Sunday, 19 May 2019

"I could stay up half the night trying to crack your code"

W.W. Abba
85 Woolton Road
Liverpool 19






At Woolton village fete I met him. I was a fat schoolboy and, as he leaned an arm on my shoulder, I realised he was drunk. We were twelve* then, but, in spite of his sideboards, we went on to become teenage pals.
  
Paul McCartney
In His Own Write, John Lennon (1964)

I remember coming into the fete and seeing all the sideshows. And also hearing all this great music wafting in from this little Tannoy system. It was John and the band.

I just thought, 'Well, he looks good, he's singing well and he seems like a great lead singer to me.' Of course, he had his glasses off, so he really looked suave. I remember John was good. He was really the only outstanding member, all the rest kind of slipped away.

Paul McCartney
Record Collector (1995)

A footnote in Mark Lewisohn's ultimate Beatles' biography ‘Tune In’ questions whether July 6 1957 was in fact the first time Lennon and McCartney met. Mark reveals that on occasion, in certain (private) company, Paul will admit that the Woolton Church fete was NOT the place of their first meeting.

More recently Paul has admitted as much in print.

Esquire: Do you feel lucky? It’s weird, cosmically: how the hell did you four manage to bump into each other?

Paul McCartney: Cosmic, man. It is! Dead cosmic. I know that. The more I go on, the more I realise. I mean, I know how I saw John. He was just a ted, on the bus – greasy hair, long sideburns, shuffling around like he was Mr Hard. And I saw him on the top deck of the bus often, before I met him. Saw him in the queue at a chip shop once. And I thought, “He looks cool.”

Turned out my best friend from school knew him. We went and met. I happened to know this song, 'Twenty Flight Rock'. John admired that. I happened to get on a bus one stop before this kid called George Harrison. We happened to chat, because we went to the same school. We happened to like guitars. I happened to say to John, he’d be good to get in the group, even though he’s young. Then we happened in with this guy called Ringo, you know?
 Esquire Magazine interview (2015)

In other variations of that story Paul confirms that not only had he seen John before the Woolton fete but had actually spoken to him outside the newsagents during the time he was a paperboy.

But which newsagent?




The McCartney's moved to Forthlin Road in Allerton during the summer of 1956, one year before the fete, and at some point he took a job as a paperboy delivering the evening Liverpool Echo on his Raleigh bicycle. 

It was during this period that Paul first exchanged a few words with the then 15 year old John Lennon.

He has never publicly mentioned which newsagents he worked for but during the course of his research Lewisohn spoke with a local family who knew Paul at the time. They seemed to think it was Abba's (or Abbers) which Lewisohn traced to 166 Aigburth Road near St. Michaels in the Hamlet (the location of the Cast Iron Shore) and the Dingle.

Here’s what he has to say about it in ‘Tune In’.

Paul says he was working as a paper-boy (on his bike delivering the Echo to local houses in the evenings) when he once talked to John outside the newsagents shop. John never mentioned it, and Paul has chosen consistently for decades, never to say it publicly. He was a paper-boy after the McCartney's relocated to Forthlin Road in summer 1956, when he turned 14.

Paul is shy about giving away the shop's identity to anyone who'd print it, but one local family who knew him think it was 'Abbas'. At 166 Aigburth Road, close to the Cast Iron Shore, W.W. Abba would have been an oddly distant place of employment for a lad living and delivering three miles away in Allerton, and - as it wasa mile further still from John's house - it's far from being a cast iron certainty.  

It is an oddly distant place.  Yes, Paul had a family connection. The Danhers, his maternal family, lived at 98 Aigburth Road and could have told Paul, or more likely his Mother, that a job was going in their local newsagent but the idea has never sat comfortably with me. See my earlier blog. 

It’s important to highlight that the local family referred to in Lewisohn’s note, more of whom in a moment, didn’t tell him that the newsagents was in Aigburth – the address Lewisohn suggests in ‘Tune In’ is the only one he could find in the 1958 Kellys directory**. 

While researching the Allerton Gaumont (where Paul was inspired to write Thinking of Linking) I chanced upon a Memories of South Liverpool website where various locals were reminiscing about going to watch films there in the 1950s. They talked about walking the length of Mather Avenue so they could save their pennies for Abba’s where they would stock up on sweets. You might not know Liverpool well enough but I can tell you that's a heck of a walk.

Raymman: Get out of the pics and walk back to Perriam Rd stopping to play cowboys on the building site opposite Forthlin Road then going into Haswells by Heath road spending the last of the pocket money on BlackJacks and Fruit Salad.

Note: Haswell’s was at 512 Mather Avenue on the corner with Heath Road.

Kevin: Haswell's - there's a name from the past. Often spent my pocket money there. The guy who ran it had been in the Merchant Navy. When he gave the shop up he went back to sea and ended up in the same company as me.

Brian Daley: Haswells, the sweetshop that stood at the corner of Heath Road and Mather Avenue, ‘twas there in the '50's that Reggie Owen, Billy Dawber, Joey Lewis and me would get our chocolate cigars to augment our Vienna loaves stuffed with hot chips and retire to the grass verge beneath the trees that led up to Woolton

Note: Brian Daleys memories are circa mid 50s, 1956

Tippo: Hi Brian D, in the forties there was no chippy I’m sorry to say. I left Heathy in 1947.

Note: Tippo is right. According to the 1950s Kelly’s Directories there was no chip shop at the Heath Road / Mather Avenue shops:

Kevin:  Tippo, You are right about the chippy - there wasn't one on Heath Road until the ‘80s sometime - think it was the wool shop that became a Chinese. The nearest chippy before that was at the shops near the Cenotaph, at the end of Long Lane - close to South Liverpool's ground.

Tippo: Hi Kev, Yes I remember that chippy, and a school mate named Reggie Griffiths used to live over "Abba's" newsagents.  Great memories. Cheer's, Tippo.

So according to “Tippo” there was an Abba’s newsagents at the shops near the Cenotaph. That’s very important because of the distance from there to Forthlin Road, something we’ll look at in more detail shortly.

The crescent of shops near the Cenotaph are on the corner of Long Lane and Woolton Road. As a result two adjacent shops have different addresses (2 Long Lane and 81 Woolton Road).

I started asking around on the various Liverpool History Facebook pages in the hope that someone remembered a shop called Abba’s (or Abbers) by the Cenotaph on Woolton Road / Long Lane in the 1950s.

Woolton Ancestry and Genealogy page:

Ernest George Tipping:  Abba’s was on the crescent of shops opposite the Cenotaph, Long Lane, Allerton.

I asked him if he could recall what year (s) the shop was there.

Ernest George Tipping:  Approx, I was at Springwood school to my knowledge from late 1945 until after 1947. I had a school mate if I remember correctly who lived next door, Reg Griffiths and I think it was there after the 50s.

Note: The detail in Ernest’s answers indicate that he is clearly “Tippo” on the previous site I’ve mentioned.

Garston Memories past and present

Leslie Hollinrake: It was on the crescent opposite the cenotaph they used to have Dinky toy cars in the window.

Note: Dinky cars were made at a factory in Binns Road, Liverpool from 1934 to 1979.

Thomas Foster: Abba's was the sweet and paper shop at the cenotaph when I was young 40s and early 50s it is now a cafe I think it was in between Waterworths which is now a betting shop and the butcher's, now a flower shop.

I thanked Thomas and said I’d try and find a Kelly's Directory and confirm. Much appreciated.

Thomas Foster: Kelly's will tell you if my memory serves me right Irwins on the end Kingsbury Jones Chemist, Butchers, Abba's, Waterworths, a hat shop then the Chandlers, and Masons chippy on the other end.

According to the 1955 Kellys’ Directory Mason’s chippy was at 6 Long Lane. It’s still a chip shop today, the Chung Yee Takeaway, 4 was Mrs Ada Hilton’s ladies and children’s outfitter and  2 Long Lane was Arthur Colson’s glass and china shop. The nearest confectioners / newsagents was Dennis Dunne at 85 Woolton Road (on the same block of shops). 

Thomas Foster’s memories are remarkably in tune with the directory, but unfortunately no Abba’s.

I explained the reason for my query: The reason I ask is because it is supposed to be the place where Paul McCartney (who had a paper round there) first met John Lennon (before the 1957 Woolton fete). I really need to know if Abbas / Abbers was still there circa 1955-57.

Arthur Brown: In 1956 Abba’s newsagents was on Aigburth Road.

  ...which is what Mark Lewisohn has already stated in 'Tune In'.  There are two entries for W.W. Abba. The second is likely to be his home address. 23 Moorcroft Road is opposite Mather Avenue police station. Forthlin Road runs along the back of the police training fields. Even as late as 1956 Mr Abba was still living in the area, and who can blame him, it’s a lovely part of Liverpool.

Peter Bush: The only shop I remember called Abbers was the newsagents at the lights on Aigburth Road opposite Lark Lane. (i.e. 166 Aigburth Road). I’m not sure why we called it Abbers because is was owned by Mr and Mrs Jones, maybe it came from the previous owners, but as a kid we always called it Abbers.  

Keith Byrne: Abbers was on Aigburth Road between Chetwynd Street and Dalmeny Street, next to Cousins bread shop. After Mr and Mrs Abber retired it was bought by Mr and Mrs Jones, I knew the Jones family well from school. 

On the surface this information may only help reinforce Mark Lewisohn’s findings about the 166 Aigburth Road address. However, it’s this observation by Peter Bush that really interests me: I’m not sure why we called it Abbers because it was owned by Mr and Mrs Jones, maybe it came from the previous owners, but as a kid we always called it Abbers.

I think this is why the family who remember Paul delivering their evening paper referred to the shop at the cenotaph as Abbas even after Walter William had relocated to Aigburth Road.  Abbas had been the name of their local newsagents and everyone in the area knew it as that, and still referred to it thus for some years after the name change.

I’m sure there’s a restaurant, shop or maybe a pub near you that out of habit you still refer to by its former name. There’s a pub near me now called the Cook House. Everyone around my area still calls it the English Rose.

Note also that both Peter Bush and Keith Byrne refer to the newsagents as ‘Abbers’ whereas the correct spelling, according to Kelly’s directory, is Abba, like the 70’s pop group.

I decided to look for earlier editions of Kelly’s Directory to see if I could find an Abba (or even an Abbers) near the cenotaph, either on Long Lane or Woolton Road.

Almost immediately I found this:


85 Woolton Road.  Walter William Abba, confectioner.  (W.W. Abba)

Confirmation that circa 1951 Walter William Abba had a newsagents on the crescent of shops at Woolton Road / Long Lane facing the Cenotaph, a stones throw from Holly Park, the former grounds of South Liverpool’s football club and today the site of Liverpool South Parkway station. At this point he was living in Chapel Road which ran off the Garston end of Woolton Road.


85 Woolton Road is now a cafe. 

Journey times for Paul on a bicycle:

  • Forthlin to 166 Aigburth Road - 2.9 miles (20 minutes).
  • Forthlin Road to 85 Woolton Road via Stamfordham 1.1m (5 minutes).
John Lennon on foot: 
  • Blomfield Road from 85 Woolton Road (carrying chips) – 0.37m ! (10 minutes)
It makes a LOT more sense now, not only is this newsagent much closer to Forthlin Road it’s also a short distance from Julia Lennon’s house in Blomfield Road and probably explains how Paul and John came to cross paths here, rather than in much more distant Aigburth.  There were chip shops in Woolton Village, nearer to John’s house on Menlove Avenue so we can assume he was in the queue at the chippy here because he was visiting his mother.

As noted earlier the 1955 Directory has 85 Woolton Road occupied by Dennis Dune confectioners (newsagents) who presumably took over the shop when W.W. Abba opened his new shop in Aigburth. The locals still referred to number 85 as Abbas for sometime afterwards (just as the people in Aigburth did when the Joneses took over 166 Aigburth Road). Old habits die hard.

“The Local Family”

The un-named family mentioned in Mark Lewisohn’s notes are the Hodgsons. In 1956 Charles (senior) and his wife Annie were living at 111 Stamfordham Drive, Allerton with their two sons, Reginald, 26 and Charles, 14.

Many of you may be familiar with Peter Hodgson who regularly contributes to my blog and Facebook group. Peter is Reginald’s son and has told me how his Uncle Charlie got to know the 14 years old Paul McCartney when he was working as a paper boy for Duncan Nicholson, delivering the evening ‘Echo on his bike to the local housing estate. 111 Stamfordham Drive was one of the houses on Paul’s paper round. Reginald Hodgson was born at home in 1930. Fourteen years older than his brother he could remember when their local newsagents was still called Abbas. 

Paul and his brother Mike were acquainted with Charles Hodgson through a mutual friend called Ray Woodcock. They were all of a similar age. Paul learned through Roy that the Hodgson family had a Grundig TK20 reel-to-reel tape recorder.  In the spring of 1960 McCartney asked if he could borrow it to record the Beatles’ rehearsing. Charles agreed and Paul lent it on several occasions.

When Paul had finished using it he returned the machine and the tape, still containing a Beatles rehearsal, and over the passage of time they both ended up in a cardboard box in the loft (attic) of 111.

Peter remembers how his Grandfather, Charles senior, would joke about how they had a fortune sitting in the attic. At that time Peter and his siblings didn’t believe him and it was only after both Charles senior and Annie had passed away and the Hodgson family were clearing out the house that they discovered the reel of tape in a large cardboard box along with the old Grundig machine.

To cut a long story very short, they discovered the tape still contained recordings of the fledgling Beatles, word eventually got to Paul McCartney and he offered to buy the tape. On 27 March 1995 Peter, representing the Hodgson family, travelled to Hog Hill in South East England to hand over the tape to Paul in person. In addition to the valuable recording he took with him a message from his Dad to pass on to Paul. 

After introductions, Paul made Peter a cup of tea and they went and sat upstairs where they chatted.

Peter: When I was sat with Paul, upstairs at Hog Hill, I told him what my dad had told me to mention about him delivering the papers for Abbers and Duncan Nicholson being his boss....(Paul) nodded and grinned at the memory. (I didn’t even mention the Cenotaph shops to Paul)

Paul then mentioned remembering my dad's brother Charles. He said how cruel he thought Charles was. Every time Paul saw Charles, he would be on his bike riding around Allerton with his dog 'Mick' chasing after him for miles..

Paul’s boss Duncan Nicholson lived at 6 Brocklebank Lane which runs parallel to Blomfield Road. Further evidence that we are in the right area.



Peter had previously passed this information on to Mark Lewisohn who at that time was finishing up ‘Tune In’, volume one of his Beatles’ trilogy.

Peter: In or around 2010 I told Mark that (Paul had worked at) the shops at the Cenotaph, right by my Dad’s.  He got back to me telling me the only Abbas /Abbers he could find was in 166 Aigburth Road and he was puzzled as to why Paul would have been delivering newspapers for a shop in another part of Liverpool....nearly 3 miles from Allerton. As we know, Mark is famous for relying on documentation rather than word of mouth or someone's fading memory but I was adamant, and pointed out to Mark that Paul had acknowledged what I said to him in Hog Hill.

Peter says he could tell that Mark was keen to establish the name of the newsagents but didn’t appreciate at the time why he thought it was so important: We now know that sometime in the past, Paul has revealed the actual first meeting between himself and John and where that meeting took place. I think someone close to Paul [1] has let the cat out of the bag to Mark and (Lewisohn) has wanted to know the name and location of Abbas in 1956.

At this time and in the subsequent years, the locals will still have referred to the shop as Abbas when mentioning it, hence it was still known as Abbas by my Dad and brother...many decades later. This is where the confusion started as to the shop’s location as Mark was relying on documentation only, whereas I was relying on first hand witnesses who actually lived literally yards away. I got it straight from Macca, face to face, he agreed and nodded when I mentioned Abbas so when I told Mark many years later he went searching and could only find an Abba in Aigburth.

What’s interesting is that at some point Mark actually asked Paul the name of the newsagent’s he delivered for in Allerton. Paul refused to answer him. An unusual refusal for such a seemingly trivial question.

Trivial on the surface perhaps. But consider this, is Paul McCartney acutely aware that by going on record and pinpointing the actual place where he first encountered John Lennon he is destroying the Woolton Fete myth? I suspect he is***.

Peter was pleased with what my own research had uncovered, for personal family reasons as much as for the benefit of Beatle’s history: (to me) You finding W.W. Abba at 85 Woolton Road vindicated me to Mark (Lewisohn) ,as it’s impossible for me, my Dad or Uncle Charlie to have been making it up.  

I have to say myself and Peter were pretty chuffed with our detective work. To our knowledge nobody else has bothered to go to the lengths we have to get to the bottom of that seemingly innocuous footnote in ‘Tune In’ originating from information passed down from Peter’s Dad and Uncle.


A map showing the location of the various participants:

1. 85 Woolton Road (W.W. Abba)
2. Stamfordham Drive
3. Blomfield Road
4. Forthlin Road

I’ve had this blog half-written for ages but it’s been a bit of a jigsaw and I’ve wanted to include Peter’s actual comments. We both agreed it deserved a proper write up but you know how it is, as the Teddy Boy in Mason’s chippy would later observe ‘Life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans’.

So before I got around to it this happened:

On 15th August 2018 Paul released the single ‘Fuh You’ from his album, Egypt Station****. On 10th September, an official music video was uploaded to YouTube to promote the single.



According to Rolling Stone magazine: "The black-and-white video opens with a teenage couple sharing a kiss on a front doorstep before the girl’s mother intrudes and sends the boy home. The enamored young protagonist then wanders the streets of Liverpool, singing and dancing along with “Fuh You” as he makes his way home."

The video was filmed in Garston, Liverpool 19. ‘Jamie’ the young lad in the video is played by Harry Wyatt. We see him kissing his girlfriend goodbye outside her house at 62 Inwood Road as the song starts and as he leaves, deep in the throes of first love he begins miming the words of the song [2], making his through the adjacent alleyway which brings him out onto Long Lane.



Inwood Road was where Duncan Nicholson’s family lived (his Mum Margaret is listed at number 51 in the 1955 Kelly's). Number 62 backs on to the parade of shops on Woolton Road facing the cenotaph (see above).

Co-incidence?



Young Jamie is seen walking along Long Lane towards the shops and on reaching the Chinese takeaway [3] he pauses briefly to nick a chip off two girls standing outside. He then continues past the shops.

Remember Paul’s comment about John: saw him in the queue at a chip shop once’?


It's probably too much of a stretch to picture a 14 year old Paul stealing a chip from a 16 year old John Lennon, resplendent in his Teddy Boy gear. He was probably half-terrified of him.  

“Well here’s another clue for you all”

One of the hookline’s in ‘Fuh You’ is ‘On the night that I met you’ and it’s interesting that at that very moment [4] Jamie is outside 85 Woolton Road, the former premises of W.W. Abba where Paul had an evening paper round.




The white door on the left is number 85


The video was produced by Annex films. Rehearsals took place in Manchester where young Harry met the director, Simon Aboud, who just happens to be the son in law of Paul McCartney [3]. Simon is pictured above with Harry.

Paul wasn't present during the filming in Garston but he did have a little chat with Harry on Simon’s phone. 

It hasn’t go unnoticed by myself and other Liverpool based fans, ‘experts’ and local historians that Paul spent a LOT of time in the city during 2018 promoting Egypt Station, many of these visits seemingly having the dual purpose of allowing him to revisit his past [6].  The location chosen for the ‘Fuh You’ video may have passed most people by but for myself, and especially Peter Hodgson, this was extraordinary and an affirmation of what we’ve been researching for several years.

“On the night that I met you'', the newsagents Paul delivered for and the chippy next door, the fact that Paul’s first name is James and the boy in the video is ‘Jamie’, all ambiguous hints perhaps but the point is that he could have filmed the video in London. He could have filmed it at ANY shops in Liverpool for that matter but he chose the parade where he'd had a paper round. AND he gets family to direct the video, someone he trusts and no doubt with specific instructions.

Maybe we’re going too far into it and it is simply a nod to where he had the paper round rather than any specific nod to meeting John Lennon but it’s not hard to conclude that with this video Mr McCartney is being cute, putting out a message that most people won't get.

Well guess what?!

Paul and Harry finally caught up in December, backstage at the Echo Arena, Liverpool. Paul gave him a shout out from the stage after performing 'Fuh You'.

Notes:

* in reality Paul was 15, John 16

** Kelly's Directory was a trade directory in England that listed all businesses and tradespeople in a particular city or town, as well as a general directory of postal addresses of local gentry, landowners, charities, and other facilities. In effect, it was a Victorian version of today's Yellow Pages. It was printed well into the 20th century and provides today's historians with a wealth of information.


*** Of course, exchanging the odd word or pinching a chip hardly constitutes getting to know someone. The Woolton Fete is where they REALLY clicked.

**** A new expanded 'Explorer's Edition' of Egypt Station has recently been released:
https://www.amazon.co.uk/Egypt-Station-Explorers-VINYL-McCartney/dp/B07PYJ45HH

[1] In no way am I pointing the finger at anyone but we know that when Paul gave U2 singer Bono a private tour of his old haunts he told him that the place where he met John was near the airport. 85 Woolton Road is a very short drive from there.

[2] You never see 'Jamie', a minor, saying the potentially offending song title.

[3] Formerly Mason’s chippy.

[4] At 2m 5s in the song.

[5] On 12 June 2010, Mary McCartney and Simon Aboud were married in a private ceremony in London at the Marylebone Register Office, the same location where her parents were married in 1969

[6] As well as his annual visit to graduation day at the Philharmonic Hall there was ‘Carpool Karaoke’ (visiting his 20 Forthlin Road, Penny Lane, the Philharmonic pub); performing at the Cavern Club; performing at the Echo arena; doing a Q&A onstage at the Liverpool Institute, his former school. There were probably other unpublicised visits to see family as well.


Photo credits:

14 year old Paul on his Raleigh bike outside 12 Ardwick Grove, Speke (C) McCartney family. 

Stills from the 'Fuh You' video (c) MPL.


Liverpool Echo, 18 June 1962, co-incidentally Paul's 20th birthday 



Thanks Peter & the Hodgson family

Thanks to Philip Kirkland for putting me on to the connection with Inwood Road.

J.P. I'm watching.......


(C) M.P. Ashworth (2019) unless otherwise stated.

Sunday, 12 May 2019

Squeaks instead of Notes

Cathedral Church of Christ in Liverpool
St James's Mount
Liverpool 1


The English choral conductor, Ronald Woan, was born in Walton Liverpool on 27 August 1919. He began his early musical training when he joined his father in the local church. In 1931 he won a place in the Cathedral choir and a scholarship at the Liverpool Institute.


Liverpool's Anglican Cathedral, the fifth largest in the world, was built between 1904 and 1978 based on a design by Giles Gilbert Scott. The above photo shows it on 25 February 1952, and in 2016

After his studies, Woan became a Cathedral Chorister, singing under the direction of Edgar Robinson. When Ronald's voice broke, Robinson kept him on as music librarian, also giving him organ lessons. Soon making his mark as a church organist, Woan worked at Rushworth and Dreaper, the Liverpool firm of organ builders.

During the Second World War he served as a driver in the Royal Army Service Corps, and after being rescued off Dunkirk he saw action in North Africa and then survived shrapnel wounds and Malaria in Italy.

When Edgar Robinson retired in 1947, Frederick Dwelly, the first Dean of Liverpool, invited Woan to succeed him as Choirmaster. He duly took over as the Director of Music at Liverpool's Anglican Cathedral in September 1948 (including direction of the Liverpool Cathedral Choir). 

He initially took the job on a temporary basis, but in the event he took charge of the choir for 34 years, while also teaching at Manor High School in Crosby (something he continued to do until his retirement in 1982). With his fellow former chorister and organist, Noel Rawsthorne, he built up a fine musical tradition. As well as the traditional choral repertoire, he added enthusiasms of his own – new anthems by Edwin Roxburgh, Peter Dickinson, Kenneth Leighton, and Rawsthorne, whose two settings of the Evening Canticles are dedicated to Woan.

As Liverpool had no choir school, the recruitment of choristers had always been a significant part of the Choirmaster’s role, and Ronald was able to attract choristers to sing here and encourage their talents. Despite being a strict disciplinarian, Woan nevertheless enjoyed the complete loyalty of those who sang for him, and continued to be a strong influence in them, years after their chorister days were over. Many of them remained life-long friends.

In 1953 he auditioned an 11-year-old Paul McCartney, but, unimpressed by the future Beatle’s rendition of Once In Royal David’s City, he turned him down.

Paul was one of 90 boys auditioned that year.


It was Jim McCartney’s idea that his son should audition. Despite mother Mary's strong Catholicism she raised no objections and so, in April 1953,  Paul dutifully lined up with several other boys waiting to audition for choirmaster Ronald Woan, who reviewed them one by one.

In 1991 Paul would claim in an interview for his self produced TV special ‘Ghosts of The Past’ that he failed the audition for the Cathedral choir because he 'didn’t have the piano – the musical knowledge. I tried to get in on singing alone.'

Woan disputes this. “Boys were generally accepted for the choir on the basis of what they could sing . He would have been required to sing a verse of Once In Royal David’s City. Beyond that it was a simple ear test – I played a note and asked the boy to sing it, and then another and on their ability to do these very simple things they were either accepted or rejected. He wouldn’t, at that stage, have been required to read music. If I had only accepted boys who could read music there wouldn’t have been any choir.

Ronald Woan could obviously recognise a boy who could sing. So how did he fail to recognise that Paul was a boy who could obviously sing?

‘Squeaks instead of notes came from the young boy’s throat. His rosy apple cheeks flushed in the Chapter House of Liverpool Cathedral and four tiny companions – each being gravely addressed as ‘Mr’ – twitched more nervously at the audition for choirboys.' (Liverpool Echo, 17 April 1953)

It’s tempting to think the rosy cheeked squeaking school boy was Paul. Jim McCartney quickly realised that Paul flunked the audition on purpose by deliberately cracking his voice. He had made up his mind that he didn’t want to be a choir boy.

John Duff Lowe, occasional pianist with the Quarrymen failed his audition at the same time as Paul. He later retook it and passed but Paul didn’t bother.

Both Ronald Woan and Duff Lowe have both pointed out that but for Paul’s defiant action things might have worked out very differently. Being in the choir entailed certain obligations and commitments. For at least the next three years Paul would have been expected to spend the whole of every Saturday and Sunday and three evenings a week at the Cathedral. Boys would only leave the choir when their voice broke, at which point they automatically transferred into the adult Choristers’ Guild if they so desired.

Duff has commented ‘I’ve worked out that if Paul had got in the Cathedral Choir, he would not have met John on 6 July 1957. He would have been singing in the Cathedral Choir that day.'    

Asked in 1988 about the rejection Woan said “If I had taken him on, he would probably have ended up teaching music in a comprehensive school. Under the circumstances he went on to do other things.

“I think he owes me an awful lot of money.”



Remarkably, a photographer from the Liverpool Echo happened to be present in the choirboys library the day Paul and Duff auditioned. Both boys appeared in the resulting photo accompanying a piece headlined “Sometimes Not A Note Comes Out” published on Friday 17 April 1953.

The picture shows 11 of the twenty boys who went for that day's audition sampling the bells that they might one day ring, and admiring an actual size replica of the St. Edward’s Crown which would shortly to be used in the Queen’s Coronation.

It was Paul’s first appearance in a newspaper.




Woan’s quiet demeanour belied a dogged determination to achieve the highest standards. As Giles Gilbert Scott’s building expanded, so did the range of musical events and special services.

The first of the new bays was opened in April 1961, Woan taking charge as the Cathedral Singers, the Cathedral Choir plus the brass players of the Liverpool City Police Band all came together for a stirring rendition of William Walton’s Coronation Te Deum. The following year there was a full scale performance of Berlioz’s Grande Messe des Morts.

An advocate of the music of Benjamin Britten, Woan also conducted one of the early performance of Michael Tippett’s A Child of Our Time.


 On October 25 1978, in the presence of the Queen, the Liverpool diocese came together to celebrate the completion of the cathedral with A Song of Creation, commissioned from the former chorister, John Madden. A challenging piece, it was scored for two groups – at the east end an organ and brass ensemble, and at the west end a double choir with organ and more brass players. All were expertly controlled by Woan.

The performance was televised and later released on record, as was the subsequent Diocesan Choral Eucharist involving some 2,000 singers. Further recordings followed, before Woan’s retirement from the cathedral in 1982.

In retirement, as well as indulging his love of fell walking and gardening, Woan served as a sacred music producer for Abbey Records. In 2004 he was one of the 78 male recipients of the Royal Maundy Money, presented by the Queen. Taking part in the service was his 14-year old granddaughter, Rebecca, a member of the newly formed Girls’ Choir.

In 1953 Ronald Woan married Doreen McLoughlin. She survives him with two daughters and a son.


Ronald Woan, born August 27 1919, died April 17 2019 


For some reason Paul McCartney changed his mind about being a choir boy. Around the age of 14 he was a member of the choir of St. Barnabas, the church facing the famous 'shelter in the middle of the roundabout' near Penny Lane.