John Hepworth (1921-1995)

John Hepworth Supermarket Rennie Ellis
John Hepworth (Image: Rennie Ellis)

John Hepworth, ‘Hepworth’ or simply ‘Heppy’, was an Australian author, playwright, actor, poet and journalist.

Well known in Australian journalism and bohemian literary circles, Hepworth was often described as an ‘enfant terrible’ or ‘bon vivant’.

Early life

Born in Pinjarra W.A., Hepworth briefly attended the Perth Modern School. He first came to the notice of authorities at age fifteen, for pasting up pro-communist posters and his involvement with The Workers Arts Guild.

Drifting east to Melbourne, Hepworth began writing and performing for the left wing Melbourne New Theatre. Around 1940, he travelled on to Sydney where he joined Sydney New Theatre and in 1942, the A.I.F.

Hepworth served in Egypt, Syria, Ceylon and in New Guinea campaigns on the Kokoda and Itape-Wewak. The latter provided a setting for his acclaimed novel, The Long Green Shore, written in the late 1940s and eventually published in 1995.

Beginning in the mid 1940s, Hepworth had a long relationship and two children, with the playwright Oriel Gray. Prior to this, he was involved in a ‘red marriage’ to Oriel’s older sister Grayce. He later married Pamela Cox, and then Margaret Lonergan.

Communist links and journalism career

John Hepworth Profile Rennie Ellis
John Hepworth (Image: Rennie Ellis)

As a member of the Communist Party of Australia (CPA), Hepworth’s activities were under frequent surveillance by ASIO. This continued after his departure from the CPA in 1949, following a 1947 censure for ‘lacking faith’ and criticism of Party tactics to disrupt the Chifley Labor government. Hepworth was the target of several failed attempts to secure his dismissal from the ABC for suspected communist sympathies during the 1950s ‘Red Scare’. 

Returning to Melbourne for an ABC journalist and sub-editor role, Hepworth also returned to the Melbourne New Theatre. He wrote and performed for a ‘mobile theatre’ unit, taking performance to the suburbs. During the 1960s he wrote several stage plays, including:

  • The Beast in View (1959)
  • The Last of the Rainbow (1962)
  • My Aunt the Unicorn (1966).

Hepworth also appeared onstage at the Melbourne Little Theatre in Irene Mitchells’ production of The Torrents, written by Oriel Gray.

The 1970s saw Hepworth leave Radio Australia for a staff writer position with the fledgeling Nation Review newspaper. His column ‘Outsight’ shared the back page with cartoonist Michael Leunig, a collaboration that continued for many years. In 1974, Hepworth received a Literature Board Fellowship. Hepworth was also a long term contributor to Jack Pacholli’s eccentric newspaper The Toorak Times.

Collaborations and works

While very productive in his own right, Hepworth enjoyed working with other writers.

Hepworth (Drawing: Leunig)

His collaborations included:

  • John Hindle: Boozing Out in Melbourne Pubs: An Occasional History and Sociological Study of Melbourne as Seen through the Bottom of a Glass (1980) and Around the Bend (1983)
  • Bob Ellis: The Paper Boy (1985), later made into a film for television.
  • Steve J. Spears: The Big Wish (1990)
  • Peter Hepworth: Dateline Kal, an unproduced feature film script.

His solo published works include:

  • John Hepworth… His Book (1978). A collection of articles from the Nation Review
  •  The Little Australian Library Series (1983). Dynamo Press
  • The Almanac of Unspeakable Colonial Acts (1986). Dynamo Press with cover by Michael Leunig
  • Colonial Capers (1986) comprising The Smartarse Encyclopedia Vols. I and II; A Treasury of Bush Lingo; Lust and passion in the Colonies; The Pioneer Book of Blunders. Dynamo Press, covers by Michael Leunig

And novels, The Multitude of Tigers (1990; eBook to be republished late 2020) with illustrations by Michael Leunig and The Long Green Shore (1995).

Hepworth also contributed to a number of Australian television programs including PrisonerHouse Rules and Lift Off (1992).


John Hepworth died of lung cancer in January 1995.

‘[He] turned death into an art form …Theatrical by inclination, he was determined to die in his own bed with his hat on…Hepworth was splendid while dying.  Dressed in a magnificent nightshirt, and wearing a Victorian smoking cap, he entertained the friends who had come to say goodbye.’ 

The Age, November 1994

Information sourced from:

The Hepworth family
New Theatre Wikipedia
Art Was Their Weapon: The history of the Perth Workers’ Art Guild. Dylan Hyde. Freemantle Press 2019