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  • Over the past 14 years, JK Rowling's Harry Potter novels

  • have sold almost 450 million copies,

  • transforming her from struggling writer into the most successful author in the world.

  • But Jo has been unable to share her success with one of the people she cared about most.

  • Mum died when I had just started writing Harry Potter.

  • It's a real regret actually that I never even mentioned it to her,

  • that she died without knowing anything about something so huge.

  • She knew I had literary ambitions

  • but she never knew that I'd had the idea of my life to date.

  • My mother's maiden name was Anne Volant,

  • she was a quarter French and she was very interested in her French roots

  • but never had a chance to explore them.

  • So the huge motivation in looking into my family history is my mother.

  • It's very much bound up in, in that loss.

  • Jo Rowling lives and works in Scotland

  • but can trace her French roots back three generations.

  • My mother's father's father, Louis Volant married an English woman

  • and I know the marriage failed.

  • I know something about his war record.

  • He was very brave in the First World War.

  • I don't know all the details but he was awarded the Legion d'honneur.

  • In 2009, Jo herself won the Legion d'honneur,

  • France's highest honour, for her services to world literature.

  • I made my speech in French and it was an opportunity to speak about Louis.

  • It was one of the most meaningful awards that I've ever received, because of that family connection.

  • But I don't really know where he came from,

  • I don't know what kind of family he came from

  • and I don't know anything at all about the generations behind him.

  • Jo has decided to start her search into Louis Volant

  • and her French roots in the Scottish capital.

  • I'm going into Edinburgh to see my Aunty Marian,

  • who's staying with friends here and she's my mum's big sister,

  • and she's the last link to the French family.

  • She was born a Volant, that's her maiden name.

  • DOORBELL RINGS

  • - Hello, my darling! - How are you?

  • Lovely to see you.

  • Marian Fox is Jo's maternal aunt, and the daughter of Stanley Volant,

  • the youngest of four children born to Jo's great grandfather,

  • Louis Volant and his wife, Lizzie.

  • Marian has brought the family's collection of letters and photos to show Jo.

  • - I'm very excited. - This is the famous wedding album.

  • So this is your wedding to Les.

  • My wedding to Les, me with my 18-inch waist.

  • Your 18-inch waist. Tiny.

  • - There's Mum. - Ahh.

  • We had that dress for dressing up, it was pale blue.

  • - That's right, yeah. - Ahh.

  • This is Lizzie, your great grandmother.

  • - She was lovely. - Was she?

  • - She taught me my prayers, cuddled me, she was a natural grandma. - Ahh.

  • She was really gorgeous.

  • So Lizzie married Louis.

  • Have you found Louis at all?

  • Yes, there's some here.

  • I have a photo.

  • - Oh, I've never seen that before. - He's handsome, isn't he? He's gorgeous, isn't he?

  • This is Louis' good conduct certificate.

  • Right. This is from National Service, is it?

  • - Yes, and look at this, Jo. - Ah.

  • - Was he born on your birthday? - He was born on 31st July.

  • Exactly the same day, yeah.

  • Oh, my God.

  • How bizarre. Same date as me and Harry Potter.

  • That's right.

  • And he was born in Paris in the 10th arrondissement. Wow.

  • I think this is a photo of his mother.

  • - Oh, my goodness. - And her name, would you believe is Salome Schuch. - So... - Very strong-featured lady.

  • What do you know about her?

  • - Very little. Just that she grew up in the countryside in France. - Right.

  • So when did Louis arrive in England

  • and why did he come to England?

  • We know he came over in the 1890s

  • and he worked over here as a waiter

  • in places like the Savoy.

  • Classy joints.

  • Oh, classy joints, classy joints.

  • And that's where he met Lizzie

  • - who was working as a nursery maid for a family off Marble Arch. - Oh, wow.

  • Have a look at these.

  • They're all letters that Louis wrote Lizzie, over the years,

  • right from when they first met.

  • - Oh, wow. - They made me cry, they are so lovely.

  • - "Dearest Lizzie." - Everything is, my dearest Lizzie.

  • This was written about 1896.

  • - Right. - And he was having to go back to Paris to do his National Service.

  • "Now, darling, just have a little more patience.

  • "I think this shall be one of the last letters I am writing to you,

  • "so with all my fondest love and kisses to my dearest Lizzie, from your own forever Louis.

  • "PS Write soon, Liz, time will fly now. Ta-ta, my love."

  • Oh, it's lovely, isn't it? It's so sweet.

  • And that is Lizzie and Louis' wedding photo.

  • - Well, you can see what they saw in each other. - Oh, yes, yeah.

  • She was 25, he was 22. So he was very young, wasn't he?

  • Very young.

  • Now this one is the first family baby photo taken,

  • when Marcel was born, in 1901 I think it was.

  • Right. It's actually very touching

  • - cos you know the marriage didn't work out. - That's right, yeah.

  • So when did Louis leave the family?

  • I don't know. It was always a bit of mystery.

  • Louis had gone back to France for some reason or other

  • and Lizzie wouldn't go over and join him,

  • - she wouldn't pack up and go to French. - Right. - So they split.

  • - After that we haven't got any family photos. - Yeah.

  • - We've got this, from the First World War. - Oh, my goodness. - Yeah, this is... - His identity card.

  • Wow. Wasn't there a photograph of him wearing his Legion d'honneur?

  • - No, this was the only thing from his effects that we found. - Oh.

  • The button ball badge of the Legion of Honour, but not the medal.

  • Isn't that wonderful?

  • Gosh.

  • I would love to know what the citation was for him being awarded that medal,

  • because I feel he did something very brave and sadly we don't know what it was.

  • - And I'm proud of him. - Yeah, me too.

  • Wow.

  • And where is he buried?

  • - I don't know where he's buried. - We don't know?

  • I don't know anything else cos there was no funeral service anybody attended that I heard of.

  • And there's nobody to ask any more.

  • - I'll put these back, Jo. - OK. - I want you to take them with you. - Ah.

  • - Look after Louis and Lizzie for me. - I will really. Thank you so much.

  • - I'll look after them. - Thank you.

  • I feel this weird pull towards Louis.

  • He left France to go to London,

  • a massive city

  • that's also a foreign city, so he's an immigrant.

  • That's very gutsy.

  • And then I found the letters so moving,

  • this very young man writing to his English girlfriend.

  • And Marian's told me he was a waiter and he worked at the Savoy

  • so I'm going to London.

  • Jo's great grandfather, Louis Volant, arrived in London in the 1890s

  • and worked in the city as a waiter both before and after the First World War.

  • Jo has come to the famous Savoy Hotel on the Strand

  • where Louis worked in the 1920s.

  • She's come to meet social historian Constance Bantman,

  • who's been researching Louis' life in London.

  • - So we are here. - Yes. - At the River Restaurant. - Yes. - At the Savoy,

  • which is where Louis worked between 1919 and 1927

  • and this is the restaurant in action.

  • Wow, I love this, it's so 1920s, it's so glamorous.

  • It was one of the best, if not THE best restaurant in the whole world.

  • - Wow. - And Louis was head wine waiter. - He was head wine waiter? - Yes. - Oh, Louis!

  • And he actually got an award for it, a French award,

  • called Chevalier du Merite Agricole.

  • - You're joking? - No, not at all. It's a very prestigious distinction.

  • - And this was given to him in 1922. - And here's his title in French.

  • "Chef du service des vins au Savoy Hotel."

  • Fair play to him, for a working class Frenchman who's come to London,

  • - he's certainly risen in his profession. - Absolutely.

  • We are extremely lucky in that the Savoy keep an archive of their former employees

  • and this is his card.

  • Oh, my goodness. Louis' card.

  • And the card contains previous employment history.

  • Louis' employment card reveals that to get to the Savoy

  • he had worked his way up

  • through the ranks of his professional since his arrival in London in the 1890s.

  • Political instability in France and cheaper cross channel transport

  • encouraged many young French men and women to seek work in the English capital.

  • By the turn of the century, there were tens of thousands of poor French immigrants

  • crammed into a part of Soho known as La Petite France.

  • Many sought work in the city's flourishing restaurants.

  • Louis' card records that he was taken on as a junior waiter

  • by the fashionable Princes' Restaurant in 1899.

  • This is the Princes' Restaurant. You can see very, very rich, very opulent surroundings.

  • Wow. Where is this?

  • - This is just off Piccadilly. - Oh, really?

  • It was a very nice place run by French people.

  • Would he have made more money here than he would have done in Paris?

  • Yes, here a French waiter had this immense cache.

  • - So these places were looking for Frenchmen. - Exactly.

  • The Princes' Restaurant was catering to the theatre crowd so it closed

  • at impossible hours and this would have been a demanding job.

  • Yeah. I've got this letter and this is from,

  • it's headed the Princes' Restaurant.

  • He's writing to his wife, Lizzie,

  • she's gone back to her parents' house in Norfolk

  • and he says, "You asked me to try and come over next Sunday, indeed I believe you struck it unlucky

  • "for we have a dinner of 60 Frenchmen and they have got a licence,

  • "so it's no use thinking about it for a moment."

  • - Oh. - So he couldn't see his wife, because he had to work late.

  • Yes. And that's obviously one of the striking features,

  • - it was a hard life. - Yeah.

  • Louis would have been working until two or three, six days a week.

  • Oh, my goodness, right.

  • Yes, very, very difficult lifestyle

  • and he earned probably about 40 shillings a month,

  • which works out to be about £80 in contemporary terms.

  • And by the time that letter was written, he was supporting a wife and child on that as well.

  • Exactly, and we can imagine the strain.

  • There was not much time for married life.

  • - If we look at the following census in 1911. - 1911. - You see there.

  • So we've got, Lizzie is listed first as wife

  • and then that's been crossed out and put head, as in head of the family.

  • So the marriage had already broken up in 1911.

  • And Stanley, my grandfather, was only one.

  • Oh, that makes me feel really tearful.

  • And so he'd gone.

  • And here he is. Louis Volant.

  • He's 33, he's still married but they've separated.

  • He's now living in 6 Upper James Street in one room. That's so sad.

  • I find what he did, coming across from France as a very young man

  • and then working his way up to pretty much the head of his profession,

  • admirable, just so admirable.

  • But when I saw the census where they were living apart,

  • I felt like it was happening now

  • and I think the most poignant moment of all

  • was her writing in "I'm a wife" and someone else crossing that out,

  • no, you are now the head of the family.

  • And then shortly after that, 1914, Louis was off to war.

  • Three years after the break-up of his marriage,

  • and 20 years after his arrival in England,

  • Louis Volant was called up to serve in the French Army

  • at the outbreak of World War One.

  • I know that he received the Legion d'honneur

  • for his actions in the First World War,

  • but I don't really know what happened to him.

  • Jo has decided to travel to Paris

  • to discover how her great grandfather became a war hero.

  • Among the letters Marian gave her are some that Louis wrote

  • to his estranged family during the war.

  • "Dear Lizzie and children, hope you're all getting on well.

  • "No change here for me, still it's all a case of luck.

  • "Love and kisses to all,

  • "from Papa. 1915."

  • Which makes him 37 which is quite, quite old to be going off to war.

  • Actually in that photograph I think he looks older than 37.

  • It says he was an interpreter and there's various stamps

  • but really nothing else really tells me much more about him or what he got up to.

  • To see if she can find out why her great grandfather was awarded

  • the Legion d'honneur, Jo has come to the national archives in Paris.

  • The archives were established in 1808

  • and store the most important documents of the French state,

  • including a record of every recipient of the Legion d'honneur,

  • France's highest decoration.