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Margaret Hepburn – codebreaker, swimmer and champion for the elderly

Age UK named King's Cross centre after woman who deciphered war messages at Bletchley Park

03 November, 2016 — By Ella Jessel

Margaret Hepburn took up swimming at the Heath Ladies’ Pond in her 70s

MARGARET Hepburn, champion for the elderly and a “force to be reckoned with” who rebelled against convention to find freedom in old bohemian Hampstead, has died aged 95.

Six-foot tall and with a twinkle in her eye, she was a Bletchley Park codebreaker during the Second World War and helped to set up Camden Age UK, where she was both chairwoman and honorary president.

Born in 1921 in India, the daughter of an Indian Army colonel, she came to London aged four where she later went to boarding school and read English and philosophy at Reading University.

When the war broke out Margaret’s keen mind saw her called up to work as a decoder at Bletchley Park where she was deployed in Hut 6, specialising in deciphering German messages.

When her first husband set sail with the Navy, she found herself alone in a leaky rural cottage with a young baby daughter and struck out on her own in pursuit of a new life in London.

After a spell working as a secretary she bought a house on Thurlow Road with the money left to her by her beloved grandmother. Margaret’s own mother died from pneumonia when she was a teenager and they had shared a special bond. It marked the beginning of a new chapter in her life.

The war was over and she found a sense of liberation among the Hampstead bohemians. Her fine ear for poetry led her to strike up a friendship with radical feminist poet Anna Wickham, who was friends with DH Lawrence and Dylan Thomas.

She later married Anna’s son, Jim Hepburn, a tap-dancer who performed in 1930s music halls and who became an RAF navigator in the war.

They travelled around the UK and Germany with Jim’s aviation work, including a spell in a windmill in Norfolk – anything for Margaret to avoid playing the role of “suburban housewife” on her husband’s RAF bases.

Settling in Parliament Hill in the 1960s with her young family, it was then that Margaret began volunteering for Meals on Wheels and set up the Jamestown Club for the “elderly confused” before being instrumental in establishing what is now Age UK Camden.

Its King’s Cross centre was named the Margaret Hepburn centre after her and she was later amused that she had “outlived” the centre when it moved buildings in 2011.

The charity’s new Tavis House home includes the Margaret Hepburn IT suite, – fitting for a “silver surfer” who used Skype to watch her great-grandchild’s first steps in South America.

She took up swimming in the Hampstead Heath ponds in her seventies where she loved walking her dogs, and became the chairwoman of the Ladies’ Pond Association.

She is survived by her partner Frank Wilson, her three daughters, Alison, Kate and Harriet, her four grandchildren and five great-grandchildren.

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