Friday 9 October 2015

John Lennon's 75th Birthday Tour

John Lennon Day
Saturday 10 October 2015

A Full Day in the Life of Lennon-ness

Part One:

No matter the time of year or what day it is I can never drive from my home in South Liverpool into the city centre without passing two or three Fab Four Taxi tours and at least one Magical Mystery Tour Bus. Despite having a considerable interest in both the Beatles and the history of my city, I've never felt compelled to go on one of these tours. I think my excuse has always been that living here I am privileged to be able to visit any of the places on the tourist trail whenever I want, as this blog has hopefully demonstrated.

But what if there was a tour with a difference, one that didn't stick to the tourist route?

"Off the Beatle track, so to Speke", as the literary Lennon might have said.

Quite unexpectedly I found myself commemorating what would have been John's 75th birthday weekend by going on a Lennon tour to surpass all others. Through some mutual friends I met Jackie Spencer, a qualified Liverpool Tourist Guide since 1995 and one of the city's few officially certified Beatleguides.  Jackie's tours are well known and loved by Beatles' fans across the globe (Universe?). After I saw some photographs taken during her George Harrison themed tour earlier this year I've regretted not going ever since and so, with Jackie's website promising a fun day out with some tears along the way "Some of joy, and some of heartache, especially as we pay tribute to Cynthia" and a tour going to places no tour has ever gone before (some so secret I will never be able to talk about them) I found myself outside the Hard Day's Night Hotel in Liverpool city centre at 9.30am with a crowd of around 30 Lennon fans waiting for the coach to arrive.

Most of the tour party were veterans of one or more of Jackie's previous tours and there were no objections when she suggested that we ignore the sights of Mathew Street and head off to our first destination.

Whilst Jackie did a headcount and some preliminary introductions, the coach manoeuvred its way up Lord Street to the junction with Castle Street. On our left in Derby Square was the Queen Victoria monument, where John would share quiet art school moments with girlfriend, Thelma Pickles. It was also the site of a well known Beatles photo session with Michael Ward in February 1963.

We turned into Castle Street and Jackie reminded us of the incredible scenes that took place here on 10 July 1964 when the Beatles returned to Liverpool for the Northern Premiere of their film "A Hard Day's Night" and a civic reception at the town hall. Thousands had gathered along Castle Street to witness the Beatles appearance on the town hall balcony with the Lord Mayor but I wonder how many noticed John giving a jokey "Hitler" salute? Admittedly some things said and done 50 years ago are today rightfully considered completely unacceptable. Jackie suggested that John wouldn't have stood a chance in today's PC world (I presume she meant Politically Correct, not the computer shop). He would have been making apologies for something every day.

On Dale Street we passed Temple Court, the former Cassanova Club where the Beatles performed in 1960. Alongside it in Temple Street was the site of the Iron Door Club, long demolished with only a plaque on the new building to mark where it stood. 

Across from Temple Street is Moorfields, where photographer Harry Watmough made an unsuccessful attempt to shoot photographs of Ringo and Paul, Astrid Kirchherr style at his photography studio in 1962. N.E.M.S. also had an office there.

On our right was Stanley Street, where Ringo Starr once called into the offices of British Insulated Callenders Cables (B.I.C.C.) to ask their secretary Priscilla White if she fancied going on tour with them (Rory Storm and the Hurricanes) because the booking stipulated they had to have a girl singer.

Jackie Spencer does her renowned "Billy Fury statue" impersonation in St. John's Gardens alongside the tree planted for John Lennon's 60th Birthday .

Our first official stop of the tour was St. John's gardens, named after the Church that stood behind St. George's Hall from 1784 until 1898. Here we gathered around an English Oak tree, the significance of which was lost on me until Jackie explained that this was planted on Monday 9 October 2000 during a ceremony to mark what would have been John's 60th birthday. The tree was planted by John's half-sister Julia Baird with assistance from the Lord Mayor and children from Dovedale Road School where both John and George attended. Julia Baird had recalled how the choice of location for the tree was appropriate because it was a place where her mother would take her, sister Jackie and John for lunch after they had visited the museum or Walker Art Gallery. There is a similar tree for George not far away and I had not known of the existence of either. There are no plaques on the trees for fear of souvenir hunters stealing them.

We then followed Jackie up to Lime Street and climbed the steps to St. George's Plateau, which we were unfortunately unable to see because it was screened off by heras fencing and black plastic sheeting (we later discovered they were using St. George's Hall to film scenes for a new Harry Potter prequel). Undaunted, Jackie explained that it was here on 14 December 1980 that a vigil was held for John Lennon. The event was organised, pretty much single handedly, by Sam Leach after he heard a local radio report on a low-key memorial service for John at St Nicholas' Church where only 40 people had turned up. 

The newscasters comments implied that that this poor attendance was clear evidence that Liverpudlians did not care about John's death. Sam wasn't having that, and decided to do something about it. Faced with stupid bureaucracy and a largely uninterested council (who, let's not forget had knocked down the Cavern Club only seven years earlier) Sam's efforts triumphed and an estimated 100,000 people turned up to pay their respects, many taking part in a full TEN minutes silence which was held simultaneously with a similar gathering in New York. The police had to close the centre of Liverpool such was the turn out for John. 

Across the road is the Empire theatre, scene of many Beatles concert performances (and solo shows by Paul McCartney and Wings in 1973 and 1975, Ringo and his All Starr Band in 1992, and George Harrison as a member of Delaney and Bonnie's band of Friends in 1969).

Punch and Judy, Lime Street, 1948

A triangular traffic island between St. George's Hall and Lime Street Station was once the site of a Punch and Judy Show which John used to love. A traditional, very British, and very violent puppet show featuring Mr. Punch and his wife Judy, the sequences of short scenes typically depicted Mr. Punch clubbing somebody else to death (Judy, their baby, a policeman, a crocodile etc) followed by Punch reciting his catchphrase "That's the way to do it". It was easy to see how a show about a man who beats a woman and baby, with a club, could give children mixed messages, and why it fell out of favour.

We rejoined the bus to the sounds of the Beatles performing "Maggie Mae", and appropriately enough we were on Lime Street, passing a clutch of former cinemas all frequented by John Lennon. 

The huge art-deco Forum (latterly the ABC) presently looks safe from the wrecking ball but the council has given the go ahead for the demolition of the former Futurist and adjacent Scala to make way for yet more student accomodation. A fourth cinema, the Palais de Luxe where John would go with Cynthia and Bill Harry used to stand facing the Forum, closed in 1959 and was replaced by the current 1960s eyesore. I personally think the idea of demolishing the Futurist is criminal. At the very least can't the wonderful façade be incorporated into the new development?

On the corner of this block, and to my knowledge not under threat, is the "Big House" the Vines public house where Julia Stanley and Alf Lennon, John's parents, toasted their wedding before 'honeymooning' at the Forum, watching the film The Boy From Barnado's and the supporting film, the aptly titled Almost a Honeymoon!

Before the wedding ceremony they'd met next door, outside the Adelphi Hotel, where Alf had supposedly once worked as a bellboy. Today the Adelphi hosts the annual Beatles convention held at the end of August. Facing the hotel is the former much loved Lewis's department store. The huge statute of a naked man, officially named "Liverpool Resurgent" but known to locals as "Dickie Lewis" for obvious reasons marks the corner of Renshaw Street and Ranelagh Street. Reportedly his arms are making the semaphore letter "Y", so perhaps he's signalling for a specific type of underpants. At weekends Cynthia Powell would travel over from Hoylake and stand under the statue waiting for John Lennon. Dressed in her leather skirt and fishnet stockings she prayed no-one would mistake her for a 'Maggie May'. Paul worked here for a while and the Beatles performed at the staff Christmas dance on 28 November 1962.

As the coach turned up Mount Pleasant we paused for a moment outside number 64. In August 1962 this was the registry office where John married Cynthia. Brian Epstein was Best Man and Paul and George attended but Pete Best had just been sacked and wasn't invited and his replacement Ringo was so new to the group that he wasn't even told about it until some time later. Cynthia would recall that much of the service was inaudible because of workmen drilling right outside the window.

This was not the same registry office where John's parents had married.  They tied the knot in premises on Bolton Street, just behind Lime Street, but the building has long since gone.

At the top of Mount Pleasant, wedged between the Wellington Rooms (the former Irish centre) and Liverpool Metropolitan Cathedral (or "Paddy's Wigwam" as non-Catholics call it) is the John Lennon Art and Design building, part of Liverpool John Moores University. The irony in naming a new centre for learning after one of Liverpool's worst ever art students (he was disruptive, didn’t do any work, stole from them…..) wasn't lost on Jackie. As she would remind us at several stops on the tour, John certainly wasn't a saint, he wasn't always PC, and he had his demons like everybody else, and it would be foolish to believe that John Lennon was just about "Peace and Love" (to quote his former drummer) but none of this should diminish his extraordinary talent and the pleasure he brought to millions of people.

Our driver pulled the coach over for the second main stop on our tour,  Oxford Street Maternity Hospital where John Lennon was born (and me too, if that's a point of interest). Here we learned a little of how John's Aunt Mimi rewrote history. She would tell the biographer Hunter Davies that when John was born she walked several miles during a German air raid to Oxford Street to see him. Records show that no such raid took place. Although she had no desire to have children of her own, it seems that from the moment Mimi set eyes on John she determined that she would have him, and spent the next five years trying to take him from her sister. After being entertained by Jackie's impression of one of those "nasty" Fockes we left another rose, wedged alongside the plaque commemorating John's birth here on 9 October 1940.

Back on the bus and heading past Abercromby Square Jackie talked for a while about meeting Cynthia Lennon who passed away in April this year.  Helping Jackie out on the tour was my friend Jean Catharell who had been present for Cynthia’s recording session for “Those Were The Days”, taped at the Cavern Club in 1995. Humorously Jean recounted how Cyn had been drinking throughout the session to the point that she was a little “worse for wear” by the end of it leaving the engineers little choice but to add some studio embellishments to help the song. A great memory from Jean of a lovely lady who probably stood no chance of long term happiness with John. By way of tribute to Cynthia we listened to her version of “Those Were The Days” and I tried not to compare it too much with the Mary Hopkin hit.

Upper Parliament Street at Kimberley Close

At the end of Grove Street we turned onto Upper Parliament Street. Pretty much the entire north side heading out towards Smithdown Road was flattened to make way for the Liverpool Women's Hospital which replaced the former Maternity hospital on Oxford Street. 

There are a few surviving buildings on the south side of Upper Parliament Street, but unfortunately not the property which once defined the junction with Kimberly Street. This was 174 Upper Parliament Street, the site of Lord Woodbine's "New Cabaret Artistes Club" and infamous in Beatles' history as the place where they backed  a stripper named Janice for a week in 1960.  Kimberly Street was one of a series of tree lined roads of terraced housing which today has been replaced by a modern estate. Kimberly Close is accessed by a pathway leading from behind the bus stop on Upper Parliament Street.

I photographed some of the dwindling number of original buildings as we headed for Smithdown Road. Across the junction was Lodge Lane, where the Pavilion Theatre, the “Pivvy” still stands. The Quarrymen once auditioned here, unsuccessfully as usual, and the Beatles performed here in April 1962 but today’s tour was specifically for John Lennon and we continued South towards Wavertree and Allerton. 

Passing the huge Toxteth cemetery on Smithdown Road we came to an Asda supermarket, built on the site of the former Sefton General Hospital, of which only the huge boundary wall and a few outbuildings remain.  There was joy and sadness here.  John’s first child John Charles Julian Lennon was born here on 8 April 1963. John, away on tour didn't get to see him until 11 April and then only fleetingly because of his Beatle commitments. Passing up the chance to spend time with his new son when the tour finished John instead went on an infamous holiday with Brian Epstein to Spain where, according to John’s best mate Pete Shotton, John received a helping hand from Brian. Let’s hedge our bets and say John was a try-sexual and leave it there.  Sefton General was also where Julia Lennon’s body was brought after being fatally knocked down on Menlove Avenue in July 1958.  Seventeen year old John was asked to identify the body but couldn’t bring himself to do it. A heartbroken John Dykins, Julia’s partner and father of John’s two step-sisters performed the unenviable task instead.

As we drove further South into Liverpool, the Beatles’ related sites came thick and fast,  on the left was Garmoyle Road where Cynthia and her friend Dot had lived.  Dot was Paul McCartney’s girlfriend so for a time in Liverpool both John and Paul were doing their “courting” in different bedrooms under the same roof. Opposite the end of Garmoyle, just before the railway bridge was a row of shops, one of which was formerly Capaldi’s Ice Cream parlour where John was once seen headbutting another lad and stealing his cone.

Under the bridge we passed the “Mystery”, George Harrison’s local park but also where “Pop” Stanley, John’s maternal grandfather would take him for walks and maybe kick a football when they were living in Newcastle Road.

To our right was the Old Dutch Café, a post gig hangout for the Merseybeat groups where Pete Shotton worked for a time and I noticed that the large wooden Windmill that was usually hanging between the first floor windows had gone.

Smithdown Road curved towards Penny Lane and we saw Holyoake Hall (a Beatles' concert venue) the shelter in the middle of the Penny Lane roundabout (officially Smithdown Place), the bank, and St. Barnabas church where Paul McCartney was a choir boy. The Tesco metro store a little further on was formerly Woolworths where Cynthia worked. Shop girls would remember a shadowy figure in black waiting outside for her to finish for the day. They’d go back to the bus shelter and hop a bus into town or back to see Mimi in Menlove Avenue which is where the coach took us next.

Passing Calderstones Park on our right, beautiful in its autumnal colours and a favourite park of Johns – supposedly he bought Tittenhurst Park because it reminded him of it -  we took a left turn up the hill of Beaconsfield Road and pulled in at the layby outside Palmerston School.

This is a place I live perhaps 3 miles from and yet I’d never had the opportunity to take photos of the school before the tour - it’s not a great idea during the week when its full of children and I've never remembered at weekends. 

In 1969 John decided to take his son Julian, wife Yoko and her daughter Kyoko visit his family in Scotland. A notoriously poor driver he drove his mini up to Liverpool, staying overnight at his Aunt Harriet's house in Gateacre, just over the hill from Beaconsfield Road. Deciding to change to a bigger car for the remainder of the journey to Scotland he asked his chauffeur to drive up to Liverpool in John's Austin Maxi and take the mini back. Whether it was pre-planned or not, John, Yoko and kids paid a visit to Palmerston, then called Holmrook Special School before they set off for Scotland. Several photos of the visit exist but there's scant information regarding the purpose of their visit. Perhaps John chose it because of its proximity to his childhood playground and former home.

We crossed Beaconsfield Road and made our way over to the gates of Strawberry Field for photo opportunities. The gates were made famous when they appeared in an issue of the Beatles Monthly Book at the time the single was released in 1967 and since then have become one of the must see Beatles’s sites on any tour. 

Ironically, John wouldn’t have used them. The grounds were private so John and his mates never entered them through the formal entrance. Today the former orphans home is long gone and a lot of the grounds have been sold off for housing, but with the remaining trees and bushes it wasn’t hard for us to imagine what a great playground it must have made for young lads who climbed in over the wall on Vale Road.  As we left a Magical Mystery Tour bus pulled up at the gates, blocking Beaconsfield Road, as it does every day of the week. An excited crowd of fans and tourists disembarked and began photographing the gates as our coach moved off and I wondered how many of us came here for the same reason.

Our own mystery trip continued through John Lennon’s Woolton passing Reynolds Park where John sought refuge after his mother’s death, and the reservoir tower, reportedly the highest point in Liverpool and visible on the horizon of those famous Dezo Hoffmann photographs of the Beatles jumping up and down on Allerton golf course.

You could not undertake a John Lennon tour without visiting St Peter’s Church because as the plaque says the Church fete held here in 1957 was where he first met Paul McCartney* and everything that happened afterwards was the result of that meeting.  We visited the Church hall where the Quarry Men were setting up for their second performance of the day when Paul walked in and was introduced to John by their mutual friend Ivan Vaughan.  Jackie advised that contrary to some reports she has it on good authority from Colin Hanton that the group did not perform in the church field twice that day. They lost their slot because the Police Dogs display team which was on before them over-ran!  A little part of the tape of John and the Quarry Men performing “Puttin’ On the Style” was played, a rare opportunity to listen to it in the actual place where it had been recorded some 58 years earlier. We were encouraged to sing along and so there's always the possibility that a recording of our rendition will be heard 60 years from now!

John's surviving family members and friends will all give you a story about his love of chocolate. Julia Baird remembers them all queueing with their ration books to get ONE square of chocolate, which they would all then give to their mother Julia so she could make a chocolate cake. Before we left the hall Jean presented us all with a facsimile of John's ration book and one piece of chocolate.

Passing the gravestone of Eleanor Rigby we made our way to the rear of the church yard to the final resting place of John’s uncle George Toogood Smith, husband of Aunt Mimi who died on 5 June 1955. The headstone had recently been refurbished and unveiled in a ceremony just 24 hours earlier and Dr Donna Jackson, senior lecturer in modern history at the University of Chester and a member of the St. Peters's congregation was on hand to tell us how the restoration had come about and introduce us to a gentleman who had carried out the work. Donna is often on hand at St. Peters to greet the Beatles fans visiting from around the world and thought it would be a nice gesture to have the lettering on the headstone restored both to help the fans find it, and also to say 'thank you' to the man who took care of John for many years. We left another rose as a mark of our appreciation.

Returning to the coach we made our way through the centre of the village, past Woolton Baths, presently closed awaiting renovation, the front doors displaying signs reminding us that both John Lennon and Paul McCartney learned to swim here, and turned onto Quarry Street where we paused for a moment to wonder at the remains of the former Quarry from which the sandstone for Liverpool's Anglican Cathedral was mined. A housing estate now occupies the site, towered over by giant sandstone cliffs. 

Passing the row of shops where Pete Shotton's mum kept a small needle-woman's and grocery store (now a hairdressers) I remembered reading that Pete's mum had overheard a conversation with Harry Gibbons, who was then the caretaker of St. Peter's Church hall, and another customer concerning the upcoming summer fete. Mrs Shotton asked whether the Quarry Men could perform at the event as they were all members of the Sunday School or Youth Club at the church. We all know what happened next...

End of Part One. Intermission.

Part 2 to follow.....


The photograph of St George's Plateau:

The Lennon vigil 1980:


* OFFICIALLY: See Biker Like An Icon


  1. Great review ! -- + Photos Seems a Splendid Time for All As said on Pepper ( Guaranteed) Now for no 2 --Looking forward to this ! Cheers Paul D.

  2. Great job! Thank you so much for doing this. Can't wait for part 2.

  3. What a wonderful commentary! Great photos too! I feel like I was on the bus with you!! Thank you so much! I look forward to my next trip to lovely Liverpool ☮🎵💜

  4. I exactly got what you mean, thanks for posting. And, I am too much happy to find this website on the world of Google. here