Thursday 12 November 2009

A Wondrous Place

When I was a little boy, way back home in Liverpool...

St Silas Primary School,
High Park Street,
L8 3TR

Original school building (above) and St. Silas today (below)

Ringo attended this school, a few hundred yards from Admiral Grove between 1945 and 1950. When he was 6 years old he was hospitalised suffering from peritonitis and having undergone two operations ended up staying in hospital for twelve months.

Young Richy started on 25 August 1945, his mother Elsie walking him there from Madryn Street that first day. 

Unfortunately he hated it from the moment he arrived:

School is an event in my memory. St Silas's School. I'm not sure if I actually remember my first day, or if it's because my mother has told me so many times. She took me to the gate that first morning - it was just up the road, a couple of minutes' walk. In those days your parents took you to the gate and then just said, 'Well, on your way.' (There was no sitting with you in class, getting you settled, like we did with our kids.) And I have a vision to this day of a huge building - the biggest building on the planet - with about a million kids in the playground, and me. I was pretty fearful.*

He walked home at dinner-time announcing to a surprised Elsie that they had finished for the day.  I walked home for lunch - as kids we could walk anywhere we liked back then; there was no danger. Supposedly, I came home and said, 'We've got a holiday.' In my little way I said, 'That's it for today, mum.' She believed me until she saw all the other kids walking by the window going back to school after lunch and said, 'Get out of here.' I don't remember ever enjoying school. I was always sagging off; I was only in school for about five years in all*.  It would certainly not be the last time he tricked her.

The school had four teachers and a head, between them teaching 200 children aged between five and eleven. The number of children to each class was ridiculous, Richy's teacher at the time Tom Cross later recalling he had a class of 42 pupils and "on the other side of an eight foot high curtain Mrs Martin had 46".+

From 1944 school children aged 11 were entered into the Eleven Plus examination, and their test results determined the sort of secondary education they received until the age of 15. In the late Forties the choice was either a technical college, a secondary modern or, for those bright enough, a grammar school.

Unfortunately there was little expectation that any of the pupils from St Silas would go on to a grammar school and few actually sat the test. Tom Cross "This was not high-grade teaching of interested pupils. We were trying to give them the best, most rounded education we could manage but there was no expectation we'd get them through the Eleven-Plus. The (children) lacked any real stimulus at home: it was clear that education was not taken seriously there (in the Dingle). These were solidly working class Liverpool homes and most of their fathers were good honest sons of toil. In some cases the mothers also worked"

Most of the children from St. Silas went on to Dingle Vale, the large secondary modern school at the Aigburth end of the Dingle.

In the summer of 1947 Richy Starkey fell ill. Suffering from fever and a pain in his stomach which caused vomiting he was taken by ambulance to the Royal Liverpool Children's hospital with suspected appendicitis. It was actually far worse. His inflamed appendix had burst spreading bacteria throughout his abdomen - peritonitis. he doctors treating him discovered upon opening him up that his appendix had actually burst: At six and a half I was very ill with peritonitis; it was a huge drama. We were all at home and I was dying with pain, so there were quite a few of the family around. The doctor came and suddenly these people were lifting me up, putting me on a stretcher and carrying me out of the house. I was put in an ambulance and whisked away. When we got to the hospital, a woman doctor examined me, pressing on my side, and it was the worst pain I've ever felt.

As they went to put me to sleep for my operation, they said, 'Is there anything you want?' I said, 'Can I have a cup of tea?' They said, 'You can have a cup of tea when you come out of the theatre.' It was ten weeks later that they gave me the cup of tea, because that's how long it took for me to come round. They'd gone in and found I had peritonitis. That was a heavy operation, especially then. They told my mother three times that I'd be dead in the morning. That was hard for her, and I realised later why she was so possessive. I was very lucky to survive. Even after coming round, I was barely conscious for long periods.

Hospital was a boring place. It becomes your world when you're in for a long time - and I spent two years in there (the second year was when I was thirteen). Suddenly that's your life. You get in a routine. You have all these friends who are ill as well, and then you start getting on your feet and you lose touch with them. My mum would come in practically every day, and my grandparents.* 
Elsie with Richy during his hospitalisation
Richy even received a visit from his estranged father: I'll never forget my dad coming in: he stood there with a notebook, because my birthday was coming up (I was six years old, going on seven), and he asked me 'What do you want, son?' and he wrote it all down in this notebook! I never saw him for years - he never bought me a damn thing. He wasn't in my good books.

I was put in a cot, so I got very good at picking things up with my feet: pennies, bits of paper, anything that fell out of the cot. When I'd been in the hospital about six months, I was really getting better and could have come home in a couple of weeks. I'd got a little toy bus for my birthday. The cot had sides on, and the kid in the next bed wanted to see the bus so I leaned over to get it. It was about four feet off the ground and I leaned too far, fell right out and ripped open all the surgery scars. That was a dangerous time. They kept me in for another six months for that.

I was in hospital for about a year and after that I was convalescing, so I didn't go back to school for two years. There was no catching up at school in those days. I was always behind at least a year. No teacher put his arm round me, saying, 'Well, let me deal with you, son.' I was just stuck in a class, always behind. I was the joker, and would make friends with the biggest boy in class for protection. I started to hate school even more, and it became easier to stay off. My mother would pack me off to school, but I'd just walk around the park with a couple of school friends. We'd write little excuse note.... but always get caught because we couldn't spell.*

Unsurprisingly, his schooling suffered, badly, and when he returned to St Silas he was way behind all the other children: I didn't learn to read until I was nine. My mother couldn't take much interest in that because she had to go to work, but I was taught by a girl who used to look after me, Marie Maguire. She was the daughter of my mother's friend Annie, and she used to mind me when my mum went to the pub or the pictures. Marie taught me to read with Dobbin the Horse. (I can read, but I can't spell - I spell phonetically.) I regret not learning earlier: it means that your knowledge is so limited. I never took Latin. John (Lennon) took the Latin and the painting.*

During his research for "Tune In" the Beatles' historian Mark Lewisohn discovered a note dated 21.11.47 regarding Richy in the St. Silas school records, which may indicate that the school thought he had actually left, through "sickness".  But return he did, in summer 1948, after a year away, and in time to be photographed with the rest of his classmates. The photograph of him at school only surfaced in 2009.

St. Silas class III (?), 1948-9. Richard Starkey is seated bottom left.

Ronald Wycherley was a classmate of Richy. He achieved stardom as Billy Fury, managed by pop impresario Larry Parnes. Liverpool's earliest rock and roll (and film) star, he equalled the Beatles' record of 24 hits in the 1960s, and spent 332 weeks on the UK chart, despite never having a chart-topping single or album.

Wycherley had come to the attention of Larry Parnes when he attended a concert in Birkenhead hoping to interest one of Parnes' artists, the singer Marty Wilde, in some of the songs he had written. Instead, in an episode that has become pop music legend, Parnes pushed young Wycherley up on stage right away. He was such an immediate success that Parnes signed him, added him to the tour, and renamed him 'Billy Fury'. 

It has been suggested that Fury's rapid rise to prominence was due to his "Elvis Presley-influenced, hip-swivelling" and at times overtly sexual and provocative stage performances which he was ultimately forced to tone down. In October 1959, the UK music magazine, NME, commented that Fury's stage antics had been drawing much press criticism.

Interestingly, I recently came across the St Silas school class photograph on a website dedicated to Fury. The photograph attracted media attention because of the Ringo connection but Fury fan Jean Todd suggests that the photo could also include the eight year old Ronnie Wycherley. Jean wonders if the young Billy could be the boy in the dark shirt, fourth from the left on the back row. Nobody appears to have confirmed this to date.

After jettisoning Fury's backing band the Blue Flames, Parnes held auditions in Liverpool for a new group at the Wyvern Club (later known as the Blue Angel) in Seel Street on Tuesday 10 May 1960. The pre-Ringo Beatles were one of the groups who auditioned and remarkably, we have a visual record of the audition thanks to local photographer, Cheniston Roland:

Stuart Sutcliffe, John Lennon, Paul McCartney, Johnny "Hutch" Hutchinson and George Harrison at the audition for Larry Parnes, Tuesday 10 May 1960.

Billy Fury (center) and Larry Parnes (right) watch The SiIver Beatles audition.

Long John and The Silver Beatles, as they called themselves on this day, impressed Parnes enough to be offered the job for £20 a week, reportedly on the condition that they sacked their bassist Stuart Sutcliffe.

John Lennon refused and the band left after Lennon, apparently slightly awed by the presence of a genuine star, had secured Fury's autograph (John's head can be seen top right of the photo above).

In May, Larry Parnes came to town, auditioning. He was the big London agent. His acts nearly always had a violent surname. There was Ronnie Wycherley who became Billy Fury; and a less furious guy you have yet to meet. A sweet Liverpool guy - the first local man who made it, in our eyes. (Paul McCartney)*

This was not the first time their paths had crossed. In 1958 the pop impressario Carroll Levis held an audition in Manchester, promising the winners a spot on his weekly ATV show and the Quarry Men - at this point just John, Paul and George - renamed themselves Johnny and the Moondogs, seemingly on a whim, and decided to have a go. Waiting their turn to audition George spotted another Liverpool lad who'd made the journey, Ronnie Wycherley and chatted with him. Ronnie was the cousin of George's best mate Arthur Kelly so they may have met previously.  

The poster above advertising Billy Fury's summer season at Great Yarmouth features two support acts who would later be able to call The Beatles their backing group, Johnny Gentle (1960) and Davy Jones (1961).

Three years on: Ronnie Wycherley with former classmate Richard Starkey and the other Beatles at the start of their own rise to fame in 1963.

In 1973, Fury appeared as 'Stormy Tempest' in the excellent film "That'll Be The Day" starring David Essex and Ringo Starr. The film was roughly based on the early days of The Beatles and, particularly in the holiday camp scenes, Ringo's other former group, Rory Storm and the Hurricanes (whom the Stormy Tempest group were said to be modelled upon). Fury can be seen bottom left on the poster below.

Rheumatic fever, which Billy first contracted as a child, damaged his heart and ultimately contributed to his untimely death. He was plagued with heart problems through the later part of the seventies. After returning from a recording session in London in the early hours of 28 January 1983, Fury collapsed in his home in London during the night. His manager Tony Read found him unconscious the next morning. He was rushed to a hospital, but died later in the afternoon at 2.10pm. He was only 42 years old.

As always, the city of Liverpool was slow to honour one of its greatest sons and it was not until twenty years after Billy's death that recognition came. In 2003 a bronze statue was unveiled at the National Museum of Liverpool Life. The sculpture, by Liverpool artist Tom Murphy, was donated by 'The Sound of Fury' fan club after the money was raised by fans. Today, the statue can be seen alongside the Dock Traffic Office at Liverpool's Albert Dock complex on the waterfront.

Billy Fury's guitar in the National Museum of 
Liverpool Life, Pier Head, Liverpool (photo left).


Updated with quotes from the following books in 2016:

+"Tune In" by Mark Lewisohn

* "The Beatles Anthology" by the Beatles



Billy Fury:


  1. Tony Hetherington10 October 2014 at 16:08

    The photographs show the school as it is in the late 20th century/early 21st century. The building Ringo attended was far older, from the 1870s. Half the site of the current school was occupied by St Silas Church, which was demolished in the 1950s. The church had suffered some damage in the war but was still in use until it amalgamated with the nearby St Philomen's. Demolition of the old church allowed the school to more than double its playground size until the school itself expanded and the original building was pulled down. What we seen now in the photographs is part of the new building on land that was originally the site of the church.

  2. I went to St Silas as did my Mother and many of my relatives. The keystone said around 1896. As you looked at the school from the front, a newer building had been erected, contain 2 classes of the "infant"school, complete with indoor toilets. Across the road, to the right of the school, was a polythene factory - Jacksons. When that was demolished, St Silas playground was enlarged, thereby blocking off an entrance to a street that no longer exists. I can't remember the name, but it couldn't have had more that seven houses.

  3. It was called St silas Street, I lived there