Obituary taken from “The Telegraph” October 26, 2011
Annie Penrose R.I.P.
Her father, Sir Robert McLean, played a crucial role in the development of the Spitfire as chairman of Vickers (Aviation) in the 1930s, working closely with the gifted design engineer RJ Mitchell. When it came to giving the new single-seater fighter a name, McLean suggested Spitfire, the affectionate term he used for his spirited elder daughter.
Initially the Air Ministry had reservations about the name, as did Mitchell, who argued for calling the new aircraft the
Shrew; but in the end McLean prevailed.
According to Morgan and Shacklady’s definitive book Spitfire – The History: “The Air Ministry agreed to adopt the name chosen by Sir Robert McLean. Sir Robert had demanded that the name of the company’s new fighter should suggest something venomous, and because of the sibilant it had to begin with the letter ‘S’. His choice was Spitfire.”
She was born Ann Isobel Noel McLean on July 3 1911 at Knutsford, Cheshire, to RobertMcLean and his wife Noel, and was brought up in imperial India, where her father was in charge of the railway system. By 1920 he was based in Bombay as general manager of the Great Peninsula Railway Company.
Annie and her younger sister Evelyn (known as Bunny) grew up surrounded by the trappings of the Raj and became familiar with some of the important potentates as the family travelled throughout India accompanied by their loyal entourage of staff.
The family had the use of the train built for the Prince of Wales (later Edward VII) when he had visited India in 1875.
The garden of their house, Glen Ogle, at Malabar Hill, Bombay, housed “Noah’s Ark”, a refuge for “Te Goggy Goggy” the turkey, a mongoose and a crow with a broken wing. In 1916 the family was sailing from India to England in the liner Caledonia when she was badly damaged by two mines off Marseilles. Annie, who was then five, later recalled that when the order was given to abandon ship she was escorted to a lifeboat by a dashing colonial French soldier.
Annie and her sister eventually left India to be educated at St George’s School for Girls in Edinburgh. They were looked after during the holidays by three aunts at Alloa.
Robert McLean was knighted in 1926, and in 1929 returned to Britain, where he was appointed to the board of Vickers-Armstrong, which had taken a controlling interest in the Supermarine Aviation works at Southampton in 1928.
On Christmas Eve 1936 – the year in which the K5054 Spitfire Prototype flew for the first time at Eastleigh, Hampshire – Annie married the actor Robert Newton, later known for his roles in the films Blackbeard, Treasure Island and Oliver Twist. They had met when Annie was doing voice-overs for the BBC. In the early years of their marriage, Newton was involved in theatre, graduating from the Birmingham Repertory Company to Drury Lane, taking on several leading roles.
As time went on, however, he developed a voracious appetite for both alcohol and his leading ladies. The marriage finally broke down irretrievably towards the end of the Second World War, during which Annie worked with the Mobile American Red Cross. (Newton himself served with the Navy for a time, until his superiors decided that his performances on the stage outshone anything he did on board ship.)
At this time Annie enjoyed a stellar cast of friends, among them Laurence Olivier and Vivien Leigh. In the 1930s Robert Newton’s sister Joy was married to Beakus Penrose, whose grandfather, Lord Peckover, had made his fortune as a Quaker banker in Wisbech. Beakus’s brother, Roland, had taken a house, Lambe Creek, on the Truro river Newly married couple down by the sea in Cornwall, which became a haven for actors, writers, and artists. Annie was a frequent visitor, and in 1937 Max Ernst and a group of his fellow Surrealists came to stay.
Beakus Penrose and Joy divorced after the war, and he then married Annie. In 1948 they bought Killiow, near Truro, a large mid-18th-century house faced with Cornish granite that had been home to Joshua Reynolds’s niece, Theophila (known as “Offy”). Set in 300 acres of parkland and coming with a commercial farm, Killiow became a great restoration project for Annie and Beakus, and she rose to this challenge with relish, becoming involved with the pedigree Jersey herd and the evolution of the estate garden, which from the 1960s specialised in selling up to 100 varieties of camellia. They developed holiday cottages and the gardens were opened to the public.
After Beakus Penrose’s death in 1988, Annie remained at Killiow, helping to develop the Country Park – where visitors could admire rare breeds of farm animals such as Dexter cattle and Gloucester Old Spot pigs – and an 18-hole golf course.
A consummate entertainer and cook,
Annie Penrose made Killiow a popular destination for her extended family and friends, and was popular with the staff
and visiting tradesmen for her generosity in handing out free range eggs and clotted cream. She could often be found helping in the kitchen and cafeteria, and lecturing parents about their unruly children. To declare the opening of the estate to the public each spring, she would sit astride a shire horse and blow a
The family sold Killiow in the late 1990s, but remained on the estate in a converted barn. She is survived by two sons of her second marriage.
As part of the celebrations for her 100th Annie pictured this year at Tregolls Manor birthday in Falmouth, a fly-past was enjoying the Royal Wedding arranged from which trailed a banner with the message: “Happy 100th Birthday Spitfire Annie”.