Enid was born in 1888 and Violet in 1890 to distinguished parents Sir Francis Henry Dillon Bell, eventually to become the first New Zealand born Prime Minister, and Lady Caroline Bell.
The family lived in Thorndon but also had a weekend and holiday residence at Lowry Bay called Taumaru from 1894. Taumaru was used as a convalescent hospital during WWI run by another Bell sister, Mrs. Iris Rolleston.
At the outbreak of WWI, Lady Caroline Bell and two daughters, Violet and Enid, set off for Britain to help out. They worked as volunteers with the NZ War Contingent Association seeking out New Zealand soldiers in hospitals to offer what help they could. The Association opened a hospital for New Zealanders at Walton on Thames. The trio moved there, Lady Caroline worked as a sewing mistress. Violet and Enid worked in the kitchen, cleaning, washing up, and setting tables.
With the arrival of the NZ Division to France the hospital was taken over by the NZ military and staffed with NZ Medical Corps doctors and NZ Army Nursing Service nurses. The Bell’s remained at Walton on Thames continuing to volunteer.
Things now changed for both Violet and Enid.
Enid trained as an ambulance driver and mechanic, setting off for France with the British Red Cross in April 1917.
In July 1917 Violet was asked by senior NZ military officers to go to Rouen to be in charge of a section of Voluntary Aid Detachment (VAD) women in the NZ Expeditionary Force (NZEF) Records section. Violet held the rank of Forewoman in Queen Mary’s Army Auxiliary Corps.
Enid was tasked with forming the first unit of the Women’s Royal Naval Service in 1918. Beginning as Motor Driver (or Chaffeuse in some documents) and Mechanic, her rank was soon Chief Section Leader (equivalent to Chief Petty Officer) in charge of the Admiralty Garage in London. Driving senior officers around led to Enid being the only woman present at sea to view the surrender of the German submarine fleet after the Armistice. The senior officers she had driven to Harwich insisted she come aboard to view proceedings.
The sisters received recognition for their war service, both being awarded MBE.
Enid became Deputy Chief Commissioner of the NZ Girl guides 1924-1932.
Returning to England, Enid was there at the outbreak of WWII. She again drove ambulances, this time night shift during the Blitz. Being an accomplished artist, during the day Enid worked in a small secret unit designing camouflage patterns and constructing scale models of military areas.
Returning to New Zealand, Enid lived at Heretaunga in the Hutt Valley pursuing her passions of painting, golfing and gardening. She passed away in 1977.
Violet married John Geoffrey Denniston in 1921. Geoffrey and Violet’s brother William (Hal) served in the same unit of the British Army, King Edward’s Horse (The Kings Overseas Dominions Regiment) in WWI. Hal was killed in action in July 1917.
Geoffrey was a schoolmaster at Christ’s College and then they moved to Whanganui where he taught at Collegiate. They raised two boys, Ralph and David. In 1945 they moved to Gisborne.
Violet shared with her sister Enid a love of painting and exhibited in local art society shows. Geoff passed away in 1965, Violet in 1983.
That dear little home in the Bay : a short history of the Taumaru Military Convalescent Home 1916-1919 / Andrew Francis. Lower Hutt, N.Z. : Hutt City Libraries, 2015. Also available as a downloadable eBook.
In 1893 New Zealand became the first country in the world in which all women gained the right to vote in general elections. 2018 marks the 125th anniversary of women’s suffrage in New Zealand. For more information about the anniversary visit Suffrage 125 on Facebook.
This is part of a series sharing the stories and lives of women who have a connection to Lower Hutt.