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Have we found Audrey Hepburn in WW2 England?

3-4 minute read

By Ellie Ayton

6 February 2024
Audrey Hepburn

How did a genealogy-themed name change help us find this Hollywood icon as a child? The answer might surprise you as we delve into Audrey Hepburn’s family tree – a story of tragedy, hardship, and mistaken identity.

Most of us have done it – we’ve seen a recognisable surname in our family tree and thought, ‘I must be related to this famous historical figure.’ It’s not unusual, and it showcases the power of surnames. They can help us connect to our ancestry and to the past. Maybe we have royal roots we’d never heard of before? After all, every surname has a story.

But what if you were wrong, and what does this have to do with Audrey Hepburn, star of Breakfast at Tiffany’s, Sabrina and Roman Holiday?

Believe it or not, Hepburn was not Audrey’s original surname. She was born Audrey Kathleen Ruston on 4 May 1929 in Brussels, Belgium.

Audrey Hepburn’s birth record in the Consular Birth Indices.

Audrey Hepburn’s birth record in the Consular Birth Indices. You can see the full record here.

So, how did she become known as Audrey Hepburn?

The truth of it is this – Joseph Ruston, Audrey’s father, believed he was descended from James Hepburn, Earl of Bothwell. If that name is familiar to you, it’s because he was the third husband of Mary, Queen of Scots.

James Hepburn, 4th Earl of Bothwell, was the third husband of Mary, Queen of Scots.

James Hepburn, 4th Earl of Bothwell, was the third husband of Mary, Queen of Scots.

Seemingly very proud of this ancestral link, Joseph created a double-barrelled surname – Hepburn-Ruston – for himself and his daughter.

This is how Audrey Hepburn was found in the 1939 Register. Taken on 29 September 1939, it was a record of the civilian population at the outbreak of World War 2.

Where was Audrey Hepburn at the start of WW2?

Audrey was moved to England when her parents’ marriage began to break down in the late 1930s. Between 1937 and 1939, Audrey lived at Orchard Villa in Elham, Kent with the Butcher family. During this time, she attended two small private schools.

Audrey Hepburn (centre) pictured with other children during her time in Elham.

Audrey Hepburn (centre) pictured with other children during her time in Elham. Image copyright Sampson Family Collection.

Because the 1939 Register contains full dates of birth, records of those who may still be alive are redacted. Audrey wasn’t showing up in Orchard Villa – but there was a redacted record.

Could that be Audrey?

This detective work was thanks to Georgina Sturge (statistician, House of Commons Library) and family historian David Annal (Lifelines Research). Together, they pinpointed where they suspected Audrey was living and asked us to take a look.

Audrey Hepburn found in the 1939 Register.

Audrey Hepburn found in the 1939 Register. Explore the full record here.

Audrey’s new, double-barrelled surname of Hepburn-Ruston and her date of birth were the key to solving this mystery.

Was Audrey Hepburn's father right about their link to the Earl of Bothwell?

The book Audrey: Her Real Story by Alexander Walker suggests the following:

Joseph was descended from John Joseph Ruston (who was either Irish or Scottish) who came to Vienna from Britain around 1832. He was a shipwright and mechanical engineer. His employer was John Andrews of the Danube Shipping Company. John’s wife was Isabella Hepburn, who claimed descent from James Hepburn, Earl of Bothwell.

After Andrews’ death, Joseph married Isabella. They had no children, but he did have children with his next wife, the very rich Barbara Victoria Belha. After the birth of their fourth child, Joseph separated from Barbara, and the children grew up not really knowing their mother. According to a cousin of Audrey’s from Brussels, the children of that marriage preferred to say their mother was Isabella Hepburn, rather than Barbara.

And if you follow this story using German baptisms and marriages in Vienna around this time, it appears to check out.

So, there you have it – Joseph Hepburn-Ruston was not descended from James Hepburn, Earl of Bothwell. It’s simply an example of family hearsay gone awry.

What’s the story behind your surname?