Dr Catherine Wills
Dr Catherine Wills, life trustee of Ditchley and daughter of Ditchley's founder Sir David Wills, very sadly died on 29 July 2022, aged 71. For the last year, she waged a characteristically brave struggle with cancer, which she refused to acknowledge as more than a minor inconvenience until her final few days. All the Ditchley team, Council of Management, Governors and Honorary Governors, but also her many friends around the world in the Ditchley community, will miss her greatly.
Her official obituaries in the press have covered her many interests and talents from thoroughbreds to art history but Catherine cared deeply about Ditchley and it is on Ditchley that this more personal note should focus.
For Catherine, Ditchley was not only a grand house and a worthy project working for the public good. It represented her beloved father’s vision and her connection to him and to her equally beloved brother who died tragically young. She had been at Ditchley and participated in events as a girl, a young woman, and later as a life trustee and bearer of the family’s commitment to the project.
As a girl, she and her brother played on the stone lions on the Saloon terrace at Ditchley, which they named, for reasons known only to children, Rosehip and Tasky. As a teenager in the 1960s, she remembered the visiting Bobby Kennedy teaching the barman how to make a proper American cocktail. She sat next to him at dinner and found him a bit full of himself. A very Catherine-like observation.
In her role as life trustee she attended every major conference and very rarely missed a trustees’ meeting over 22 years. She had two major concerns.
The first was that Ditchley should remain true to her father’s vision: a reflective space for people to come together to talk through the world’s most difficult problems. This vision had a tough edge - David Wills had been in the war and seen what happened when civilisation broke down. Catherine never forgot this and always thought of Ditchley as a serious project. This could surprise people who assumed she would be conservative. She was ready to be radical when necessary. She was a full partner in Ditchley’s development, embracing technology in particular and she enjoyed listening in to many Ditchley discussions virtually, as well as attending as many Ditchley events in person as she could. Over the last six years she did an enormous amount to support Ditchley philanthropically, which in turn enabled Ditchley to raise significant external funding in parallel.
Her second concern was the estate and house. Here again, she balanced conservation with renewal. She championed the replanting of the south front, a hundred year project. Colleagues were occasionally shocked by her willingness to chop things down today, in order to replant for future generations. She knew practically every tree and path on the estate. But she also knew all the people and their families. She was rooted in countryside life despite her constant travelling.
On a personal level, she was at her most kind and thoughtful when people were going through difficulties, as we found when serious illness hit our family. She had a gift for friendship and I was struck by how she would always seek out the person who seemed alone in the crowd at Ditchley. The many prominent and powerful people she sat next to at Ditchley over the years also always enjoyed talking to her.
She once told me that her inspiration was a quote from Talleyrand, “to live well is to live unseen”. But Catherine wasn’t unseen. She was loved and appreciated by many. At Ditchley, as well as carrying forward her father’s vision, she left her own mark and looked to the future, both in the support she gave Ditchley philanthropically and in her care to ensure that the Wills’ family connection to Ditchley should continue through her cousin, Rob Wills.
Ditchley is reflecting on how best to honour Catherine's enduring contribution but her real memorial is already in place - in the significant conversations that we convene and the beauty of the house and estate.