Aviation boss's daughter, whose nickname was lent to the greatest fighter ever built
Published 30/10/2011 | 05:00
ANNIE Penrose, who has died aged 100, gave her childhood nickname of 'Little Spitfire' to the world's most celebrated fighter aircraft.
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, Britain's 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 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 Robert McLean 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.
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.
On Christmas Eve 1936 -- the year in which the K5054 Spitfire Prototype flew for the first time -- 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 and took 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.
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, Cambridgeshire.
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. 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.
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.
A consummate entertainer and cook, Annie made Killiow a popular destination for her extended family and friends.
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 birthday in Falmouth, a fly-past was arranged from which trailed a banner with the message: "Happy 100th birthday, Spitfire Annie."