Murder and the Magdala

The Magdala had an interesting story from its birth. In 1868 the Emperor Tewodros II of Ethiopia captured and enslaved the British envoy after Queen Victoria had rejected the Emperor’s offer of marriage. During the subsequent rescue mission and invasion of the country by a British army led by Sir Robert Napier, the Emperor was killed and his mountain palace at Magdala Hill was ransacked and destroyed. One member of the expedition was a British sergeant who managed to liberate enough riches to enable him to build the tavern that he named in honour of the victory.

Pub sign with representation of the Magdala mountain in Ethiopia

[A strange offshoot of this happened in 1992. Vesna Stojanac was a Serbian visitor to Hampstead who fell in love with the Mag. On her return to Belgrade, she renamed her video shop after the pub. So a Serbian video shop ended up being named after an Ethiopian mountain via a London pub.

Vesna Stojanec’s poster for the Magdala Video Shop in Belgrade, Serbia

In a further link, the present writer once had a drink in a grass hut in Addis Ababa that was called the Magdala Bar.]

The Magdala Bar, Addis Ababa

For the next ninety years the Magdala remained a popular establishment especially with the visitors to the large fairs that took place on Hampstead Heath. The area gained its Victorian nickname of ‘Appy ‘Ampstead.

Then the event took place for which the Mag is perhaps best known – and it was anything but ‘Appy. On the evening of Easter Sunday 1955, a night club hostess named Ruth Ellis shot down and killed her lover a racing driver named David Blakeley outside the pub door. It was an obvious crime of passion but that bore no weight with the courts of the day. Ellis pleaded guilty and became the last woman to be executed in Britain. The famed hangman Albert Pierrepoint carried out the sentence. This case reverberated throughout Britain and, in part, led to the abolition of the death penalty in the 1960s. Several films and plays have made reference to the case, notably Miranda Richardson’s portrayal of Ellis in the film ‘Dance with a Stranger’.

Photograph and documents relating to Ruth Ellis in the Magdala

Less well known is that the murder for which the penultimate woman to be hanged, also by Pierrepoint, was found guilty had occurred at No 11, South Hill Park, a few yards from the Magdala (No 2a, South Hill Park). A Cypriot woman, Styllou Christofi, had killed her daughter-in-law by strangulation and had then tried to burn down the house. She was executed in December 1954, just four months before the Ellis murder.

BBC reporter Kirsty Wark pointing out the bullet holes

The Ruth Ellis story has never been forgotten locally. The Guardian journalist Marcel Berlin wrote that it would have needed Wembley Stadium to accommodate all the raconteurs who claimed to have been eye-witnesses. However, one genuine witness was a Daily Mirror journalist who lived nearby. She was known, in reference to the long-running strip cartoon, as ‘Jane of the Mirror’. On the night in question Jane, having consumed a considerable amount of liquor, rose to leave. Wobbling to the door, she opened it and, barking in disapproval “Excuse me” at what looked like a prone drunk, stepped over the body lying in her path. She returned home and went to sleep. Next day she arrived at the Mirror offices to discover that she had stepped over the ‘crime of the decade’ scoop.

Mary Watson, landlady of the Magdala 1989-1997

A further connected story concerned the popular Irish landlady of the pub, the redoubtable Mary Watson. Around the early 1990s, the operators of the ‘Murder Coach’ tours, (usually visiting the Kray Brothers’ Blind Beggar pub and the Jack the Ripper alleys of the East End and aimed mostly at the Japanese tourist market), decided to include the Magdala in their itinerary.

On the night before their first visit, Mary was presiding over a late night ‘lock in’. About 2am, she announced: “Do you know something, them tourists have got nothing to look at when they do get here!” Turning to her barman she instructed: “Liam, go and get me bradawl from upstairs!” Accompanied by a few imbibers, she went outside the bar and started drilling holes in the wall. “There we are, much more interesting” she explained as we returned inside. The next day, she erected a sign beside her handiwork that read:

‘In 1954, Ruth Ellis shot Derek Bentley, producing these bullet holes. Ruth Ellis became the last woman to be hanged in Britain.’

Quite apart from the wrong date, Mary had mixed up ‘Derek Bentley’ (the man hanged for the Croydon police shooting – immortalised in the film ‘Let Him Have It’), with the true victim ‘David Blakely’. However no one seemed to mind and the tourists went away quite happy. Mary commissioned a new sign that managed to name the correct victim. As the years passed these ‘bullet holes’ have been accepted as genuine by many newspapers and BBC TV London News.

Mary Watson’s amended notice and the ‘bullet holes’ – Magdala Tavern

In a bizarre link, a few years ago a gentleman was walking his dog along the pavement opposite the pub when he noticed his pet sniffing the undergrowth around the railings. Then the dog pulled out some bloodstained rags and a clump of human hair. The pedestrian alerted the police who cordoned off the road and set up an incident room in the public bar of the Magdala. It was then discovered that a week previously a film unit had been recording a reconstruction of the Ruth Ellis murder. A props man had thrown away various parts of the ‘corpse’ at the end of the shoot.

[Mary made many efforts to drum up trade. One of them was to redecorate the saloon bar. During the preparation it was found that the rich dark brown colour of the ceiling was not the original décor, which had been cream. The brown stemmed from decades of nicotine drifting up from the cigarettes below.

Another (misguided) idea was to try to clear the pub of dogs. A few evenings later she came downstairs to find six sleeping Labradors sprawled across the floor underneath her ‘NO DOGS’ notice. She reversed her embargo and instead made sure that a bowl of water was always placed on the floor for canine clientele.

If she felt that the atmosphere of the bar had grown too staid she would march in bearing a bottle of whiskey in one hand and a bottle of brandy in the other to top up the customers’ drinks until an acceptable level of inebriation had been achieved.

The one area on which she did not spend much time was pub food, which mostly consisted of packets of pork scratchings and ancient scotch eggs. A visitor described a meal of Mary’s meat pie as “like trying to eat a tortoise”.

Mr Andrew Hobday on a mission

Her most persistent scheme to raise awareness of the pub was her discovery of the Magdala Ghost. Although it seems that Mary was the only person ever to witness this phenomenon, she managed to keep the local press curious about her experiences for some years. She reported that the ghost was ‘headless and shadowy’ and frequently would emerge from her bedroom wall before disappearing again into the ceiling.

When she informed the Japanese tourist firm about this, they sent some researchers to the pub to film the apparition. Mary said that: “As they were looking around the cellar, one of the girls became hysterical and said that she had been touched. Then they all ran to their van and showered themselves with salt. Apparently, it keeps ghosts at bay.” For her own part, she relied on a bottle of holy water provided by her priest. When it was suggested that the ghost be exorcised, Mary came out strongly against the idea, saying that the priest had declared that such an attempt would only anger it. The ghost remained and the tourist trade prospered.]

Mary Watson, landlady of the Magdala 1989-1997 (with Oscar Wilde)

But despite the famous events and illustrious clientele, the real tale of the Magdala lies in the stories connected to the all-weather hard core regulars – the foot soldiers of history perhaps but nevertheless vast personalities within the confines of the bar. Most of the following stories are based around the Mag or environs during the 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s.

The pub originally consisted of three ground floor bars – reducing to two when the snug bar disappeared during the 1970s. Perhaps it was the social mixture of the area (already mentioned) that generated some of the Magdala’s dynamism. This was reflected in the informal titles given to the public bar – ‘The Villains’ Bar’ – and the saloon bar – ‘The Wallies’ Bar’ – although there was easy access between the two.

Before anything else, it must be admitted that maybe the Magdala was not to everyone’s taste. One set of internet reviewers claimed that despite their liking for the customers ‘because they are eccentrics’, ‘the furniture was old and worn and even worse the beer was flat and tasteless’ and even the customers whose company they enjoyed were ‘terrible singers’. A one-time chair of SEGA said that ‘the pub was dingy and sometimes rowdy’, while another reviewer said that the saloon bar ‘was infested with drunken septuagenarians who rather lowered the tone’.

But then again, in the words of the late Bishop of Ely: “Sod ‘em”.

Mary Watson’s Farewell Party

Any pub reflects its landlord and the Mag was lucky over the years to have attracted many hosts who have appreciated the special quality of SEG. Fred – José – Sue – the East End girls – John and Tracy – all played their part. But the Mag was especially fortunate in attracting two woman who were in it for the long haul. Mary Watson lasted from 1989 till 1997, to be followed by Christiana Grant (née Baehr) from 1997 till 2014. They, more than any others, presided over its ramshackle life with sympathy and tolerance.

Christiana Baehr (right), landlady of the Magdala 1997-2014

Tolerance was an attribute that was a necessity to successfully control the Magdala. Its clientele was unusual. A theatre lecturer at the Central School of Speech and Drama in Belsize Park made a habit of sending his students along to the saloon bar to sit and observe its denizens in order to give them ideas on how to express the more bizarre aspects of human nature. In return, the denizens re-christened his revered establishment as the ‘Central School of Screech and Trauma’.

One of the most interesting incidents to involve a local stalwart occurred in 2000 when the professional bagpiper Dave Brookes (a veteran of dozens of Burns Nights and St Andrews’ Days) was arrested for practising his instrument on Hampstead Heath. Although the sound of distant pipes was a welcome distraction to most people, inevitably somebody complained to the City of London Corporation and Mr Brooks was arrested for breaching a by-law banning the use of musical instruments. He unearthed a novel defence to this charge arguing that in 1747 following the Battle of Culloden the bagpipes were banned in England and Scotland and defined as a weapon of war; therefore it was not a musical instrument. The magistrates accepted this defence but promptly re-arrested him for carrying an offensive weapon.

Bagpiper Dave Brookes being arrested for ‘carrying an offensive weapon’

Overheard at the saloon bar counter:

“When you ask a woman to describe her ideal man, after a while you realise that she is describing an intelligent Labrador with a wallet.”


To see other chapters – go to top of page and, under the main title, click on the small heading ‘Under Ken Wood’


Feb 28:           1 South End Green – Prologue

Mar 7:             2 Where Eagles Dared

Mar 7:             3 Murder and the Magdala

Mar 14:           4 The Hepburns

Mar 14:           5 Private Godfrey and the Dame of Soho

Mar 21:           6 Garland and Mercer

Mar 21:           7 Laureates and Spies

Mar 21:           8 The Silver Fox

Mar 28:           9 The Hoffmeister and Kelly

April 4:           10 The Harvey Brothers

April 4:           11 The Journos

April 11:          12 Five Funerals and a Resurrection

April 18:          13 Scallawag

April 25:         14 Crime and Punishment

May 2:            15 Good Companions

May 9:            16 Sasthi Brata

May 9:            17 Bob the Bag and Cornish Pat

May 16:           18 Eddie Linden

May 16:           19 The Branch Offices

May 23:          20 The Mulls Kid

May 30:          21 The Musos

May 30:          22 Closing Time