Anne Isobel Noel Penrose

Also known as: 'Spitfire Annie'.


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Annie Penrose died peacefully on 2nd October in Truro close to where she brought up her family by her second husband Beakus Penrose at Killiow. Here she presided as the chatelaine for almost 50 years in a constantly transforming existence not far removed from her early life before and during the Second World War.
Born on 3rd July 1911 to Robert and Noel McLean; she became a child of the empire living both in England and in India where her father was employed in the modernization and construction of the railway system from Bombay to the Northern provinces. Rising from Assistant Engineer to Assistant Secretary of the Railway Board following service in World War I and moving to General Manager of the Great Penisular Railway Company by 1920 required his family to live with him in Bombay. The family also had the use of the Royal Train whilst on the move and travelled in great state until in 1926 McLean received a knighthood, retiring from India the following year. It was here that Annie and her younger sister Evelyn otherwise known as Bunny grew up as a young girl 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 garden of their house Glen Ogle at Malabar Hill housed ‘Noah’s Ark’ which became a refuge for ‘Te Goggy Goggy’ her turkey, a mongoose and a crow with a broken wing, an early sign of Annie’s charitable nature. Peter Dog the family bull terrier travelled in the train driver’s cabin, but had a habit of cocking his leg in the drinking bowels when the train stopped at stations.
It was in 1916 at the tender age of five that during transit from India to England the passenger ship “Caledonia” was struck by two mines off Marseille and the family became shipwrecked. Annie remembered the experience of being rescued by a dashing colonial French soldier for the rest of her life, although there would be plenty more excitement to come. Sir Robert was head hunted by Vickers upon his return to England and elected to the board with the purpose of him nurturing visionary ability and talent. They soon took a controlling interest in the Supermarine works at Southampton and here McLean encouraged R.J.Mitchell his gifted design engineer in the development of a single seater fighter aircraft later to be named the Spitfire at his insistence. He called his fiesty eldest daughter Annie his “Little Spitfire” and this is how the name evolved, admittedly not without some resistance from R.J. who had misgivings. A former aeroplane of this name proved a failure. Annie had witnessed the ‘blue print’ drawings spread on the floor of their home in Weybridge weighted down with bottles of Scotch, whose liquid content had a habit of diminishing and great admiration grew for the brave test pilots who put this thoroughbred aeroplane through its paces. The two families had also holidayed together in Austria where Annie perfected her skiing, a sport that she excelled in during her youth and competed for her country.
In 1936 the very year the prototype K5054 flew for the first time at Martlesham Heath, Annie met and wed the rising star and actor Robert Newton on Christmas Eve, although better known for his later roles in the films Blackbeard, Treasure Island and Oliver Twist; he became the favourite and best known pirate of his day, hamming it up to perfection. Her father a rather preoccupied and serious man found Newton a larger than life character amusing and in the early years of their marriage Bob was involved in theatre, graduating from the Birmingham Repertory Company to Drury Lane, taking on several leading roles. They had initially met when Annie was doing voice overs for the BBC, something she was very good at and then he relied on her to help him with his lines, which as time progressed suffered from his over indulgence in alcohol and persistence in chasing and running away with his leading ladies. The marriage lasted eight years suffering irretrievable breakdown towards the end of the Second World War. Annie found herself attached to this rather Bohemian arty circle of friends and got to know Larry Olivier and Vivien Leigh well, at one point getting caught in the crossfire of their affair and was made custodian of their dog Mary. This was about the time Bob was acting in ‘Fire over England’. Annie was attached to the Mobile American Red Cross during the war and Bob joined the navy for a period until the powers that be decided that his acting ability outshone anything he could possibly do on board ship for the war effort.
The Bloomsbury Set connection had come about through London acquaintances and her husband’s sister Joy who was married to Beakus Penrose. They had all made tracks to Cornwall in the 1930’s where Lambe Creek on the Truro River had become a waterside base for all these eclectic people, actors, artists , writers and what came with them. The likes of Augustus John, Algernon Newton, Lamorna Birch and in 1937 the Surrealist School descended with Max Ernst and a year later the spy Donald Maclean was photographed sat between Annie and Joy, and Wogan Philipps had a ring side seat as well. When Wogan took his seat in the House of Lords he was the only Communist peer, so a real mix of society gathered here before the war. This would become Annie’s first Cornish home after the cessation of hostilities when she had separated from Bob and Beakus returned from his command of Flak Ships in the Mediterranean to begin his separation from Joy.
Their failure to have children was overcome late in life with the arrival of one son after another shortly after the move from Lambe Creek to a property that had been requisitioned by troops during the war. Killiow became the great challenge for Annie and Beakus Penrose, a restoration project of gargantuan proportions which included a rather tired but grand Cornish mansion in the centre of parkland and with a commercial farm. Annie took to this challenge with considerable relish, propping up the former ‘Cape Horner’ and mariner in his new endeavour and becoming involved with the pedigree Jersey herd and the evolution of the estate garden once it came in hand. Holiday cottages were to follow and the name Mrs ‘U’ bend was often heard, not to be known as squeamish for getting down to the job when required. She had chosen carefully in finding a fellow shipwrecked soul to partner up with, for Beakus only ten years after Annie had survived her mishap survived the sinking of the commercial schooner the ‘Lydia Cardell’ of Fowey, which sank in four minutes.
A consumate entertainer and cook, Annie made Killiow a popular destination for an extended family and friends, Summer and Winter without fail, when weeding in the garden was replaced by the crimping of Cornish pasties for taking on board ‘Loe Trout’ and rissoles made from a wide variety of leftovers, something the war years had taught her. Always popular with the staff and visiting tradesmen for her bountiful generosity in handing out free range eggs and delicious Jersey clotted cream, there was never a shortage of goodwill. Annie’s presence anywhere on the estate or elsewhere could be discerned by her gravelly voice which was quite distinct and this with her tremendous tenacity and willpower in later years earned her the endearing title of Granite, but only to be used by her friends. She was the main prop to Beakus Penrose when he became High Sheriff of Cornwall in 1969 and again when the family hosted the Young Farmers Rally at Killiow in 1974, where Annie was found lifting the tablecloth to inspect Princess Anne’s shoes, with the loud exclamation ‘snap’, they were matching pairs.
She was surrounded by an adoring family to the last and is survived by two sons, six grandchildren and a great grandchild who shared her first birthday with Annie at the time of her 100th anniversary in July this year. At this splendid gathering of family and friends in Falmouth Annie received a card from Her Majesty the Queen, a telegram from Iain Duncan Smith which was well received for his father was a Spitfire pilot and a message of gratitude was read out on behalf of Air Chief Marshall Sir Robert Wright. The Mayor of Falmouth attended in person and a fly past was arranged trailing a banner announcing, ‘Happy 100th Birthday Spitfire Annie’.

Added by: Dominick and James Penrose on 19th October 2011.

 

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Royal Air Force Benevolent Fund
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