The Hepburns

Sunbathing on the Heath

Perhaps the most redoubtable family to have connections to the Magdala were the Hepburns – one scion of which, George, regularly dropped in for a drink on most weekends. His mother was the poetess Anna Wickham who lived in a large house towards the top of Parliament Hill. Born in 1883 Anna was a resplendent example of Hampstead bohemian life in the first half of the 20th century. Although born in Wimbledon she spent much of her early years in Australia. Returning to London in 1904 she became a singer and performed at the Paris Opera. She also studied drama. After her marriage to the lawyer Patrick Hepburn and the birth of her four sons, she took up poetry and her first collection was published in 1911.

Her life then took on what was described at the time as ‘a disorganised aspect’ and, during her separation from Patrick, she became involved in a series of affairs (at one point two lovers fought a duel over her and while in Paris she fell for the notorious lesbian Natalie Barney). She managed to mingle the flamboyant life of the Café Royal and Fitzrovia with her more serious support for the suffragettes. In Hampstead she became friends with DH Lawrence and his wife Frieda, Edith Sitwell, and the artist David Bomberg, all of whom were regular visitors to her home. In 1935, Dylan Thomas and his wife Caitlin stayed with her on Parliament Hill – a period during which Dylan would use the Magdala as a starting point and as a postscript to his pub tours of North London. Patrick Hepburn died in 1929 while Anna continued to live with her sons at their home until her death by suicide in 1947.

View from Parliament Hill

If Anna was an unusual woman, her son James was one of the most remarkable men to have crossed the pub threshold. As a youth he visited Paris with his mother where he mingled with such people as Sylvia Beach (the creator of the Shakespeare and Co bookshop), the lesbian novelist Djuna Barnes, and the ‘Queen of Bohemia’ Nina Hamnett. He also met the Great Beast himself, Aleister Crowley, and beat him at chess. Crowley sulked for weeks at this reverse.

James Hepburn

After leaving school James worked first on the railways but then decided on a theatrical career, performing with both Stanley Holloway and Noel Coward. In 1928, while on tour he celebrated his 21st birthday in a New York speakeasy. Enthused by the example of Fred Astaire, he joined up with his brother John to form the very successful tap dancing team the ‘The Hepburn Brothers’ who toured the USA and Europe. Olivia Manning, author of ‘The Fortunes of War’, remembered meeting them in Bucharest in 1938 during the febrile pre-war atmosphere that she recreated in her famous Balkan Trilogy books.

In 1939 he joined the RAF as a tail-gunner, navigator, and pilot and was awarded the DFC in 1943. Remarkably he flew over Hiroshima only a few days after the nuclear attack in 1945. He operated as a pilot throughout the period of the Berlin airlift, then as a publicity stunt became only the second man to fly round the world from east to west. Later he became a civil servant engaged on secret work at the Ministry of Defence.

He retired from the MOD in 1977 and aged 70 took up a job in Heals’ bedding factory. Always a staunch socialist, he became a valued member of the Hampstead Labour Party. His stepdaughter married the Monty Python comedian Terry Jones. Right up to his death aged 88 in 1995, James remained active and on occasion would demonstrate his tap-dancing skills on the pavement outside the Magdala.

The Catto Gallery, Hampstead

His brother George also lived all his life in the family home on Parliament Hill. A much less active man than James, George never lost his childlike innocent charm even in his nineties. In his youth he also met his mother’s vast range of famous friends and was involved in a tragi-comic incident involving one of them.

The alcoholic writer Malcolm Lowry, author of ‘Under the Volcano’, was staying as a guest with the family. One morning in the throes of drink, while stroking George’s pet rabbit Lowry accidentally broke its neck. Mortified and in panic he stuffed the corpse into his briefcase and rushed out of the house without reporting the accident. Going straight to a literary luncheon he was bewildered over what to do with the body and finally asked a waiter to dispose of it. His fellow luncheon guests were somewhat perplexed at this exchange. Lowry never owned up and George did not discover what had happened to his pet until years later.

During World War Two, George joined the Veterinary Corps and spent the conflict caring for horses and camels in the Middle East. On his return to Parliament Hill he underwent the most traumatic event of his life. In 1947, his mother asked him to pop down to the shops in SEG on an errand. On his return he found that she had hanged herself. He said that on the discovery he ran to the street and ‘howled like a dog’.

George never involved himself in much activity later in his life, content to earn his living in a variety of jobs as a labourer or bookshop assistant and occasionally writing his own poetry. He married a Dutch lady named Louise in 1964 and lived a quiet life. When he died in 2011, their daughter Jessica said that George adored Parliament Hill and its surroundings. “He didn’t want to let go of who he was. Those Hampstead streets became a part of him”.

The Duke of Hamilton pub, Hampstead, with the New End Theatre behind – now closed

For many years Annie Scott rented the top flat in the Hepburns’ large house and also spent much time in the saloon bar of the Magdala. Born in Scotland, Annie came south to London and established herself as a top class stage manager in theatre, opera and TV. She became close friends with many of the stars, including the operatic aristocracy of José Carreras and Luciano Pavorotti. Her partner Ken was an unusual member of the Magdala world. Until his retirement he had been an Inspector in the British Transport police who acted as bodyguard to many notables on their train journeys. In this capacity he was one of the police representatives who presided over the opening of the Channel Tunnel and had the job of liaising with the French police in the matter. He received the MBE for his services.

Parliament Hill, NW3

Later Annie left the Hepburn house and London and with Ken established themselves in the Latin Quarter of Paris where they still reside. Ken did undergo an unfortunate experience with the Parisian police however. One day a pickpocket stole his wallet and Ken went to report the theft at the local station. While they were taking his details it dawned on ‘les flics’ that they were dealing with an English policeman who had been robbed. Ken became the butt of an onslaught of gleeful chauvinism. “Ha, so zee gendarme Anglais weeshes the police of La France to rescue his money for heem, does he?”

Inspector Ken Avis and Annie Scott

Ken remains the source of some wonderful stories about his career in the police. On one occasion he and a colleague were sent to arrest the barman at a local pub. The landlord asked them as a favour if they could delay the arrest till the end of the evening as the barman was an excellent worker and the landlord could not cover for him. They agreed and the landlord sat them down so that they could keep an eye on their potential target and also have a quick drink while waiting. The ‘quick drink’ went much further than intended.

By the end of the evening, however they realised that they were both too drunk to drive the police car but did not wish to publicise their condition by phoning for back up. Not without some embarrassment, they asked their prisoner whether he could drive them all to the police station. This he proceeded to do and duly was charged and arraigned for trial. During the hearing and in a spirit of goodwill he announced that he wished to thank his arresting officers for their courtesy and especially for allowing him to drive their police car back to the station. On hearing this, the magistrates ordered the prisoner to be taken away for psychological tests.

Annie Scott and the pub dog Alex

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