IN MY LIVERPOOL HOME
The significance of the location was unknown to those present that murky day in 1962 when four lads stood in front of a huge tea warehouse by Liverpool's dock road, having photos taken to publicize their first record. John Lennon certainly had no idea that the clearing of land on Saltney Street on which he was standing was where his family began their life in the city, just a few among the hordes of starving and mostly illiterate Irish fleeing the potato famine in their homeland.
At least one and a half million stricken Irish men, women and children sailed into Liverpool between 1845 and 1854. Plenty traveled on again, to America, Canada, Mexico and Australia, but a vast number stayed and few of those went very far: Saltney Street was hard by the docks of this great global seaport, ocean liners steaming up and down the River Mersey right at the end of the street. It's still there today, though the horrors of its cholera-infested housing have been swept away. In Liverpool, history is everywhere you look.
JOHN LENNON--family background
James Lennon was the first to put down roots. Born about 1829 in County Down, one of the nine counties to form the province of Ulster, he was married in 1849 on Scotland Road, the slum-ridden heart of Liverpool's immigrant Catholic community. He fathered at least eight children before his wife died in the act of delivering another, and probably the third of these, in January 1855, was John Lennon, grandfather.
John (sometimes Jack) Lennon grew into an intelligent, happy-go-lucky soul who sang loud and often in alehouses, worked mostly as a freight clerk, and led an intriguing life of mysteries, dead ends and deceptions. After marrying twice, his longest relationship was with a Protestant woman, Mary "Polly" Maguire. Their first seven babies all died, and of the seven that followed, the fifth was Alfred Lennon, born in December 1912 at the family home in Copperfield Street, Toxteth. After this, they got married.1
When cirrhosis of the liver killed his father in 1921, Alf was eight. Malnutrition had visited rickets upon the lad, a common condition among the poor, and he wore leg-irons for a considerable part of his childhood. Three years later he was offered a place at the excellent Blue Coat School, in the district of Wavertree, the city's oldest charitable foundation for the free education of orphans and fatherless children. There was one proviso: Protestants only, and several certificates were sought to prove a half-truth. Alf received a fine education here, and like every Blue Coat boy was regularly marched down to Bioletti's, the barber's shop at the nearby Penny Lane roundabout, for a severe scissoring.
On leaving in 1929, he was found an office placement with a shipping company, and three weeks later, while ambling with his slightly unsteady gait through Sefton Park--one of Liverpool's many fine green spaces--he met 15-year-old Julia Stanley.
John Lennon's maternal family was essentially Protestant. His great-grandfather, William Stanley, born 1846 in Birmingham, had moved to Liverpool by 1868. He and wife Eliza (born in Omagh, County Tyrone, another of the Ulster counties) set up home in Everton, in the north end of the city, and in 1874 gave birth to their third son, George--the "Pop" John Lennon would know until losing him at the age of eight.
By 1898, George Stanley, a merchant seaman, had united with Annie Milward (born Chester, 1873) and begun to produce a family. For reasons as inexplicable as John Lennon and Polly Maguire's situation at the same time, they did this outside of marriage, and their experiences were similarly tragic--their first two children died. The third lived, however: Mary Elizabeth Stanley, known as Mimi, was born in Windsor Street, Toxteth, in 1906, just a shout from the Lennons on Copperfield Street.
John Lennon isn't known to have been aware that both his father and his Aunt Mimi, key figures in his life, were, in the literally used word of the day, bastards. What he did know is that the Stanleys always believed they were several notches above the Lennons, claiming better breeding, education, nationality, religion, refinement, resources and aspiration, at least some of which is debatable.
Post-marriage, four more girls were born to George and Annie, all to live long and to create, with Mimi, a posse of five sisters whose allegiances would prove strong in the decades that followed, and whose influence on John Lennon would be of great significance. The third of that final four, Julia--born in March 1914 on the proverbial eve of the Great War--was John's mother. She was given license within the family as the wild one, free-spirited, her notable wit and pranks enjoyed by all. Her father--the girls called him Dada--taught her banjo and she was talented, able to pick up tunes by ear. She was soon plucking and singing along to popular songs of the day, like "Girl of My Dreams" and "Ramona," which came across from America in 1927 as sheet music and then via three inventions that progressed rapidly during these years: the wireless, the gramophone and the talking pictures.
Julia left school in 1929 and met Alf Lennon soon after taking her first job. He wasn't the kind of young man to object if someone found him funny. Creating an impression was the thing, even if he was being laughed at, which he was. "You look silly" were the first words said to him by Julia, naturally drawn to the daft. "You look lovely," he replied, and a relationship was born.
At the start of the 1930s, Alf left his office job and became a merchant seaman, beginning a long and highly colorful nautical career. Generally known to his shipmates as Lennie (sometimes he was Freddie; he mostly called himself Alf), the sea was for him. The comradeship of his sailor pals was wonderful, there was a thriving black market to make extra loot on the side, he really did get to see the world, and the work was something he did well enough to earn several promotions: shipping records show that he went from bellboy to silver room boy, saloon steward, assistant steward and other, similar positions.
Alf's best decade at sea was the first. His close friend Billy Hall laughs as he recalls:
He was a rascal. An absolute character. You wouldn't think of going out anywhere without dragging Lennie along. He was always part of the fun--and if there wasn't any, he'd make some.
He was an ale drinker, but once he started drinking he'd drink anything. If there was a bottle, he'd stay with it. He was a happy drunk, he just did stupid things on the spur of the moment. Most times he'd get away with it and laugh like hell.1
Alf had now reached his full adult height, 5ft 3in, and compensated for catcalls by being the comedian. He whistled, played harmonica and loved to sing: he particularly enjoyed "Red Sails in the Sunset," except he did it as "Red suns in the sailset, all blue I feel day," having found that twisting words would winkle another laugh.
Though only sporadically back in Liverpool, Alf always claimed he was faithful to Julia. She, however, was nonplussed about his absences, scarcely reacted when he left, and never went to the docks to see him off. He'd recall how, even though he wrote to her, she never wrote back; and how, when he was home in Liverpool, she treated him coolly. He appears to have been her plaything, an amusing friend repeatedly ambling back into her life and then going away again, at which point she--a rebel spirit with a strong allure to men and a playful, vivacious character--did whatever she pleased. With their higher opinion of themselves, most (or all) of the Stanleys saw Alf as "low," and there was also the religious schism, Protestant against Catholic, a gulf that violently divided Liverpool in these years.
Julia worked through the 1930s as an usherette at the Trocadero, one of several sumptuous film palaces newly built in the center of town. With her lively personality, iridescent appeal to men, and a job that brought her into constant contact with many of them, it's not credible (though it's been claimed) that Julia resisted all male overtures because Alf was her one true love. When they married, it was for a dare, a lark. He'd later recall how Julia goaded him, claiming that, through sheer cowardice, he'd never propose.2 That did it. Alf popped the question and Julia said yes. He fixed the wedding for Liverpool register office on December 3, 1938, just before he had to sail off to the West Indies. Their first married hours comprised an afternoon at the pictures (watching an awful Tommy Trinder comedy called Almost a Honeymoon), then Alf took his wife back to 22 Huskisson Street and went home to 57 Copperfield Street.2
The news was poorly received at the Stanleys, as Mimi later remembered: "We were all shocked. She just thought it was clever to defy the family. She soon regretted it when she realized it was not so clever. Julia was a beautiful girl, headstrong. I loved Julia. She was so witty and amusing, always laughing. We all make mistakes. Julia's was not realizing the seriousness of a defiant 'prank.' The only good thing that came out of it was John."3
PAUL MCCARTNEY--family background
McCartney isn't an English name, but efforts to establish when this specific line of the family arrived in England have proved fruitless, so many are the possibilities. Genealogists ascribe the name's journey to a start in Scotland as the Mackintosh clan, followed by a migration to Ireland, during the course of which they switched from Catholic to Protestant.
A clear and traceable line in Liverpool begins in 1864 when James McCartney (Paul's great-grandfather) married Elizabeth Williams, he the son of an upholsterer who may have fled the Great Famine, she the daughter of a boilermaker. They lived on Scotland Road, that heaving thoroughfare with Catholic and Protestant immigrants packed into dingy properties, from airless cellars to gusty rafters, unturned cheek by bloodied jowl. Their first child was Joseph (Joe), and by the time he came along, in 1866, they'd the misfortune to be in the despicable court housing on parallel Great Homer Street.
From the leaving of school until the leaving of his life, Joe McCartney worked for Cope Brothers & Co., importers of tobacco and manufacturers of all its related products. He was a journeyman cutter and stover for almost fifty years--hefty labor in hot conditions. A quiet and likable man, teetotal, he blew the huge E-flat bass tuba in his works' brass band--warm and nurturing north-country music played at church fetes and on park bandstands. Joe was the first in the still-continuing line of male McCartney musicians to perform in public.4
In 1896, Joe married Florence (Florrie, Flo) Clegg, whose family were from Onchan in the Isle of Man, and they settled in Everton. There was the usual heartbreak: two of their nine children died in infancy. Paul McCartney's father, James--known to all as Jim--was the fifth, born in July 1902. The McCartneys were a no-nonsense, close-knit family and would always remain so. The seven surviving children--known as Jack, Jim, Joe, Edie, Mill (or Milly), Annie and Gin (or Ginny)--lived and looked out for one another and spoke with down-to-earth Liverpool wit and wisdom. Several could sing well, and Jim's favored instrument was the piano. Around 1916, the McCartneys bought a secondhand upright from a nearby music shop called Nems, and Jim--self-taught, and despite being almost deaf in one ear--had natural flair, good rhythm and the ability to pick up all the popular tunes.3
Jim McCartney exuded courtesy and civility all through his life, being someone to whom charm came naturally. (Paul remembers him habitually raising his hat to women at the bus stop and bidding them "Good morning," and insisting Paul raise his school cap similarly. "Oh Dad, do I have to?" "Yes son, you do.")5 A keen reader, and a self-schooled whiz at crosswords, he entered employment at 14, doing well to get work as a sample boy for A. Hannay & Co., cotton brokers annexed to Liverpool's great Cotton Exchange.
It was at a Hannay's staff soirée that Jim first played music for the public. The year was 1919 and the latest musical explosion in America, ragtime, had crossed the Atlantic, landing first in Liverpool because this was where the great ocean liners came and went. The immense popularity of ragtime, swiftly followed by jazz, fueled and fed a boom in dancing and the evolution of the gramophone record into a standard format--typically ten-inch, made of shellac and spinning at 78 revolutions per minute (rpm), so harnessing the length of a song to about three minutes. Together with family and friends of family, Jim Mac's Band played Merseyside's many dance/music venues until 1924, though not very often. Were they any good? Jim had a pat and typically self-deprecating answer. "Band?" he'd say. "Band? I've seen better bands around a man's hat."
They played all the great tunes coming out of New York's gold-laden Tin Pan Alley, and also a more modest piece of music Jim made up, the first-ever McCartney composition, an instrumental piano shuffle he called "Eloise." A wife for Gentleman Jim, however, was not so easy. He went through his teens, twenties and almost all his thirties before finding her.6
Paul McCartney's mother was Mary Patricia Mohin, born in Fazakerley (north Liverpool) in 1909. She was of strong Irish stock, Roman Catholic on both sides; though she married outside her kind, Catholicism was significant in her life.
On her father's side, the genealogy is almost comical, undergoing three arbitrary changes of a similar-sounding surname in rapid succession. Her father, Owen Mohin, was born Owen Mohan, and his father before him was Owen Moan. Born about 1880 and known as "Ownie," Owen Mohin was one of nine born into a poor rural farming family in County Monaghan. At 12, the boy escaped and got to Scotland, where he lived in a Glasgow inner-city tenement and worked as a coal delivery boy, which must have been exceedingly rough. In 1905, he married Mary Theresa Danher in an RC church local to her home in Liverpool; how they met isn't known. Born in 1877, Mary was the daughter of John Danher, who'd arrived in England from Limerick (on the west coast of Ireland) in the 1860s.
1 The first of their fourteen children was another John Lennon, born 1894, who died of diarrhea in 1895. John and Polly claimed marital status right down the line, yet there appears to have been no impediment to their tying the knot before they did, beyond the usual (considerable) problem of mixing Catholic and Protestant.
2 The Stanleys had moved to Huskisson Street in recent months from 71a Berkley Street.
3 Nems will play a huge part in this history. At this point, however, it was not yet owned by the Epstein family. Paul bought back his father's piano in 1981 (it had previously been sold) and still plays it. Jim got his hearing problem when, as a child, he fell off a wall in the narrow back alley ("jigger") behind their house at 3 Solva Street.