Mike Guilfoyle, vice-chair of the Friends of Brockley and Ladywell Cemeteries, located the headstone of James Smith Hepburn – a solicitor. His son Patrick, also a solicitor, was a keen amateur astronomer who married Edith Alice Harper, a pioneer of modernist poetry.
Amidst a row of uneven headstones in Ladywell cemetery lies one with a mossy hue that is easily overlooked.
However, during one recent serendipitous footslogging visit I located the headstone of a James Smith Hepburn ( d.1905) who worked as a solicitor in the City of London and lived “comfortably” at his family home in Croydon.
It was when I started to research the family history that a truly remarkable familial link arose as his son and daughter in law became well known in the fields of amateur astronomy and iconic feminist poetry.
James son Patrick was born in 1873 and followed in his father’s footsteps in the legal profession, becoming a senior partner at the age of 32.
Patrick’s interest in astronomy began in early youth with the use of a Wray telescope which was owned by the family.
In 1896 he travelled to Norway with fellow astronomers to observe a total solar eclipse and was elected a fellow of the Royal Astronomical Society.
In 1906 he married Anna Wickham, the pseudonym of Edith Alice Harper, an English/Australian poet who was a pioneer of modernist poetry and considered one of the most important female poets writing during the first half of the twentieth century.
They had four sons from what was often a tempestuous marriage and separated in 1926.
In 1911 and at the outbreak of the First World War Patrick found himself in Russia on another eclipse search.
Although over military age he obtained a commission as a Major with the Royal Naval Air Service, kite-ballooning in the Middle East.
A man of wide scholarly and energetic interests, he lost his life in December 1929 whilst hill walking in the Lake District.
An obituary from the British Astronomical Society offers a fuller account of his life as a gifted amateur astronomer.
This brief biography of Anna Wickham ( 1883-1947) is from the Poetry Foundation: Anna Wickham, the pen name of Edith Alice Mary Harper, was born in 1883.
Her childhood was marked by disruption and displacement, including two separate moves to Australia with her unconventional parents.
She attended school in Australia and returned to England to study voice, though her marriage to Patrick Hepburn ended her career as a performer.
She had four sons with Hepburn and began writing poetry in earnest during her marriage.
Her first book, Songs, was published privately under the pen name John Oland around 1911.
Around this time, she was committed to a mental asylum. However, the experience confirmed her devotion to poetry.
Poetry collections published during her lifetime include The Contemplative Quarry (1915), The Man with a Hammer (1916), The Little Old House (1921), and Thirty-Six Poems (1926).
Wickham’s lyrical, acerbic, and frankly feminist poetry attracted the attention of Louis Untermeyer who republished her work in the US to enormous popularity.
Wickham lived on the Left Bank of Paris after the death of her son in 1922. She was notorious for her ties to many of Modernism’s leading figures, including D.H Lawrence, David Garnett, John Gawsworth, and Natalie Clifford Barney.
It is rumoured she once threw Dylan Thomas out of her house during a snowstorm.
Wickham and her husband separated in 1926 but reunited right before he died in 1929. During the 1930s, Wickham continued to host literary gatherings at her home in Hampstead, befriending writers such as Malcolm Lowry .
She committed suicide aged 63 in 1947. Incredibly prolific in her lifetime, she left behind thousands of unpublished poems.
*A curious footnote to the author Malcolm Lowry’s visit to Anna Wickham’s household was his bizarre role in the death of her son George’s pet rabbit!
The following lines, which highlight some of the surface tensions in their suburban marital relationship are from the first verse of the 1913 poem.
I married a man of the Croydon class
When I was twenty-two.
And I vex him, and he bores me
Till we don’t know what to do!
It isn’t good form in the Croydon class
To say you love your wife,
So I spend my days with the tradesmen’s books
And pray for the end of life.
The author and Adventurer Activist Jessica Hepburn – who is the granddaughter of Patrick and Anna Hepburn/Wickham is currently writing a book that will allude to their relationship. (Personal communication)