay ' them enough to provide a small nest egg to ease their re-entry into society on release. A simple enough idea – but it was always the money element, she says, the whiff of wrong-doers profiting during their incarceration, that caused the Home Office to keep saying no – right up until 1991, when it finally yielded to Tree's barrage of firm but discreet pressure and agreed to open our prisons to Fine Cell Work.
Several awards later, the charity that Tree founded now employs 350 inmates (80 per cent of them men) in 26 prisons around Britain, each earning up to £500 a year making intricate, high-quality cushion covers and rugs to patterns by designers such as Nicky Haslam, Nina Campbell and Cath Kidston. Some are sold through "premium" outlets such as the shop at Highgrove, Prince Charles' country estate; some at sales held regularly around Britain; and others are commissioned – including a quilt for an exhibition at the V&A next spring, a hanging for a new Norman Foster-designed concert hall in Gateshead, and, to be unveiled with great fanfare this month, 47 giant cushions for Dover Castle as part of its £2m refurbishment by English Heritage in its original 12th-century style.
"I must have been an absolute menace to ministers with my letters," Tree recalls with a chuckle, "and I suppose I should have been willing to lose graciously, but I had been a prison visitor for so many years [from 1950, including a long stint of weekly appointments with the Moors murderess, Myra Hindley], so 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."
Tree doesn't like to be called a campaigner. She refers to herself, with a certain pride, as "a Victorian do-gooder who had a calling to help people in prison who weren't being helped otherwise". While she may be stretching a point in terms of dates – she was born in 1927, more than a quarter of a century after Queen Victoria died – I can see what she is getting at. For she is arguably the last of the line of the sort of self-effacing, high-born and largely amateur 19th-century social reformers who took on, infuriated, and ultimately changed the system.
By contrast, modern charities now have whole campaigning departments targeting Whitehall and Westminster, while a new generation of professional philanthropists expect their generosity to be immortalised by the naming of buildings, the awarding of gongs and a constant round of photo opportunities. Tree already had a courtesy title (thanks to being the daughter of the 10th Duke of Devonshire), but the last thing she wants is recognition. When I ask if she ever lobbied for any of the individual prisoners she visited – even informally with a word in the ear of Establishment figures at the grand dinner parties which used to be part of her social world – she looks horrified. "No I never talked about it," she rebukes me. "It was private."
Anne Tree's childhood home was Chatsworth in Derbyshire, "though not during the war", she points out, "because it was a school. God it stank afterwards – of girl." It was a privileged but eccentric upbringing. "My father found it unthinkable to turn his daughters over to school mistresses who he thought were basically wrong-headed. My brothers went to school and we girls [her older sister, Elizabeth, was for many years the partner of the Poet Laureate, Sir John Betjeman] stayed at home with governesses. And then the governess stayed on and lived with me when I got married, and she died with me. It was an ongoing non-education."
She has a bad cough and a glass of water is brought. "What's that?" she asks. "Water," comes the reply. "Pity," she remarks as she takes a swig.
Her mother and sister had both trained as social workers, so family tradition guided her to volunteer as a prison visitor at the age of 22, soon after her marriage in 1949 to Michael Tree, an Anglo-American who worked at Christie's. Why prisoners in particular? "That, of course, is the question I can't answer," she says, settling back in her armchair in the sitting-room with her dogs at her feet. It is an odd response after six decades involved with those behind bars, but I take it as an invitation to dig a bit harder.
Some landed families used to mix with the masses in a slightly patronising manner, but there was no condescension in Tree's youthful decision to take up with prisoners. Indeed, she had a fight on her hands from the start even to be accepted. "A voice like mine does go against you," she explains. "Too posh." And indeed it is. She pronounces "off" as if starting to say the word "Orpheus". The solution came from an unusual source. "Diana Mosley had been held in Holloway Prison during the war [for being a Fascist] and she was extraordinarily helpful. She had a word with Miss Davies, the governor, and reassured her I could cope. And, of course, the girls at Holloway used to scream with laughter at my voice."
The connection between the two women was that Diana Mosley's Mitford sister, Deborah, had married Tree's older brother, who became the 11th Duke of Devonshire. "I don't want to repudiate Diana," Tree explains, "who I think was one of the most attractive women I ever met, but my politics were different from hers. Her husband Oswald [the founder of the British Union of Fascists] was a terrible man. I used to go and listen to him ranting at Hyde Park Corner." She pauses, as if conjuring up his picture. Her eyes are narrow, but they have an unmistakeable twinkle. "I'm glad I didn't miss that. He was very charismatic, but he was a beastly man."
So what was it like going from the drawing-rooms of Chatsworth to the visiting-room of Holloway Prison? "Well, very different, obviously," Tree replies, her tone conveying how little she thinks of my question. She may struggle with her walking now, but it doesn't mean she is about to put up with any stuff and nonsense. She brought to her prison work the same common sense. "You always had to be a bit careful with your writing," she says. "Never give a good signature in case anyone tried to forge it."
However much she rose to the challenge, she began by trying to keep her two worlds in separate boxes. "I had a curious detachment about what the women I met had done. I never asked and I never really wanted to know, but they would tell me, sometimes all too luridly." But her idea for Fine Cell Work blurred that distinction between home and prison. "I don't know how people serve long sentences," she muses, "the gloom, the lack of decision for yourself. I was terribly anxious that people should have something to do that was creative and worth money. It is all very well for those who have money – which I have, a little. It is a different story if you don't and have no means of making any."
Why needlework, though? "Well, it was something I do. And I knew that men as well as women liked doing it, because I had worked in an Army canteen in Eastbourne during the war and seen them doing embroidery. And I knew that through my mother-in-law [Nancy Lancaster, the owner of interior decorators Colefax and Fowler, credited with creating the English country-house 'look'] I had the possibility to sell good-quality needlework for good prices through shops."
It went deeper: she recognised, too, in needlework, the possibility of a mental escape for prisoners. "The noise in a prison would drive anyone crazy, all that banging of doors. People are overwhelmed and need some form of protection against the horror of the environment. You can retreat into sewing. You can block the noise out. It is meditative, a way of thinking, of taking stock. So it's not just money – which isn't huge, anyway. It's the feeling of self-worth that is vital."
Such an insight reveals a deeper empathy that starts to address the question of her decision to work with prisoners. "I knew I couldn't have recovered from the shame if it had been me. My sister-in-law, Kick Kennedy, [sister of the American president, married briefly to Tree's older brother before
he died in battle in 1944] had a close friend who went to prison. When he came out, I thought him in very bad shape."
The image of prisoners locked in their cells, stitching away, turns my thoughts to Myra Hindley, perhaps the most notorious prisoner Tree visited. I say perhaps, as she won't name any of the others. Her connection with Hindley became public only after Tree introduced her in the late 1960s to the former Labour Cabinet minister Lord Longford. Their much picked-over friendship – most recently in Longford, the award-winning TV drama starring Jim Broadbent and Samantha Morton – might never have begun had it not been for Tree.
Did she share Longford's publicly stated belief that Hindley should be paroled? "No," she comes back vehemently, "absolutely not, 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 must have made things awkward with Longford, who moved in the same social circles as Tree and shared her old-style, aristocratic approach to philanthropy. "Well, I always kept well clear of his campaign. 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."
Tree was Hindley's prison visitor for well over a decade. "I can't remember quite how long, but it was years." Given her feelings about her charge, it must have been quite an ordeal. "It was, but talking about books was a saviour. I used to detach myself. Over all my years as a prison visitor, I saw a great number of murderers." Did she dislike them all? "No, dislike didn't come into it, though I didn't like Myra. I felt outraged, really, as she was so blaming of other people." Why carry on then? "Because I'd agreed to take on visiting her, knowing what she had done, and I only stopped when my daughters had grown up and I began to spend more time in the country. At that stage Myra made it clear she didn't really mind not seeing me again." The break, then, was prompted by Hindley, not Tree. It's back to Victorian do-gooder again.
There was, though, Tree admits, something about Hindley's situation that was unusual. "Myra had had it. She'd absolutely had it. It was quite queer meeting someone whose life is over. Not that she saw it that way. She definitely regarded herself as a heroine. After all, she was about the most famous woman in England apart from the Queen."
As with Longford, Tree's dealings with one prisoner should not overshadow all the others she met over the decades – including the spell she spent as the (unpaid) deputy entertainments officer at the all-male Wandsworth jail. What sort of things did she lay on? "Oh, wonderful things," she answers. "We had General Sir Somebody-Something who gave a display of samurai swords to the prisoners. Imagine him being allowed to do that now! And I invited John Betjeman. They were all mystified by him. He came waddling on and was funny but too highbrow. And you know people thought nothing of a glass of port in those days." So the prisoners were given a glass of port? "Oh no," she laughs. "Just the speaker. There were about 500 of them. It would have been too hot on expenses."
Throughout all these years, she had continued writing her letters to ministers about her plans to give prisoners something worthwhile to do – including one that was hand-delivered to her cousin, Lord Cranborne, when he was a defence minister. "They had become," she admits, "ruder and ruder. One told one minister that, 'It is shits like you who let this country down.'" Its dispatch was followed by a long silence. "Then, out of the blue, Angela Rumbold [a Home Office minister in the Thatcher and Major governments] wrote to say she had read that letter. We met and finally she gave me the go-ahead. It was a humbling surprise. I nearly died."
Among the first to support the fledgling charity were friends of Tree and her husband in the States. Bill Paley, a former head of CBS, and Henry Ford both commissioned rugs to be made by prisoners. She even managed to persuade her sister-in-law, the 1960s supermodel Penelope Tree, to get some of her fashionable friends, including Mick Jagger, to do designs for cushions. Fine Cell Work was finally registered as a charity in 1995 and, with Tree now its president, is thriving with a six-figure sum generated annually by sales.
Needlework is suddenly very fashionable, and not just among Fine Cell Work's prison workers. "Stitch 'n' Bitch" circles are the new book clubs among young urban professionals. Julia Roberts, Madonna, Russell Crowe and Kate Moss are all said to relax with their tapestries. And versions of graffiti artist Banksy's street creations in cross-stitch are currently on sale in London's Spitalfields Market. So Anne Tree could claim to have been ahead of the pack. She prefers, though, to see herself as taking her lead from her grandmother who restored the hangings at Hardwick Hall, one of the properties linked to Chatsworth. Single-handed? "Yes, with a team from Chatsworth of mainly miners' wives."
On prison reform, too, Tree was arguing for more humane, enlightened treatment of offenders long before the modern penal-rehabilitation movement got going in the 1960s, but again perhaps, there is a better sense of perspective on her role in looking back. In the forthcoming V&A exhibition, the quilt commissioned from Fine Cell Work will hang with one made 160 years ago by female prisoners on a convict ship heading for Tasmania. It is sometimes known as the Elizabeth Fry Quilt, as the women had been given the materials to make it by the celebrated 19th-century prison reformer as part of her drive to find them useful things to do while incarcerated. I can't help wondering whether ministers placed as many obstacles in Fry's path as they did in Anne Tree's.
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