Obituary: Hazel Heaton-Armstrong, former Wren, photographer and entrepreneur

Born: 14 July, 1924, in London. Died: 17 May, 2014, in Portugal, aged 89

Hazel Heaton-Armstrong: Noblewoman with common touch and colourful associates

An aristocratic young woman turned shopkeeper, Hazel Heaton-Armstrong’s early life was intertwined with two of the most fascinating families of the 20th century.

As a youngster her home was thrown open to the von Trapp family as they fled Austria after the Anschluss, while her teenage bond with a fellow schoolgirl took her to the heart of the American political dynasty, the Kennedys.

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She went on to serve her country during the Second World War as a Wren based in Orkney and Malta, became a portrait photographer and married her cousin, a farmer, with whom she forged a spectacularly successful personal and professional partnership, raising their six children while building up a series of well-loved stores in ­Aberfoyle.

When they finally shut up shop they left the dreich Trossachs weather behind and retired to Portugal where, having spent the previous 35 years living and working together 24 hours-a-day, the attraction was not so much the sun and continental lifestyle but the simple fact they could be together “just the two of us”.

Helen Gabrielle Laura Hazel Heaton-Armstrong, known as Hazel, was the daughter of Sir John Dunamace Heaton-Armstrong, knighted following his services to the Royal Family at the Queen’s coronation, and Suzanne Laura de Balan.

Her mother, from the Ardennes in France, had previously been married to John Whitehead, whose sister Agathe married Georg von Trapp, whose story was the basis for the Sound of Music.

After Agathe died in 1922 a young nun, Maria, from an abbey in Salzburg, came into the family’s life, initially to tutor one of the widowed naval commander’s children but grew fond of all the youngsters, singing with them and taking them on outdoor activities. She would subsequently marry the children’s father, as portrayed in the film.

Meanwhile Hazel was born in London “at the back of the Albert Hall”, as she liked to describe her parents’ home, and was educated by a nanny and then a governess before going to school for the first time, aged 14.

Her formal education took place in a convent with only one other pupil – Patricia Kennedy, daughter of Joe and Rose Kennedy, whose brothers included the future president John F Kennedy and senators Bobby F Kennedy and Ted Kennedy. The two girls were the same age and they inevitably became close with young Hazel going on to spend summer holidays and half-term breaks with the Kennedy clan.

Shortly before that, back in Austria after the 1938 annexation of the country by Germany, her mother’s brother-in-law Captain von Trapp and his family were making plans to escape the Third Reich. Unlike the portrayal on the big screen, they did not secretly trek over the mountains to Switzerland but went by train to Italy before making their way to London where they stayed with Hazel and her parents while awaiting visas to enter the United States. The von Trapps sang for the family during their stay and finally left by ship for America that September.

After completing her education, Hazel joined the Women’s Royal Naval Service in 1941 and was posted initially to Rosyth before being sent to the Orkney Islands. However, thanks to a godfather in the Ministry of Defence who pulled a few strings, she was posted to Malta where she “danced and danced”, she recalled, and generally had a much more exciting time as a single girl.

She was demobbed in 1945 and returned to London, training in photography and working in antique shops. But the man she would marry, old Etonian Michael Heaton-Armstrong, was still serving in the Scots Guards. He had been seconded to work in intelligence and, at the age of 19, was the acting governor of Trieste. They had known each other all their lives – their fathers were brothers – and began courting after he left the army in 1948.

The couple married in February 1952, not long after the death of the King George VI. As Chester Herald of Arms, her father was a member of the royal household and the scale of the wedding was curtailed out of respect for the nation’s bereavement.

By this time Michael was working as a pig breeder in ­Bosbury, Hereford, but the following year the couple moved to Gilmerton near Crieff and then, in 1955, to Couligartan near Aberfoyle. They farmed there until 1964 when the business ceased to be profitable and then turned their hand to a completely new line of work.

With just £100 behind them, they leased a building for a year for £50 and put the remaining £50 into stock – Armstrong of Aberfoyle was born. The first items sold were Hazel’s creations, specially-covered boxes of cook’s matches and waste-paper bins. Within five or six years they had acquired several more shops, selling a range of goods including quality Scottish craft items. Despite the attitude of friends, horrified at the thought of them serving behind the counter, the couple enjoyed shopkeeping and eventually their business interests, all in Aberfoyle, encompassed a hairdressers, haberdashery, crystal shop, tweed shop and the local Post Office, which they bought in 1976.

A devout Roman Catholic, for 25 years Mrs Heaton-Armstrong was also a director of St Ninian’s in Gartmore, a list D school, run by the Roman Catholic religious order the De la Salle Brothers. She was a very regular worshipper at the Roman Catholic chapel in Aberfoyle until the owners could no longer provide the premises for services. From then on she and her husband were responsible for the very harmonious, if unusual, arrangement whereby the Catholics were given the use of St Mary’s Episcopal Church for mass before the Church of England service.

The industrious, hard-working and well-respected couple finally retired in 1987, selling up their last enterprise and moving to Portugal where they were involved in the church, gardening and archaeological societies.

Widowed in 2000, Mrs Heaton-Armstrong, whose life was celebrated at a thanksgiving in Palhagueira, Portugal, is survived by their children Patricia, Jane, Sheila, Christopher, Duncan and William, 15 grandchildren, 13 great-grandchildren and her brother Bill.