Saturday 15 April 2017

Relatives and Absolutes (Wavertree: Part One)

George Harrison's Wavertree
(and John Lennon's too) 
Liverpool 15

The Picton Clock Roundabout and High Street, Wavertree 
looking towards Liverpool City Centre 

In addition to Mark Lewisohn's 'Tune In' Beatles Biography, another book I've devoured recently is 'The Beatles Liverpool Landscapes' by local author David Lewis which was published in 2010.

David's book is presented as a series of walking guides around the areas of the city most closely related with the Beatles - Woolton, Speke, Allerton, the Dingle and so on. Acting as a pocket tour guide he takes the reader on a journey across Liverpool, visiting both the well known places and those much more obscure, and explores the history of where the Beatles came from and the areas they knew before the group began, indeed often 'the places that made the families that made The Beatles' to quote the book blurb. It's not about the music, it's not even a book about early concert venues because that's all been done already. David wanted his book to focus on geography and landscape, not songs.

For me the book is the perfect crossover - Liverpool local history and the Beatles' place in it. As I wrote in my introduction to this blog, my intention was to look at both the sites familiar to those undertaking guided Beatles tours around the city and those unsung or forgotten places that featured in their pre-group lives, the places that they would have known as children and young men, the same places my parents would have known and everybody else of their generation growing up in Liverpool after the Second World War. The places they'd remember all their lives but were probably never asked to talk about until writing their biographies in later years (George and Paul) or when reminiscing during the huge Beatles Anthology project.

The book is generously illustrated throughout with many recent photographs taken by the author alongside older images sourced from Liverpool Records Office that give a nice historical perspective. There are hundreds of Beatles books on the market but by writing about the group's origins within the historical context of their hometown, David has managed to approach the Beatles from a refreshingly new angle. I urge you to pick this up if you haven't already. It's certainly inspired me.

With 'The Beatles Liverpool Landscapes' as my guide I decided to revisit David’s walks in Relatives and Absolutes, his chapter on the Wavertree area, and take some photographs along the way. Whilst this part of the city is most closely associated with George Harrison there are also links to both sides of John Lennon's family here. I've added some background history of the area to provide some context to the Beatles related sites.

There are plenty of pubs and bars in Wavertree Village should you be in need of refreshments. The High Street is famous for it's down one side and back up the other pub crawl, as explained in this poem I saw published in the Liverpool Echo:

"About the Area where I was Born"

by Harold Citrine, aged 83

So, as the poem says, let's start this off by the Coffee House pub on Church Road North, facing the former Abbey Cinema and close to the Picton Clock roundabout.

The Coffee House,
Church Road North

The Coffee House, probably Wavertree's oldest surviving pub, is thought to be around 200 years old and said to have been built on a site previously occupied by the ancient chapel of Waretree. Apparently in its day the pub was a very popular venue for day excursions from Liverpool and no doubt some of the more enthusiastic drinkers ended up in the local lock-up, of which we will see more later.

By 1900 it was owned by Liverpool brewer Robert Cain. The interior was the work of architect Walter Thomas, famous as the interior designer of other Cain's pubs in the city centre such as the Philharmonic and the Vines.

John Lennon's mother Julia worked here in mid 1945 shortly after the birth of her second child, Victoria (see my post Bleak House about the Elmswood maternity home). John was left in the care of his Grandad 'Pop' Stanley at Newcastle Road, a short walk down Church Road from the pub. We'll visit Newcastle Road later on this walk.

Julia met John 'Bobby' Albert Dykins here around December 1945.

Dykins was 28, three years younger than Julia, and described as a good-looking, well-dressed man, born and bred in the Wavertree area who worked as a door to door salesman , demonstrating a gadget for invisible fabric repair.

He enjoyed luxuries, and had access through the black market to rationed goods like alcohol, chocolate, silk stockings and cigarettes, which was what initially attracted her. Predictably, the Stanleys, predominantly Pop and the matriarchal Mimi, disapproved of Julia's new man. They called him a 'Spiv', because of his pencil-thin moustache, margarine-coated hair, and trilby hat and there was a general consensus that Dykins was of a lower class than they were, an opinion they seemed to have about any man Julia happened to like. 

In any case, Julia was still legally married to Alf Lennon and had just given birth to another man's daughter who was immediately put up adoption on Pop's insistence. Still grieving over the loss of her child Julia needed some happiness in her life and Dykins was there to provide it when her own family seemed unable or unwilling to.

A 1950s photo of Church Road North with a coach from Home James approaching Picton Clock with the Lamb public house on right.  The building covered by advertising hoardings still stands on the corner today, now displaying a more sombre message. The bricked up windows are evidence of its original use as a dairy.

Walking from the Coffee House towards Picton Clock you pass the 17th century White Cottage on the left. while if you look to your right you'll find a lovely art deco building, formerly the Abbey Cinema.

Abbey Cinema,
Church Road North

The Abbey cinema was designed by Alfred Ernest Shennan a respected Liverpool architect who later became Alderman of the city.

His portfolio of local cinemas included the Forum (ABC) on Lime St, The Plaza in Allerton,The Mayfair in Aigburth and The Curzon in Old Swan. The Abbey is generally considered to be his finest.

Construction started in mid-1938 and took 200 men around 9 months to complete.

One of three cinemas opened in Liverpool just prior to the outbreak of World War II, the Abbey's first screening was the "Joy of Living" starring Irene Dunne and Douglas Fairbanks Jr on 4 August 1939.

Facilities included the serving of coffee throughout the auditorium as well as chocolate, ice cream and cigarettes, enough for the local press to announce "The perfect cinema at last".

In October 1943, only four years after opening, ownership changed hands from "The Regal cinema Company", the Abbey being sold to local cinema pioneer John F. Wood’s Bedford Cinema chain. A progressive company always at the forefront with the latest cinema technology brought patrons the pleasure of film presentations in 3D following the installation of a new wide screen in 1954, and stereoscopic sound in 1960. In 1964, the most important year in the Abbey's history, it was closed for conversion into Liverpool's only Cinerama Theatre, costing around £105,000.00.

(L-R)  Pete Shotton, Bill Turner, John
Lennon and Len Garry

Taking a tram or bus in from Woolton to the Penny Lane terminus would bring John Lennon and his mates within walking distance of the Abbey Cinema.

In 1965, when John Lennon started composing 'In My Life', his original lyrics contained the verse:

Penny Lane is one I'm missing, up Church Road to the clock tower, in the circle of the Abbey, I have seen some happy hours.

Those happy hours did not necessarily refer to the latest cinematic delights.....

It was John's best mate Pete Shotton who alerted him to the teenage pleasures that could be had with obliging females in the darkened upper circle of the Abbey.

A week before John's first brief encounter Pete had bumped into their mutual friend Bill Turner outside the Abbey and agreed to join him for the matinee performance. Pete recounts what happened next: This will be a real eye opener for you, Pete" Bill smirked. It quickly became apparent that the dirty rascal was hardly referring to the featured film. "Now what we do is this. We go up to the balcony where there aren't too many people, and pick out two good lookers sitting together. When the lights go down and the picture starts, we sit one on each side of them. Then we just put our arms round their shoulders, and see how much they let us get away with.... 

The "circle of the Abbey" (top left) 

According to Pete the entire procedure worked like a charm.

On his return home he found John, Ivan Vaughan and Nigel Walley playing on "the tip"* and excitedly told them of his fly opening experience. Greeted with a disbelieving chorus of "b@ll@cks!" (or words to that effect) Pete eventually managed to arouse interest in the trio of doubting John Thomases and persuaded them to accompany him to the Abbey the following Saturday.  Bill Turner was there again, accompanied by another mate, Len Garry. Working in pairs the six of them spread themselves out across the balcony to try their hand with some amenable young ladies.

For the most part this was their first physical contact with ladies of the opposite sex and they would later consider these anonymous fumblings to be their initiation into manhood. Unsurprisingly they rarely missed a Saturday matinee performance in the months to come.

However, with age came more regular experience and as Pete would later conclude for all the cheap thrills John and I had accumulated in the Abbey Cinema, we came to appreciate that such encounters did, after all, leave something to be desired in the way of intimacy, comfort and convenience.

(John Lennon In My Life - Pete Shotton and Nicholas Schaffner, 1983)

George Harrison would also retain a great fondness for his local cinema. Living in such close proximity it's no surprise that the Abbey was often the destination for a family outing. He visited on Saturday mornings and even when the Harrisons moved house in 1950 George would still return here to watch the latest movies (Speke having no cinemas).

George would later recall an occasion when he visited the Abbey with John Lennon to watch ‘Rock Around The Clock’(sic). During the film they became aware of all the female attention Bill Haley and his Comets attracted and discussing this as they left the cinema George joked That’s the type of job I want to have. Unless it was a later re-run, George was mis-remembering the film because ‘Rock Around The Clock’ was released in March 1956, nearly two years before he met John.

However, consider this quite well known interview clip with John Lennon: I had no idea about doing music as a way of life until rock n roll hit me. Then when rock n roll hit me that changed my whole life. You know, you went to see those movies with Elvis or somebody in it, when we were still in Liverpool. And you'd see everybody waiting to see him. And I'd be waiting there, too. And they'd all scream when he came on the screen.  So I thought, "That's a good job."

Perhaps it was an Elvis film that George remembered watching with John at the Abbey.

When I was growing up the Abbey was the nearest decent cinema to where I lived in Childwall and I went there with my parents quite often. I remember watching the first Superman movie starring Christopher Reeve in 1978 and a re-run of Disney's Jungle Book to name but two.

Sadly, as was the case with most of the great picture houses, audience attendances would decline over the next 20 years. The much loved Abbey Cinema would screen its final performance, the disaster movie The Towering Inferno on 4 August 1979.

Thankfully this fine art deco building is still standing. Since closure it has seen use as various supermarkets (the first a branch of Lennons!) and bingo halls.

(Below) The Abbey and the Coffee House

The Picton Clock Tower and former shelter in the middle of the roundabout

Church Road in Wavertree is unique in Liverpool in that each end is book-ended by a roundabout which was mentioned in a Beatles' lyric. At the junction with Allerton Road is Smithdown Place where you will find the bus shelter immortalised in the song 'Penny Lane'.  At the beginning of the High Street, standing on the traffic Island facing the Abbey and also mentioned in the initial draft of 'In My Life' is the Picton Clock tower.

Described in the Pevsner Guide as 'an eclectic renaissance curiosity in brick and stone' it was presented to the people of Wavertree by the architect  and keen local historian Sir James Picton in 1884, who designed it as a memorial to his wife Sarah. He chose the site, at the centre of the old village, so that the clock could be seen by as many people as possible.

An inscription on the tower reads: Time wasted is existence; used is life which sounds like something George Harrison would say.

Be careful if you plan on taking some photographs of the clock up close. David Lewis beautifully describes the Picton Clock roundabout as inaccessible as a real island, guarded by dangerous and unpredictable tides (of traffic).

When you reach the roundabout, you'll notice the imposing Georgian-style Lamb public house in front of you.

The Lamb,
111 High Street

The Lamb, with its oak panelled interior was recorded as long ago as 1754. Now a Solicitors office, the present Lamb dates from the 1850s and was built on the site of a smaller pub of the same name.  

In the early nineteenth century, prior to the construction of the town hall, meetings in Wavertree were advertised as taking place at 'the Sign of the Lamb'.

The brick archway on the left led to stables and was used for horse-drawn omnibuses plying between Wavertree and the centre of Liverpool at a fare of six pence (beyond the reach of ordinary folk).

From the 1930s it became the premises of Home James travel and coach hire which operated daily tours to popular destinations. The Harrisons would have used them for a family day out and the memories of such trips would remain with George. Asked many years later about the inspiration for the Beatles' film 'Magical Mystery Tour'  he would say it was basically a charabanc trip, which people used to go on from Liverpool to see the Blackpool lights, they'd get loads of crates of beer and an accordian player and all get pissed**

A 1950s shot of the High Street, showing the Lamb on the right.

Turn left along the High Street and immediately on your left is a real gem. The shop at No. 102 has Liverpool's only surviving Georgian bow-fronted window and looks like something straight out of a Charles Dickens novel. For this reason the building is Grade II listed, along with the properties on either side. It has been the home of craftsmen for most of its days. An 1846 map shows it as a sadler's shop and around the end of the 19th century a cycle manufacturer and then a boot repairer took over. This then is where the Harrisons came to have their shoes mended. By 1980 the shop was occupied by Wavertree's last surviving traditional cobbler and the window was on the verge of disintegration. Fortunately it was saved and expertly restored by the wood-turner who then began to sell his wares from the premises.

102 High Street as a Cobblers in 1918 (above) and Wood-turners in 2015 (below)

As noted, Wavertree High Street was famous in Liverpool for its pubs and many still remain as they were in George’s time with a few newer bars in premises that had a different function in the 1940’s.  George would later recall these pubs were frequented by his uncles with bald heads; they'd say they got them by using them to knock pub doors open. In between were cobblers, butchers, newsagents, the police station and a chandelry shop ran by Ambrose Danher, the uncle of Mary Mohin, Paul McCartney's mum. Strongly opposed to her father's second wife, Mary left home at the age of 13 and went to live with her maternal uncle above the shop in the early 1920s.

108 High Street (1915)

In the last years of the 1920s George Harrison’s mother Louise French (then 18) was working as a shop assistant, possibly at a green grocers, somewhere on the High Street. My research indicates that this may have been a fruit and vegetable shop belonging to Thomas Topping which once stood to the left of the Lamb until it was demolished in 1970. Home James' yard extended across the rear of Tom's shop and behind that was Arnold Grove. Louise only had a short walk down Frederick Grove to the High Street from her home in the adjacent Albert Grove.

It was during her time in the shop that she met Harold Harrison.  It's said that while he was on shore leave from the White Star Line he encountered Louise on the High Street just as she was passing a note of her address to another seaman. Reportedly he grabbed the note and on a whim asked if he could write to her. “Send us a postcard” she said. Letters on White Star stationary began arriving at her parents home in Albert Grove and by the 1930s they were 'courting'.

George Harrison's Wavertree (map 1) (click to enlarge)

Town Hall,
89 High Street

The Town Hall was built in 1872, originally to house the Wavertree Local Board of Health by local architect John Elliot Reeve who lived in nearby Sandown Lane. It served a number of functions over the years but by 1979 it was under threat of demolition. It received  Grade II listed status and has since operated as a pub, and more recently a restaurant.

George Harrison was born ten minutes into 25 February 1943, the fourth child for Harold and Louise. The following day Harold left Arnold Grove and made the short trip down Frederick Grove, turning right  along the High Street to the Town Hall where he registered his new son's birth. It's said that there had been no prior discussion about what to call the baby, Harry literally deciding en route. When he arrived home Louise asked him why he'd chosen George. 'If it's good enough for the King it should be good enough for him' Harold replied.

The motto on the town hall - sub umbra floresco - means I flourish in the shade and  unwittingly foreshadows George's musical development in The Beatles, in his case the 'shade' being the Lennon and McCartney songwriting team.

The High Street, then and now

The Town Hall is on the left of photo. Next door is the Cock and Bottle pub which today has expanded across two properties and incorporated a third.  In the early 20th century it was a temperance hotel. 

Close to the Town Hall, wedged between the Cock and Bottle pub and the Bet Fred, is 95 High Street.  Now part of the pub it was reputedly 'The Smallest House in England'  – 6 feet wide by 14 feet deep with two rooms built around 1850 in a space which had previously been a side passage. There are stories about the former occupants which may be more fact than fiction, one concerning a couple who raised eight children in the house, another about a very large resident who had to go up the stairs sideways.

It was still a house when the Harrisons lived in Arnold Grove, surviving as such until 1952 when it was incorporated into the Cock and Bottle.

Walking towards Picton Clock turn left immediately after the Bet Fred into Frederick Grove. Just after the industrial unit on your right (the former backyard of Home James) is Arnold Grove.  A few houses along on the right is No. 12, where George Harrison was born. 

No.12 Arnold Grove is the fourth door from the right on the above photo.

George recalled a number of the local landmarks we've seen here when he described Arnold Grove as a bit like Coronation Street. It was behind the Lamb Hotel in Wavertree. There was a big art-deco cinema there called the Abbey, and the Picton clock tower. Down a little cobbled lane was the slaughterhouse, where they used to shoot horses.

Arnold Grove was covered in detail in a previous post which you can read here.  My research continues as I try to establish whether the slaughterhouse was in Frederick Grove or Chestnut Grove which is a little further on around the corner.

We’ll take a closer look at this as I continue my walk through George Harrison's family history in part two of Relatives and Absolutes which you can read here.


** pissed as in drunk (the British meaning)


John Lennon: In My Life (Pete Shotton and Nicholas Schaffner)

I Me Mine (George Harrison)
The Beatles Liverpool Landscapes (David Lewis)
Anthology (The Beatles)
Picture Palaces of Liverpool (Harold Ackroyd)

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