Ruth Ellis and the Magdala: the hole truth?

Are the marks left by Ruth Ellis’s gun on the wall of The Magdala pub genuine? Actor and blogger Neil Titley isn’t so sure...

Thursday, 18th May 2017 — By Dan Carrier

Neil Titley

Neil Titley outside the now-closed Magdala

PEER through the windows of The Magdala pub in South End Green and you see what was once a lively bar lying dusty, with the remnants of recent building works on the upper floors strewn next to the tell-tale signs of the last days of its most recent incarnation – empty pint glasses on a bar, dust sheets and paint pots, off-cuts of wood and cement-crusted buckets sit where drinkers once shared tales.

The Magdala shut its doors after around 150 years of trading in 2014 – though it enjoyed a brief resurrection for a few months in 2015 before closing again in January 2016. The upper floors have been converted by the owners into flats but the pub lies empty.

The Magdala pub in South End Green

Writer, director and actor Neil Titley doesn’t want to the ghosts of The Magdala to fade away – and so has created a blog that reads like a requiem for Hampstead Past. He has scoured through his diaries and trawled his memory to recount the stories of the people who drank there – and the result is a fascinating insight to what makes a pub a special place and a reminder of a Hampstead that is rapidly disappearing. He decided to create the blog to ensure The Magdala was not forgotten.

“So many pubs have gone and sunk out of sight. I just did not want the pub to disappear completely,” he says.

The blog relays the history of South End Green, musing on how it mixes well-heeled Hampstead with the environs of Gospel Oak and goes on to relate the stories of the people who drank there.

“It was diverse,” he recalls. “Politically, it was extremely opinionated – you had left-wingers, communists, drinking next to borderline Nazis and everything in between. You’d hear ferocious arguments one night and then the next day no one would mention it.

The poster for Ruth Ellis, a play performed at The Magdala in 1999

“It was totally classless – there were people there from all backgrounds. People fell in love with it.”

Neil first stepped through the its doors in 1968. Originally from Inverness, he had worked in various jobs including a stint on a Cornish fishing boat and working as George Harrison’s gardener before eventually settling in South End Green in 1977.

He started writing solo shows based on literary figures, and his productions about Oscar Wilde, where he performs as the writer, have taken him around the world.

The Magdala has been a constant in his life for 50 years, somewhere he returned after playing Wilde on stages in places from Uruguay to Hong Kong.

As he recounts, the pub has a great yarn behind it. In 1868, Emperor Tewodros of Abyssinia asked Queen Victoria for her hand in marriage, and when the monarch declined he took a host of British missionaries captive.

The amended sign on the wall complete with bullet holes

“Victoria sent an army out there to free her emissary who had been captured too,” says Neil. “One of the sergeants in this force stole enough booty from the ransacking of the emperor’s fortress that when he came home, he established the pub and called it The Magdala after the place where the battle had been fought.”

He also recounts an aside about the incident that has made The Magdala so famous: the 1955 murder of Derek Blakeley, the lover of Ruth Ellis, who as the last woman in Britain to be hanged.

“The Ellis story has never been forgotten locally,” says Neil. “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. The next day she arrived at the Mirror offices to discover that she had stepped over the ‘crime of the decade’ scoop.”

Landlady Mary Watson

But do the famed bullet holes in the pub wall date from the period?

Neil casts doubt: “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, decided to include The Magdala.

“On the night before their first visit, landlady Mary Watson 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!’

“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.’”

He goes on to point out that not only did she get the date wrong, but the name of the victim, too.

How the press reported the arrest of bagpiper Dave Brookes

The stories come think and fast – Neil recounts the tale of Mag regular, bagpiper Dave Brookes, who managed to get off a charge of playing the instrument on Hampstead Heath by stating that since the Battle of Culloden in 1747 bagpipes had been defined as a weapon of war and was not therefore an instrument.

“The magistrates accepted this defence but promptly re-arrested him for carrying an offensive weapon,” he adds.

Poets, writers, actors, binmen, hospital porters, and the unemployed – The Magdala has welcomed them all. Late-night lock-ins, fights conducted between poets in verse, spies and a blind dog that only responded to commands in Czechoslovakian – The Mag has a rich history.

“The pub is like a secular church – so much happened there that is crucial to a communal life,” says Neil.

Will it ever re-open? Neil isn’t sure – but until its future is determined one way or another, his brilliant recounting of the people who made it what it is shows just how an important institution The Mag has been for NW3 and beyond.

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