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George Bushell was the landlord of the White Hart public house in Church Street, in the quiet little Berkshire village of Hampstead Norreys, north-east of the town of Newbury, famous for its racecourse. Soon after the birth of their third daughter, George's wife died, leaving him with three young children to bring up as well as a public house to run. Within a year George had remarried and, in 1890, he and his second wife, Elizabeth Nightingale, had a son, Charles, to be followed, a year later, by a daughter, Florence Constance.
George and Elizabeth worked hard running the pub and George supplemented his income by game keeping and manufacturing 'whiting'. There was a pit behind the pub from which he obtained the chalk for the whiting. This was then dried and ground up to make a smooth powder, which was used as a cleaning substance or for the manufacture of whitewash. The River Pang, which bordered the grounds of the pub, provided fish for both food and sport and the Bushells took in bed-and-breakfast guests at the pub, who came mainly for the fishing. The White Hart was, and still is, a pretty building, with a pool in the back garden in which the children could swim. George had made it by digging out a part of the river bank and slightly diverting the course of the river. It was a lovely place in which to grow up and Charles and Florence shared a happy childhood with their half-sisters, Sarah, Katherine and Clara who were, for some unexplained reason, always called by their second names, Annie, Dora and Mabel. Although during the time that George was landlord at the White Hart, it was a happy family home, it had not always been so. At least three of its former landlords had ended their days in the local asylum.
As he grew up Charles, George and Elizabeth's only son, took up poaching and soon gained quite a reputation in the area, being pursued on several occasions by the village policeman. In later years, when visiting his family from his home in London, he would often seek out another poacher, known in the village as 'Miggy Whirl', and do a deal with him, returning home with a box of poached birds, rabbits and fish which he would sell to local grocers' shops. Although he had a number of different jobs and found it hard to settle in one place for long periods of time, he was, in fact, a hard worker. He was always on the lookout for new ways of providing for his family even if his methods were sometimes rather unorthodox. His nephew, Norman Lucas, remembers Charles, or Charlie as he was more usually known, as being a 'loveable rogue'. Norman's own father, Harry Lucas, was also a publican. He was the landlord at the New Inn, which was also in Hampstead Norreys, about a quarter of a mile down the hill from the White Hart.
At the start of the First World War Charlie joined the army and became a driver with the Royal Army Service Corps. He was posted to France where he met a pretty young French girl called Reine Blanche Leroy. She was the daughter of a notary clerk living in Quevauvillers, a small town south-west of Amiens, in the département of the Somme. Reine had been born in Quevauvillers but the family had originally come from Pont Rémy, on the River Somme, south-east of Abbeville. Her mother died at an early age and she became very close to her father's sisters, her aunts Blanche and Berthe, and to her own sister, Marguerite.
Charlie and Reine married in Pont Rémy, after a courtship which started in the dark days of the Battle of the Somme and continued until 1918. It could hardly have been called a whirlwind romance as the wedding took place over two years after they first met. They began their married life by coming to England at the end of the war and settled in Hampstead Norreys with Charlie's family at the White Hart.
In 1920 their first child, a son, arrived and was named Roy. He was born in Wandsworth but his birth certificate shows his mother's address as the White Hart in Hampstead Norreys and he has no idea why his mother was in Wandsworth at the time of his birth.
The family stayed in England for a very short time before returning to France. They found an apartment in the town of Levallois-Perret to the north-west of Paris, in the département of Hauts-de-Seine. It was, and still is, a pleasant little town, busy and bustling during the week and sleepy at the weekends. It was here, at 72 rue de Villiers, that Charlie and Reine's second child, a daughter they named Violette Reine Elizabeth, was born at 6 a.m. on 26 June 1921. It has been said that she was born at the British hospital in Paris. This hospital, now called the Hôpital Franco Britannique, is located in Levallois-Perret, indeed the older part of the hospital is in rue de Villiers, but at number 48 not 72. Sadly Violette's birthplace no longer exists as it has been replaced by a modern office block. The staff at the Hôpital Franco Britannique assured me that 72 rue de Villiers was never part of the hospital and the details of her birth, supplied by the authorities in Levallois-Perret, make no mention of a hospital birth. So it would seem that Violette was born at the family home.
For a time it looked as if the growing family might stay permanently in France. Work was scarce in England and Charlie decided to buy a car and run a private hire service in Paris. Reine supplemented their income with dressmaking, which had been her profession before her marriage. She spent a lot of her time at home with her two children as her husband was often away overnight and sometimes for days at a time, ferrying his clients all over France. Reine would have been happy to remain in her homeland but things were becoming increasingly difficult economically. The employment options open to Charlie were rather limited as he had never been able to master the French language. He and Reine discussed what to do and came to the conclusion that they would be better off returning to England to stay with Charlie's family. So, when Violette was about 3 years old, they packed their bags again, gave up their small flat and moved back to rural Berkshire.
When George Bushell gave up the tenancy of the White Hart he took over the running of a shop in Station Yard in Hampstead Norreys. In the early 1920s he also decided to start a small bus company and went into partnership with a local man called 'Batty' Wheeler, running a bus between the village and Newbury. It was later absorbed into the Newbury & District Bus Company. On his return to England, Charlie went to work for his father driving the bus. There were a number of small bus companies at that time, all competing with each other for business. In Hampstead Norreys alone there were five other companies, Fulker & Son, Jeffrey, Johnson, Matthews and W.J. White & Son, as well as George Bushell and his son, all plying the route to Newbury and stopping to pick up passengers wherever they happened to be along the way. It was a precarious business and life was difficult for the Bushell family. Although Roy remembers living for a time at the White Hart, he has much stronger memories of living with his father's sister, Aunt Dora and of being sent to a convent, although he cannot recall where it was.
By the mid-1920s Roy and Violette once again left England. Their parents took them to France where Roy went to Quevauvillers to live with his great-aunt, Tante Blanche, and Violette to Noyelles-sur-Somme where she stayed with Tante Marguerite. Charlie and Reine Bushell then returned to England where, for a time, Charlie became a used car dealer. Roy and Violette were not to see very much of either of their parents or of each other for several years, until in 1932 both children returned to England. By then their parents were living in Talbot Road in Bayswater and Roy and Violette had two more brothers; John, born in Wantage in 1923 and Noel who was born in Fulham in 1926.
They soon moved to the Stockwell – Brixton borders of south London where they rented rooms from a woman called Mrs Tripp at 12 Stockwell Park Walk, just behind the Astoria cinema. At the time of writing the road itself still exists; it is a small, busy, one-way street linking Stockwell Road to Brixton Road. The house in which they lived was the first of four large Victorian dwellings on the left-hand side after turning in from Stockwell Road, just around the corner from the Brixton Tabernacle. The house has long gone, having been replaced by a row of modern houses. In the 1930s, however, Stockwell Park Walk was home to many theatrical people and was a lively, interesting place.
Charlie Bushell had still not settled in one job at this time, although he was always looking for the one that would provide him with long-term security. The burden of being the breadwinner fell mainly to Reine, who was an excellent dressmaker. Eileen Hughes, a neighbour in Stockwell Park Walk, remembered Mrs Bushell as being rather dour and serious, possibly the result of the strain of providing for her growing family. Mr Bushell, on the other hand, was cheerful and smiling and often spoke in a kindly way to the neighbourhood children. This seems to have been rather at odds with the way he behaved at home. Roy has described him as:
... very strict; a martinet, in fact. It was only Mother's restraining influence that kept some semblance of domestic bliss in our household. At the time we were not overly fond of him, but to be fair he was a pretty good father, and we were well cared for.
Although Violette was older than Eileen, the two girls would sometimes play hopscotch together on the pavements of Stockwell Park Walk and could be seen hanging out of their respective windows in the evenings, having a chat. Eileen remembered the Bushell boys well as they often played childish pranks like trying to tie tin cans to cats' tails. They were lively, boisterous children and Violette was no different from her brothers. She was always active and full of energy. The Bushell children often spoke in French among themselves, which annoyed some of the neighbours who assumed they were being talked about.
As well as playing with Eileen, Violette became friendly with Mrs Tripp's niece, Winnie Wilson, who had come to live with Mrs Tripp when her parents died. According to Roy, Mrs Tripp was a nice person who was very good to his family. Violette and Winnie remained friends until Violette went off to France on her second mission for SOE.
The Bushell children enrolled at Stockwell Road School. When Roy and Violette arrived back in England they were 12 and 11 years old respectively. Neither could speak English properly and so had to learn very quickly in order to get on with their lessons. They both spent a lot of their time at Brixton library trying to improve their English, which they soon managed. However, at home they often spoke French, much to the irritation of their father who never knew what they were saying. At school they were referred to as the 'frogs' and Florence Cooper (later Harwood) a school friend who lived a few streets away from Violette, recalled that Violette's nickname was 'Froggy'. Florence remembered her as a very kind girl who would do anything for anyone and was a good friend to her, often protecting her from the school bullies. Her only complaint was that Violette insisted on calling her Flossie, which she hated. Florence's father had a motorbike and would sometimes give Violette a lift home from school. She loved to speed down Stockwell Road on the back of Mr Cooper's bike, her dark hair streaming out in the wind. Florence described Violette's hair as being like a raven's wing; so dark that it had an almost blue sheen to it.
On 22 February 1935, in Lambeth, Reine gave birth to her last child, a boy known to the family as Dickie. Their accommodation at Mrs Tripp's house was cramped at the best of times and with the baby's arrival it was impossible, so they found a new place to live with much more space at 18 Burnley Road, Stockwell. Here they had rooms in the basement, the ground floor and one room on the first floor of the house. Charlie Bushell found regular work as a plumber after the move and mellowed slightly now that the family income had stabilized. He grew vegetables in the small back garden and the family remained there, quite happily, until well after the Second World War. In the 1930s the road probably looked much as it does today, as the houses were old even then. However, 7½ decades ago Stockwell Road would have been a very different place. Many of the buildings that were there then have been replaced with more modern structures and there are several housing developments that were not there in the 1930s. At the corner of Burnley Road and Stockwell Road was the London County Council Public Health Department Dispensary and next to that the Lambeth Borough Council Welfare Centre. There then followed a variety of businesses: a confectioner's shop owned by Thomas Lewis, Isaac Tasch's kosher butcher's shop, Arthur Bloom's bakery, a leather goods shop, an outfitters, Matthews motor tyre factory, Miller's garage, Sidney Davis' second hand book shop, Nicholls & Co., printers, the L.C.C. Tramway sub-station, Brixton Estate Agency, the Old Queen's Head and Pride & Clarke Motor Car dealers. At the corner of Rumsey Road was a savings bank and on the other side of Stockwell Road was the school, between the Lambeth Divisional Offices of the London County Council Education Department and Mold's Furnishing Stores. A high, dark Victorian building, it is still a school and now has a garden dedicated to the memory of Violette Szabo.
Just along the road from the school was the Plough Inn, where Charlie Bushell used to go for a pint and a game of darts, and three doors away from the public house was a cigarette and sweet shop owned by Charles Dawton where, in later years, Violette used to buy her Churchman's No.1 cigarettes.
The children had a longer distance to walk to school once they moved to Burnley Road but they had much more living space, which made up for the extra walk. Violette enjoyed school and worked hard. It was a struggle at first having to cope with the language difficulties but she persisted with her studies and eventually did well. In later years she was remembered with affection by her teachers as being a lively and friendly child. Her experience of life up to that point was very different from that of the other children; she could speak another language and had lived in France. She could talk about things and places that most of them never imagined they would ever experience and, as children often do when confronted with someone different, they flocked around this exotic little girl.
Violette's favourite occupation at school was sport. She was athletic and was very good at gymnastics. She used to practise her acrobatics with her brother, Roy, turning handstands and climbing onto his shoulders. She took part in all the sporting events at school and did very well. With four brothers and a number of male cousins it was no wonder that she was a tomboy.
She enjoyed music, listening to a variety of performers such as Charlie Kuntz, Gracie Fields and Joan Sutherland on the family's wind-up gramophone, and, for a time, had violin lessons, but these came to nothing and she soon gave them up. Roy thinks it was probably just a fad. He said of her, 'She was no highbrow, always cheerful, with a devil-may-care attitude.'
School holidays were spent apart, as the Bushell family never went away together. Roy and John spent most of their time in Hampstead Norreys with their grandmother or with Aunt Mabel. Violette stayed with her father's sister, Aunt Florence, and her husband, Uncle Harry, for most of her free time, although she also enjoyed visiting her mother's family in Pont Rémy in France.
Harry Lucas, who had been the landlord at the New Inn in Hampstead Norreys, had later moved and taken over a public house in Hereford. When he left the pub he got a job looking after the hounds for Mrs Simmons, who was Master of Foxhounds in Wormelow, Herefordshire, and he and his family moved to a house called The Old Kennels.
Aunt Florence and Uncle Harry had five children, Norman, Betty, Jean, Brenda and John; Norman and Violette were the same age and got along very well together. Violette used to play with the younger children and with the other children in the village, climbing trees and teaching them to play games such as rounders in the surrounding fields. There are stories about Violette climbing out onto the roof of The Old Kennels and running along the ridge but her cousin, Norman, thinks this was unlikely. The roof was very steep and Norman thinks it more likely that she climbed onto the roof of a lean-to that used to be attached to the back of the house.
The Lucas family lived in The Old Kennels until the end of the war when Mrs Simmons suddenly, and quite unexpectedly, gave them one month's notice and they had to move to a small house in Hereford.