Hazel Heaton-Armstrong was a retailer whose family gave refuge to the von Trapps and who spent childhood holidays with the Kennedys
Hazel Heaton-Armstrong, who has died aged 89, was a young girl of 14 when, in 1938, the musical von Trapps took refuge from the Nazis with her family; she later spent school holidays with the Kennedy clan.
The complex connections between Hazel’s family and the von Trapps had developed out of a web of relationships that had their origins in the days before the First World War when cultural and political links between Britain and the German-speaking world were strong. The story of the Heaton-Armstrong family in the 20th century was played out as those ties were broken by two devastating wars.
The youngest of four children, Helen Gabrielle Laura Hazel Heaton-Armstrong was born on July 14 1924 in Kensington, west London, to John (later Sir John) Dunamace Heaton-Armstrong (always known as Jack) and his French-born wife Suzanne (née Bechet de Balan). Although her father was a pillar of the British Establishment as a long-standing officer at the College of Arms (he became Clarenceux King of Arms, the second most senior herald, in 1956), the family had long-standing connections with the Continent.
Hazel’s grandfather, William Heaton-Armstrong (1853-1917), had been born in Austria and married the Baroness Bertha Maxmiliana Zois-Edelstein, oldest surviving daughter of the Austrian 4th Baron Zois-Edelstein. William later served as Liberal MP for Sudbury in Suffolk, from 1906 to 1910, before founding a bank.
Meanwhile, in January 1914 Hazel’s uncle, Captain Duncan Heaton-Armstrong, had taken up the post of private secretary to the newly-appointed King of Albania, the German Prince William of Weid. When the First World War engulfed the Balkans six months later, he escorted two royal infants back to Germany, where he promptly became the first prisoner-of-war of the conflict (he was released two years later in a prisoner exchange). He subsequently wrote an account of Albania’s short-lived pre-war monarchy, The Six Month Kingdom.
After the war Duncan briefly went into business with Capt George von Trapp, an Austrian naval hero who would become famous as the patriarch of the Trapp Family Singers. In 1911 von Trapp had married Agatha (“Agathe”) Whitehead, granddaughter of Robert Whitehead (1823-1905), the man who invented the modern torpedo. After the British government had rejected his invention, the Austrian Emperor Franz Josef had invited Whitehead to open a torpedo factory in Fiume, where his invention facilitated the development of the U-boat. Whitehead, however, had sold his firm to Vickers and Armstrong-Whitworth at the time he retired, so at the outbreak of war in 1914 the company was British-owned.
George and Agathe had seven children, and it was Agathe’s death in 1922 that precipitated the arrival of a novice nun, Maria, from an abbey in Salzburg – and the story of The Sound of Music.
Despite the connection on her father’s side, Hazel’s main connection with the von Trapps was through her mother, who had previously been married to Agathe’s brother, John Whitehead; he had served in the Royal Flying Corps in the First World War and been killed in action in 1916. They had a daughter, Hazel’s half-sister Mary.
According to the story told in the Rodgers and Hammerstein musical, following the Anschluss in March 1938 the von Trapp family fled from the Third Reich by hiking over the Alps to Switzerland. In reality, they travelled by train to Italy before making their way to London, where they stayed with George von Trapp’s sister-in-law and her second family, the Heaton-Armstrongs, while awaiting visas to enter the United States. Hazel recalled that the von Trapps sang for the family during their stay before finally leaving by ship for America in September.
Hazel was educated by a nanny and governesses until the age of 14, when she was dispatched to a Roman Catholic convent at which one of her fellow pupils was Patricia Kennedy, the daughter of Joseph Kennedy, the then American Ambassador to London, and his wife Rose. Patricia's siblings included the future President John F Kennedy and his brothers Bobby and Edward.
At the outbreak of war Hazel’s father, despite having lost an eye in childhood and a leg in the First World War, took leave of absence from the College of Arms to enlist for active service. He was posted to Oxford as a squadron leader in the Administrative and Special Duties Branch of the RAF. With her parents away from London, Hazel spent her exeats and holidays with the Kennedy family, until the Kennedys returned to America at the end of 1940. She did not meet John or Bobby, who had remained in the United States, but she recalled Teddy Kennedy as a “sweet little boy” and kept up with Patricia for many years, naming her eldest daughter after her.
After leaving school, Hazel Heaton-Armstrong joined the Wrens in 1941 and was posted to Rosyth and OrkneyLater she was sent to Malta where, as she recalled, she “danced and danced”.
She was demobbed in 1945 and returned to London, training in photography and working in antique shops. In 1952 she married her cousin Michael (who, as Capt Thomas Michael Robert Heaton-Armstrong, had served as the acting governor of Trieste towards the end of the war). She had known him from early childhood, and at the time of their marriage he was working as a pig-breeder at Bosbury, Hereford.
In 1953 they moved to Scotland, first to a rented farm near Crieff, then, in 1955, to a farm at Couligartan, near Aberfoyle, where they brought up their six children.
They continued to farm pigs until 1964, when it was no longer financially viable. They then took a lease on a shop in Aberfoyle where they began selling Hazel’s creations — decoratively-covered boxes of cook’s matches, waste-paper bins and other items. Within a few years they had acquired several more shops, and by the mid-1980s Armstrong of Aberfoyle had become a sizeable retail concern, with a hairdresser, haberdasher, crystal shop, tweed shop and a Post Office.
A devout Roman Catholic, Hazel Heaton-Armstrong was, for 25 years, a director of St Ninian’s, Gartmore, a school run by the De La Salle religious order. She was a regular attendee at the Roman Catholic chapel in Aberfoyle, and when the owners could no longer lend the room, she and her husband arranged for the congregation to be accommodated at the local Episcopal church, an ecumenical arrangement whereby services were timed so that the Roman Catholics warmed the seats for the Anglicans.
After selling the shops and the family home, in 1987 the Heaton- Armstrongs retired to Portugal.
Hazel Heaton-Armstrong’s husband died in 2000, and she is survived by their three daughters and three sons.
Hazel Heaton-Armstrong, born July 14 1924, died May 17 2014