Betty celebrates 90th birthday at village pub she grew up in
- Credit: FRENCH FAMILY
An East Bergholt woman has celebrated her 90th birthday at the village pub where she began pulling pints at 16.
Betty French and her family celebrated the milestone on Saturday at the recently refurbished Red Lion pub in East Bergholt, bringing back memories of her teenage years.
Mrs French was born in Pipers Vale, which used to be known as ‘The Lairs’, in 1930, and she had three siblings, Edna, Gordon and Rita.
Her father John Ernest Smith, who served in World War Two, was badly gassed and was given one of the first homes in Pipers Vale estate on his return.
The family briefly relocated to Surrey when Mrs French was about 10, but returned to Ipswich a few years later where her father bought a house at the top of St John’s.
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In 1947, having dreamt of owning his own pub, Mr Smith took over the Red Lion in East Bergholt and moved to the village, when Mrs French was just 16 years old.
She celebrated her 17th birthday at the pub and her 18th too, with family, friends and customers in the bar. Her parents gave her a beautiful necklace which she then later wore on her wedding day.
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She met her husband-to-be, John Frederick French, in the village when she was just 16 years old. They courted for five years and enjoyed going on their boat at Flatford and Manningtree, before getting married in coronation year at the village church.
Mr French worked at BX Plastics in Lawford, but was a keen and self-taught local painter. When he was made redundant, he moved to doing art full-time, drawing and using watercolour paints to create detailed maps of East Bergholt, Dedham, Manningtree and Lavenham.
Mrs French worked for an Ipswich printers, W S Cowells, in the accounts department, and continued to do so even after moving to East Bergholt.
She fondly remembers catching the Eastern Counties bus home from the Cattle Market and arriving at the terminus, which is now the Red Lion car park, where the bus would stay overnight for a small fee given to her father.
Mrs French later went to the accounts office at BX Plastics in Brantham and would help behind the bar at the Red Lion at the weekends.
“It was a man’s domain,” said Mrs French, who has lived in East Bergholt ever since. “I took a little while to adjust, but I grew to enjoy it and have some very happy memories there with lots of laughter.”
On New Year’s Eve, Mrs French remembers doing the conga with customers up to the village bell cage before doing the dance back for a last drink.
She served lots of characters over the years, with Winston Churchill’s son Randolf Churchill even visiting for a drink.
The Smith family would never let anyone sleep out on the streets, offering people a warm place to stay if they didn’t have a roof over their own heads.
Mrs French loved her time at the pub and has fond memories of what the village once was.
“The village was so peaceful, you could even hear people tapping away at the bike shop opposite us,” she said.
“They were wonderful times and I don’t think we realised how great it was. It was a different world back then.”
Mrs French’s father ran the pub until he passed away at the age of 61, after around 10 years of serving the village. Her mother tried to run the pub for three years on her own after her husband passed, but she found it difficult to move on.
In 1960 they left the pub and Mrs French welcomed her eldest daughter Ann, shortly followed by her second daughter Vanessa in 1965.
Mr and Mrs French were happily married for 62 years before his death in 2015, aged 89.
Speaking of her family, Mrs French said: “I couldn’t have managed these last few years without them.
“I am a very lucky woman and I count my blessings. I don’t feel very different at 90, but I am surprised that I have reached this age.
“It is lovely to see the pub now, although it is very different, but we have to move with the times.
“Jonathan has done a marvellous job with it.”
The French family is hoping to host an exhibition of Mr French’s local artwork after coronavirus has passed.