It’s a ‘long and winding road that leads to your door’: my final post inspired by a recent visit to Liverpool looks at the early homes of the city’s favourite sons. (1) We took the Magical Mystery Tour of Beatles’ venues on the final day of our stay. It hardly needs justification – they really did change popular culture for ever – but the tour itself offered unexpected insights into some significant social and housing history.
As tour guide Jay Johnson (the brother of Holly, of Frankie Goes to Hollywood) pointed out, what became obvious as the tour progressed from inner-city to suburbs was that Ringo, George and Paul were working class and John was clearly, if a little embarrassedly, middle class. We began in central Liverpool with Ringo Starr who was probably the most working-class of the Fab Four or, at least, the group member from the poorest background.
Ringo was born in 1940 in 9 Madryn Street in the so-called Welsh Streets of the Dingle district. When his parents separated, he moved, aged three, with his mother, to a cheaper house at 10 Admiral Grove, a few yards away. He lived there twenty years. His mother worked as a cleaner and later as a barmaid in the local Empress pub.
The Welsh Streets, a 21-acre estate of the 1870s, less than a mile from the city centre and close to Princes Park, were so named from the fact that they were designed by Welsh-born architect Richard Owens who gave the streets mostly Welsh names and employed his fellow-countrymen to build them. These were mostly humble homes and Ringo, in particular, had a hard childhood, not helped by two bouts of life-threatening illness.
If to Beatles’ fans the Welsh Streets have been put on the map by Ringo, to anyone interested in housing they’re well known as one of the most egregious victims of the Labour Government’s misguided 2002 Pathfinder Housing Market Renewal programme. This was a plan to demolish generally structurally sound – sometimes neglected but rarely slum – housing in order to build smaller numbers of new homes and revive local housing markets. Up to 400,000 homes in the Midlands and the North were affected; against residents’ wishes, 400 homes on the Welsh Streets were earmarked for demolition.
Although the area has been systematically blighted since then, a long-running campaign has resisted clearance and fought to defend local housing and a local community. The plans were initially revised to safeguard the Beatles heritage of no. 9 and last year Communities Secretary Eric Pickles rejected the proposals wholesale. Now alternative regeneration plans are being discussed. (2)
George Harrison was born three years after Ringo in Wavertree, around three miles to the west. No. 12 Arnold Grove was another small working-class terraced house. Harrison remembered it as very small – with rooms ten foot square, a basic kitchen comprising an iron stove in the backroom, and a backyard with ‘a one-foot wide flower bed, a toilet, a dustbin fitted to the back wall [and] a little hen house where we kept cockerels’. Four children were brought up in this tiny home.
The prevalence of unfit housing at this time has been lost in the subsequent narrative critical of the council housing which largely replaced it but, according to the 1951 Census, over one in five households nationally either shared a WC (this total included outside toilets) or lacked one completely and 45 per cent of households lacked a fixed bath. For all our later romanticisation of the nineteenth-century terraces, the great wave of slum clearance and post-war council house building which followed were long overdue. In January 1950, the Harrisons moved to a brand new council house in 25 Upton Green, Speke, six miles to the south.
The Speke Estate, begun in the late 1930s, was among the most ambitious of the Liverpool Corporation’s housing schemes; it was, in intent, almost a new town prefiguring, in spirit at least, the New Towns of 1946. As The Times reported in 1937, the ‘Speke satellite town’ was (like its successors) ‘planned to accommodate all classes of the community’; in this way, ‘avoiding that segregation of one class which was now widely recognised as a deterrent to social progress’. In 1949, Stanley Gale described the scheme, revived after a wartime hiatus, as ‘unique among housing estates developed by local authorities’. (3)
Of its 2209 acres, 626 acres were allocated to factories (11 built by the Corporation itself), 430 to Liverpool’s airport (now, of course, the John Lennon Airport), 626 to housing, and 710 to open space. Of the planned 6000 homes, there were a few ‘cottage flats’ for the elderly and larger flats for families but most were two to four-bed homes, including ‘294 large houses with garage and four bedrooms for professional men, managers, etc.’. George’s father was a bus conductor and his mother a shop assistant so naturally the family didn’t qualify for one of the posh houses.
For Lancelot Keay, Liverpool’s City Architect and Housing Manager and the scheme’s driving force, Speke was about far more than shelter and work. He also wanted planners to: (4)
endeavour to bring back a greater measure of gaiety into the lives of ordinary people. They should have the opportunity of enjoying all those excitements and pleasantries of life which are too often reserved for those in the higher-income levels.
And to that end, a ‘central community building…with dance hall, concert hall and restaurant’ was provided ‘for the pleasures as well as the adult education of the people’.
Keay – whose discourse (for all his commitment to the people’s pleasure) retained a self-improving tone – surely hadn’t anticipated, and probably wouldn’t have approved, the rock and roll craze that captured George in the mid-50s. At any rate, the Quarrymen and the Beatles played elsewhere.
Nor could Keay have anticipated the devastating industrial decline that affected Liverpool, and Speke with particular force, from the 1970s. Between 1978 and 1985, Liverpool as a whole lost 40,000 jobs; the closure of the British Leyland Standard Triumph works and Dunlops in Speke contributed over 6000 of this total.
It became, if you could, a place to avoid – ‘Beirut’ to some – and one of the poorest areas of Merseyside. The Harrisons moved out in the early 1960s. The residents who remained remembered it then as ‘a lovely place to live…we used to have tennis courts and everything – bowling greens’ and, critically, ‘good employment…and now we seem to be the forgotten people’. (5) In 2000, Speke was the second most deprived ward in England and Wales. From the 1981 Enterprise Zone onwards, there have been concerted efforts to revive the promise of Speke, too many to detail. I didn’t visit but I hope people who live there can tell me it’s doing better.
The McCartneys were another early Speke family, living at 72 Western Avenue and then at 12 Ardwick Road. Paul passed his 11 plus – another class marker of the time – and one year later he met George Harrison on the bus from Speke to their grammar school, the Liverpool Institute in the city centre.
In 1955, there was another shift upwards for the family, significantly to another council home but this at 20 Forthlin Road in the leafy suburb of Allerton. His mother, a midwife, needed access to the phone which their new home afforded though, tragically, she was to die just one year later.
Though not unreasonably described as ‘extremely modest’ by Historic England who listed it Grade II in 2012, this is a good council house, built, in 1949, just as Nye Bevan was insisting that council housing be built to the highest standards. (6) Downstairs, there was a living room, dining room, kitchen with a small extension to the rear which still contained an outside toilet. Upstairs, you’ll find – and you can see all this as the home was purchased by the National Trust in 1995 – three bedrooms and a bathroom with toilet. This was a comfortable family home in an unashamedly suburban setting. Further down the road, there are some three-storey council flats placed around a large open green.
Other than its cultural association (around one hundred Beatles songs were composed within its walls), all this is profoundly unremarkable unless you take time to consider that it symbolises in some ways the best of an era when the state built on a massive scale to decently house its people. The McCartneys lived there till 1965.
John Lennon lived about twenty minutes away at 251 Menlove Avenue in Woolton. This was a semi-detached house, built in the 1930s, with all the accoutrements that the middle class required to differentiate it from the plainer Corporation housing of the working class. To begin with, it had a name (‘Mendips’) not a number, and then there are the large bay windows and front porch with their leaded, stained glass. The internal layout, apart from the ‘morning room’ which complemented the two ‘reception rooms’ on the ground floor isn’t too dissimilar from Paul’s home but there’s no mistaking that, socially, this was a distinct notch above. (7)
Yoko Ono bought the house in 2002 and donated it to the National Trust and it too, as of 2012, is Grade II listed by Historic England. John lived there with his Aunt Mimi from 1946 to the early sixties, in the final years sleeping with his wife Cynthia who he married in 1962 in the dining room adapted as their bedroom.
He’d met Paul five years earlier when the Quarrymen played a set at the St Peter’s Church garden fête in Woolton. Aunt Mimi didn’t approve of John’s musical interests and famously remarked ‘the guitar’s all very well, John, but you’ll never make a living out of it’. She berated his strengthening Scouse accent too as he became more famous but John was matter-of-fact: ‘That’s show business, they want me to speak more Liverpool’.
According to Paul, she was also ‘very aware that John’s friends were lower class’. Conversely, Paul’s father, Jim, disapproved of John, believing that he would get his son ‘into trouble’. (8) You can play with the class sensibilities there – Mimi as a Hyacinth Bucket of her time and Jim as an authentic voice of working-class respectability.
Mimi could be stern but she was the dominant maternal figure in John’s life and the two stayed close – he phoned her weekly – till John’s death in 1980. For all his relative privilege, John had had a difficult childhood. His father was absent; his mother, Julia, apparently unable to care for him properly.
Mimi, her childless sister, took charge and Julia – who had nonetheless stayed close to John and inspired his musical tastes – was tragically killed crossing Menlove Avenue in July 1958. John was devastated and the anger he felt fuelled the bad boy behaviour which alarmed Jim McCartney.
John understood that he was no ‘working-class hero’. He described his childhood home and all it signified in an interview in 1980: (9)
After I stopped living at Penny Lane, I moved in with my auntie who lived in the suburbs in a nice semi-detached place with a small garden and doctors and lawyers and that ilk living around…not the poor slummy kind of image that was projected in all the Beatles stories. In the class system, it was about half a class higher than Paul, George and Ringo, who lived in government-subsidized housing. We owned our house and had a garden. They didn’t have anything like that.
For all that, the lyrics of the song he wrote in 1970 capture important truths about the class system and the cruelties it imposes:
As soon as you’re born they make you feel small
By giving you no time instead of it all
Till the pain is so big you feel nothing at all
A working-class hero is something to be
A working-class hero is something to be
They hurt you at home and they hit you at school
They hate you if you’re clever and they despise a fool
Till you’re so fucking crazy you can’t follow their rules
A working-class hero is something to be
A working-class hero is something to be
I’d like to think, though, that the council homes – unheroic, quietly decent – the state provided to George and Paul testify to another possibility: a society and culture that values and nurtures all its people.
(1) My first post was based principally on a walk through the city’s housing history with Ronnie Hughes of the fine A Sense of Place blog. The second was a more eclectic pick of housing and municipal history discovered over the days which followed.
(2) BBC Liverpool, ‘Welsh Streets regeneration go ahead in Liverpool as council drops appeal’, 15 December 2015. See also the website of the Welsh Streets campaign and the Report on the Welsh Streets Public Enquiry (pdf) from SAVE Britain’s Heritage.
(3) ‘Estate for all classes’, The Times, 17 September 1937, p7 and Stanley Gale, Modern Housing Estates (1949), pp230-232
(4) LH Keay, ‘Post-war Housing’, RIBA Journal, vol 53, no 7, May 1946
(5) Quoted in Ronaldo Munck, Reinventing the City? Liverpool in Comparative Perspective (2003)
(6) Historic England listing details, 20 Forthlin Road
(7) Historic England listing details, ‘Mendips’, 251 Menlove Avenue
(8) Wikipedia, John Lennon
(9) Interview with David Sheff, Playboy, January 1981