Sunday, 28 October 2018

Raymond Jones

12-14 Whitechapel
Liverpool 1

Saturday 28 October, 1961

The initial copies of the Beatles' first record, 'My Bonnie' backed with 'The Saints',were released in West Germany around 23 October 1961 and the Hamburg-domiciled Stuart Sutcliffe was soon sending the discs back to Liverpool.

While their name wasn't featured on the sleeve or label - the Beatles were only providing the backing for Tony Sheridan and they'd been renamed the Beat Brothers - they were thrilled to be on a record, George sending Stu a £5 note in the hope he could send over more copies.

For a period they played 'My Bonnie'  on stage, with John on lead vocals. They also asked the local DJ and MC Bob Wooler to play the record at every opportunity. Such exposure created an interest in the disc and it was on this day in 1961, Raymond Jones order a copy of "My Bonnie."

The place was NEMS, the Liverpool music store managed by Brian Epstein.

The incident, which certainly set in motion something huge, has been subject to a strain of disinformation. First, Epstein claimed to have never have heard of the popular local act playing a stone's throw away regularly at The Cavern; despite the fact that he and John Lennon were both contributors to Bill Harry's Mersey Beat paper, or that the group themselves frequented the store, listening to (without buying) records on a regular basis.

Why Epstein would plead ignorance of their existence in his ghost-written memoir is unclear.

Nonetheless, he goes on to say that, in an effort to please the customer, who he recognised as a regular, and two girls who enquired after the record a day or so later, he tracked down the release and eventually discovered that it was issued in Germany and therefore slightly off his normal radar.

Even more murky is why, years later, NEMS (and later Beatles') employee Alistair Taylor would claim that the "Raymond Jones" story was a ruse in the first place, made up by himself, and that there was no Raymond Jones.

Taylor's story was refuted by the Cavern Club's DJ, Bob Wooler, and Liverpudlian writer and broadcaster Spencer Leigh.

Near contemporaneous evidence exists to back up the Raymond Jones 'My Bonnie' story at least. Here's an interview with the man himself from Beatles Bible:

Raymond Jones played a small but pivotal role in the Beatles' history. He was the man who, on Saturday 28 October 1961, ordered a copy of the group's single 'My Bonnie' from the NEMS shop at 12-14 Whitechapel, Liverpool. Jones was served by Brian Epstein, who at the time ran the store's record department.
Epstein's curiosity was piqued after Jones told him about the Beatles, and on 9 November 1961 he paid a visit to the Cavern Club to watch them perform. So began a chain of events which let to him managing the group, securing them a record deal and steering them to worldwide fame.

In the 1990s, for reasons known only to himself, Epstein's assistant at NEMS, Alistair Taylor, claimed that Raymond Jones never existed, and that he had invented the character so that the record could be ordered into the store.

In August 2010 Raymond Jones left a comment on (the Beatles Bible's) profile of him, along with an email address. We contacted him to see if he'd be willing to be interviewed, and corresponded by telephone and email. During those conversations he spoke of his time in Liverpool, his memories of the Beatles and Brian Epstein, and why he'd rarely come forward to set the record straight. Here's what he told us.

The Beatles legend has it that in 1961 you were 18, and a printer's apprentice from Huyton. Is this correct?

In his book A Cellarful Of Noise, Brian Epstein described me as an 18-year-old leather jacketed youth. I must have looked younger than my actual years. I was born on 21 June 1941, so I must have been 20 at the time. By the way, my friend and I Ron Billingsley wore leather jackets well before we ever saw or had even heard of The Beatles. I rode pillion on Ron's motorbike.

I worked for a small printing company KB Print, which originated over Rigby's pub in Dale Street. It later moved to Tithebarn Street. My address at that time was 48 Stonefield Road, Dovecot, Liverpool 14. Dovecot was only a couple of short bus stops away from Knotty Ash Village Hall.

How did you first hear about the Beatles?

I was a regular visitor to the lunchtime sessions at the Cavern in Mathew Street. I worked about a five minute walk away in Dale Street. My boss didn't mind how long I stayed there as long as I made the time up in the evening. I suppose I was very lucky.

The first time I saw the Beatles I was totally blown away. I couldn't believe what I was hearing and watching. It was a sound I had never heard before. Pete Best was the drummer then; he used to sing 'Matchbox', a Carl Perkins song, and being a keen Perkins fan I was intrigued to see how they played the chord sequences.

One particular day Bob Wooler, the DJ from the Cavern, came into my place of work to have some tickets printed so I asked him where they were playing next. He said he'd let me know when he picked up the tickets, which I took to mean he'd find out the time and venue and tell me.

When he came in to pick the tickets up he opened the package and gave me two, which he signed so I could get free entry to the venue. The show was at Knotty Ash Village Hall. After that I started to follow the Beatles to most of the venues they played in the evenings. You could say I was totally hooked.

The Beatles had recorded My Bonnie in Hamburg. How did you get to hear about the single?

My ex brother-in-law Kenny Johnson was the lead guitarist with a group called Mark Peters and the Cyclones. It was him that told me the Beatles had made a record in Germany. The following Saturday I went to NEMS to ask for the record, not realising the person I spoke to was Brian Epstein. He started asking me questions: who were they? Where did they play? What type of music did they perform?

After I had answered his questions I told him they were the best group I had ever seen. The next time I went to NEMS I picked up the record. Shortly after that it was common knowledge that Epstein had become their manager.

I had never heard the Tony Sheridan/Beatles record at the Cavern or anywhere else before going into NEMS that day. As I said before, it was just a chance conversation with Kenny Johnson that prompted me to go to NEMS and ask for the record. About two weeks after that that I heard Bob Wooler playing it at the Cavern.

How many times did you see the Beatles play? Was it mostly at the Cavern, or all over Liverpool?

It is impossible to even attempt to guess how many times I saw the Beatles. I went to a lot of lunchtime and evening gigs, and also a few afternoon sessions at the Cavern. The other places I saw them play were Aintree Institute, Blair Hall, The Casbah, Litherland Town Hall, Civil Service Club, Hambleton Hall, Knotty Ash Village Hall and The Tower Ballroom. I went to a few other places as well but I can't remember the names. The venue I wanted to go to see them was on the Royal Iris – I had just come back from holiday and you could say I missed the boat.

Did you ever meet the Beatles?

I wouldn't say I knew the boys, but I have talked to them all at sometime or other. My father worked on the Liverpool buses as did George Harrison's dad. They used to go to the (LCPT) Social Club in Dovecot  (Finch Lane). I went there for a drink with my father and George was there with his dad too. He wasn't very talkative that night.

George was a different person when he was on stage. One particular day at the Cavern he was playing a short instrumental in the middle of one of their songs. They all started to do The Shadows' step-over-and-back walk. They were taking the mickey of course. Nobody in their right minds could have predicted just how big they would become.

Not long afterwards they made an appearance on a TV Show (Granada's 'People and Places', broadcast 17 October 1962) presented by Bill Grundy. After that show everyone jumped on the bandwagon – you couldn't get near the boys whereas before you could freely mingle freely with them. I stopped going to the Cavern then; for me there was nothing to go for.


Liverpool Echo, 28 November 1964.
The serialisation of 'A Cellarful of Noise' by Brian Epstein

When the Beatles had had a couple of recording under their belt, Brian Epstein was telling his story in a national newspaper, I was livid when he described me in the article as a "scruffy" 18-year-old leather-jacketed youth. I wrote to NEMS to show him my disgust about his remark. In the letter I said not everyone wore suits and that some people had to work for a living.

Shortly after that someone from NEMS wrote to me and asked me to contact Mr Epstein at his office, which at that time was in Moorfields off Dale Street. When I contacted him he asked me to call to his office and said he would like to apologise in person. After his somewhat poor apology we both went to Rigby's pub in Dale Street and had a couple of drinks. He was asking me all sorts of questions and taking notes at the same time. He didn't say so but I think he must have been planning the book A Cellarful Of Noise.

Some time later a neighbour of mine wrote to Brian – for what reason I'm not quite sure – but by return of post she received a letter from Diana Vero, Mr Epstein's secretary, asking for my address so he could send me a copy of his book. A week or so later I received it.

Why did you never come forward and stake your claim in The Beatles' story? In the biographies you're portrayed as an elusive figure that some presume to have never even existed, and it seems odd that you'd not want to tell your story?

I was invited to attend the first the first Liverpool Beatles Convention by Bob Wooler. It was an experience I was not very comfortable with. Being in the limelight didn't suit me so I decided there and then to keep a low profile.
Years later it was advertised that Raymond Jones was making an appearance at another convention. My friend Ron Billingsley's wife went as she thought she'd see me there, but all she saw was Bob Wooler arguing with Alistair Taylor because he had said he was Raymond Jones. Bob knew he was lying and asked the audience if anyone had any knowledge of my whereabouts. Sylvia was too shy to speak out, but she approached Bob Wooler afterwards and told him she could contact me. Her husband and my friend contacted me and I in turn contacted Bob Wooler.

Bob and I were both disgusted with Taylor's claims, and discussed a plan of action. Bob told me he was planning a book and he wanted the truth to come out. Spencer Leigh wrote the book about Bob. It was called The Best Of Fellas: The Story of Bob Wooler. Spencer also told my story in an article in Mojo magazine the article was called "Nowhere Man Found!". Some time later Mojo publications contacted me to ask for my permission to print the story in a book, Ten Years That Shook the World.

My wife and I were watching a BBC Television programme and we were astonished when Alistair Taylor said he made up the name Raymond Jones and how he used to go to the Cavern. All blatant lies. I immediately telephoned Spencer Leigh and he said he will have to stop as we have the proof. Ever since Spencer Leigh uncovered the truth with his brilliant investigative nose I have had people from all over the world to ask for verification of the story. And also my wife and I have just recorded an interview with a local TV station here in Spain.

Alistair Taylor once said in an interview: "Raymond Jones has come forward only once in forty years in a very drunken 'phone call to Radio Merseyside. I don't remember Raymond Jones. So I leave it up in the air. You can either believe the late Bob Wooler or me. Either there is a Raymond Jones or I made it up." What actually happened?

It's true, I did once speak to Spencer Leigh on BBC Radio Merseyside, but I dislike being on the radio and was nervous. Afterwards even Spencer asked if I'd been drinking but I hadn't.

How long have you been living in Spain, and what brought you there?

I am still a director of the printing company I founded at the age of 31. The company is called Ultragraph Ltd and is based in Burscough, Lancashire. My son Nick and daughter Sarah now run the company.

I retired to Spain around 16 or 17 years ago to fulfil my dream of building my own house. It took me and my wife Sylvia about five or six years of very hard work to complete. It was very satisfying.

Do you still have your copy of My Bonnie, or the signed copy of Brian Epstein's book?

If only I still had Epstein's signed copy of his book and the record! I kept them both together, but nobody knows where they are now. I still have the letter Epstein's secretary sent to my neighbour, it's the only proof I have that it was me who went into NEMS.

People have told me that my name will go down in Beatles history. That may be true, but all I did was buy a record by a group that gave me so much pleasure and enjoyment.

Raymond Jones, without whom.....


This interview appeared on the always excellent Beatles Bible site.

Additional material from the Fab Four FAQ 2.0 Facebook page.

Note: Opening paragraphs amended, with thanks to Thorsten Knublauch.

Monday, 22 October 2018

Do You Know Him?

Liverpool Echo and Evening Express,
Saturday 16 May 1964
(my Mum's 20th Birthday if that's a point of interest)

I'm continuing to trawl the archives of the Liverpool Echo and came across this piece written by George Harrison (no, not that one) about George Harrison (yes, that one).

I've done a reconstruction below using a better copy of the photograph. I've tried to enhance the text as well to make it easier to read.

I've always assumed that this photo was taken in the back garden of 25 Upton Green - George's home in Speke.

However, from Mrs Kelly's comments I'm now wondering whether it was taken in the backyard of her house in Wavertree, which in 1957 was 9 Botanic Street according to Mark Lewisohn. The Kelly family must have moved to the address in the article before 1964. 

I suspect this might be the first time this particular photo of George was published. 

I bet Mrs Kelly was made up when she opened up the paper and discovered the Echo had cut her own son out of the shot! 

Here's the full photo:

Note that George Harrison, the Echo journalist had a column called 'Over The Mersey Wall'. In 1969 George Harrison, the Beatle released an album called 'Electronic Sound' (containing exactly what it said on the tin). Side 1 of that LP was an 18m 41s track entitled 'Under The Mersey Wall', a nod to his namesake if ever there was.   


Liverpool Echo archives

Thursday, 11 October 2018

Inside Number 9

9 Madryn Street
Liverpool 8

A look inside the birthplace of Ringo Starr....

9 Madryn Street in 1981

Situated off High Park Street in Liverpool 8 are the 'Welsh Streets', an area of around 450 dilapidated Victorian terraced houses constructed by Welsh builders in the late 19th century for immigrants seeking work and housing from Wales. They were named after the towns, villages and valleys from where the workers originated. 

Among them is Madryn Street, where Ringo Starr was born in July 1940.

For years there have been plans to demolish the 'Welsh Streets' and regenerate the area.

The fight to save the houses from demolition began in 2004. It's been a long, slow process.

When Beatles fans realised that plans to regenerate the area included the destruction of Ringo's birthplace they accused the council of cultural vandalism bordering on the criminal. It's not the only time the council have had to face this accusation as bit by bit, time and again, parts of Liverpool's heritage is sold off and destroyed in the name of progress.

While a 2010 article in the Telegraph likening the demolition proposals as the equivalent of knocking down William Shakespeare's home was probably going a tiny bit overboard, it's fair to say that Madryn Street has become a vital part of any fan's pilgrimage to the Beatles' home city and attracts thousands of visitors each year. Every time I've been in the area I've witnessed taxis full of tourists arriving to take photographs. Those involved in Liverpool's taxi tourist industry make multiple visits to this neglected area of the city on a daily basis.

At one point, in acknowledgement of the historical interest in number 9 and in an attempt to appease sentimental Beatles fans the council reportedly drew up plans to dismantle the house brick by brick and rebuild it at Liverpool’s Museum of Life on the Pier Head.

That option was quite resolutely dismissed by Beatles’ fans who regard such a suggestion as a gross insult to one of Liverpool’s most famous sons.

The Telegraph was quoting Phillip Coppell, Beatles' tour guide who said: If the council in Stratford wanted to knock down Shakespeare's birthplace and move it to the NEC there would be outrage. The only difference between the two is that Shakespeare has a four hundred year head-start on the Beatles.”

And of course Shakespeare didn't have any hit records. 

Asked to comment, Ringo expressed dismay at plans to knock down his childhood home and said he was opposed to the plan to relocate it to the museum.

If you want to see where I come from, it's no good putting me in the Wirral. It only works, as far as I can see, if it's there (in Madryn Street)(2007)

If you want to see Ringo's birthplace, you really need to see it in the place where he was born.

While the childhood homes of John Lennon and Paul McCartney are now owned by the National Trust their spokesman claimed in 2012 that Ringo’s birthplace did not merit saving for the nation because the former Beatles drummer only lived there for three months.

He actually lived there for over 4 years but hey what’s a few months?

In 2010 English Heritage refused to grant Starr’s birthplace listed building status on the grounds that the drummer only lived there for a very short time, it had no associations with the Beatles’ success and was not architecturally or historically significant enough.

However, Jonathan Brown, from SAVE Britain’s Heritage, said: To paraphrase John Lennon talking about Ringo, this isn’t the best house in the world. It’s not even the best house in Liverpool, but it does draw thousands of tourists from all around the world, and you’ve got to wonder how little they must think Liverpool values The Beatles to let these houses be run down in this way.

Brown was actually mis-quoting the comedian Jasper Carrot. You’ve got to wonder how little Brown thinks of John Lennon by attributing comments to him in this way, but I take his point.

In June 2012 Liverpool City Council agreed to release 32 of the pre- 1919 houses from demolition, including Ringo’s but intended to clear 287 with a further 100 to follow in the long term. They argued that the majority of the houses were beyond repair.

Opinion among local residents was divided. Whilst some were tired of living in sight of the boarded up, abandoned Welsh Streets and longed for the regeneration plans to get underway others feared their community would be torn apart and said the homes were perfect for young people and families stepping on to the property ladder.

Nina Edge, of the Welsh Streets residents group, said they were looking forward to seeing the detail of the plans but expressed concern that the surviving terrace will look at odds surrounded by new homes: Half the people wanted the houses to stay and half wanted demolition so we argued that a significant number of houses should remain as a "Victorian quarter" while the rest of the land is redeveloped.

What we have today is the council doing the bare minimum to save face because Ringo's house has caught the public's imagination.

I wonder if these 16 houses will sit comfortably in their new surroundings and I fear it will look ridiculous.

The plans ultimately fell through in January 2015. Following a public enquiry came the shock announcement that the Secretary of State for Communities had decided to block the planning application to replace the existing properties with new homes. With few alternate options, refurbishment was subsequently deemed viable with Liverpool Council agreeing a partnership with Placefirst who had experience in renewing derelict properties.

A pilot scheme in 2017 involved the refurbishment of houses in Voelas Street to demonstrate how the houses could be remodelled and to determine public opinion and uptake. Upon launching the scheme to prospective tenants, all properties were taken within the first weekend, and the residents moved in around September 2017. A year on the developers can't get them finished quickly enough, such is the demand. 

The renovations involve remodelling some floorplans and in some cases knocking through to adjacent homes to create larger houses, whilst retaining some of the original houses in order to cater for various residential requirements.

We’ve retained all the lovely period features, like high ceilings and big windows. But we’ve made the downstairs open and free-flowing, with doors opening out onto rear terraces – perfect for relaxing and dining outdoors. Every home has spacious reception rooms with many having en suite bathrooms, and some a downstairs loo too.

We’ve also cleverly converted the old rear alleyways into shared gardens running the entire length of the street. A great place for children to play safely, and for neighbours to make friends. (Placefirst brochure)

A photo taken during one of my visits, circa 2013. Ringo's birthplace is closest to camera.

The renovation has now reached Madryn Street. The following photographs were all taken today, 11 October 2018.

Madryn Street today, again with number 9 closest to camera.

The view towards the still 'tinned up' front door from the foot of the stairs.

A view taken in the small porch area by the front door looking straight up past the fuse box. Note the hole in the ceiling.

Looking up the stairs.

When young Richy Starkey lived here the house had three bedrooms but no bathroom.

Looking towards the front room from the back.

The front room looking out onto Madryn Street, with the hall on the left. The photo below gives you more of an idea of the size of the front room.

Moving upstairs......

One of the front bedrooms. Note the plasterboard wall is destroyed revealing the stairs' banisters.

Two views of the second bedroom.

Now you might be thinking, where are the photos of the third bedroom? Where's the bathroom that was added after Ringo and his Mother moved out? Where's the kitchen?

Well, to create the self contained play areas and spacious terraces it was necessary to demolish the existing alleyways behind the houses - known in Liverpool as a 'back jigger' or 'back entry'. The photo below shows the alleyway behind the houses facing Ringo's on Madryn Street. This is their original width.....

...while the photo below shows just how much additional room has been created by removing the back extensions on the houses and demolishing the alley walls. None of the house's on Richy's side presently have a back to them.

Eventually the rear of the Madryn Street houses will look like the above. After rendering the groundwork will be landscaped.

As No. 9 Madryn Street is still tinned up, access had to be gained via the open back.
There were no such problems entering No. 10. This was the home of Annie Maguire and her  family where young Richy often went when he needed babysitting. Annie's daughter Marie even taught him how to read here.

Number 9 Madryn Street looks set to be a tourist Bed and Breakfast.

You may have heard about it here first!

Thanks to toc1966

Tuesday, 9 October 2018

9th October 1940: It was 78 years ago today!

Maternity Hospital
Oxford Street
Liverpool 7
 October 1940

Spot the Looney!
Notice of John Lennon's birth, from the Liverpool Echo

I wrote more extensively about John's birth here:

Sunday, 16 September 2018

Last Flight: The Birdman of Speke

Take these broken wings and learn to fly
All your life, you were only waiting for this moment to arise
(Blackbird, by John Lennon and Paul McCartney)

Hopefully many of you are enjoying Paul McCartney’s new album ‘Egypt Station’ as much as I am.  He’s certainly put the time in on the publicity campaign for the album, starting back in June with the ‘Car Pool Karaoke’ appearance, his Q and A at the Liverpool School for Performing Arts and ‘secret’ gig at the Cavern during the summer and more recently the performance at New York’s Grand Central station.

We’ve also seen the recent release of the video for the song ‘Fuh You’ which was filmed around Garston, close to Paul’s old home in Liverpool.

Of course he’s also given a multitude of press interviews for newspapers and magazines, the best of which is the lengthy piece by Chris Heath in the October edition of GQ magazine.

Introducing the piece Heath admits that ‘It is not so difficult to get Paul McCartney to talk about the past, and this can be a problem. Anyone who has read more than a few interviews with him knows that he has a series of anecdotes, mostly Beatles-related, primed and ready to roll out in situations like these. Pretty good stories, some of them, too. But my goal is to guide McCartney to some less manicured memories—in part because I hope they'll be fascinating in themselves, but also because I hope that if I can lure him off the most well-beaten tracks, that might prod him to genuinely think about, and reflect upon, his life’.

Full credit to Heath for achieving his goal, it’s a terrific interview. A link to the full interview can be found at the bottom of this blog.

One of the ‘untold’ stories has received sensational coverage in the US tabloids, a story first revealed by Pete Shotton in his book ‘John Lennon in My Life’. It doesn’t need a helping hand from me to give it further exposure.

Instead I’d like to explore the background to a completely new anecdote, an incident which occurred in Speke with both Paul and George Harrison present. I can imagine Mike McCartney was there as well but he’s not mentioned in the piece. As Paul’s memory is of a specific public event we can even pinpoint the date, Whit Monday, 1956. Paul had moved into Forthlin Road the month before and was nearly 14, George had turned 13 that February.

Today Paul’s return trips to Liverpool usually start with him flying into Speke airport (now Liverpool John Lennon airport) and he admits that as soon as he lands, ‘from the word go, there, I'm getting memories of me and John cycling to that airport to look at planes, me and George going to the Liverpool Air Show where some guy, the birdman, flew out of an airplane and his parachute didn't open..."

This is the story of Léo Valentin, the ‘Birdman’ Paul and George watched on that fateful day.

Léo Valentin was born in 1919 in Épinal, France. As a child he had a keen interest in airplanes and read avidly about powered aircraft and gliders. Although initially dreaming of becoming a fighter pilot he opted to join a group of French paratroopers in Baraki, Algeria. After the fall of France, he became an instructor at a parachute school in Fez, Morocco. He then sailed to England for retraining, parachuted into Brittany as a saboteur and was wounded in the arm in a firefight at Loire.

After the war Valentin returned to work as a parachute instructor, spending his spare time trying to perfect his life-long ambition of flying like a bird. While still in the French Army he developed the jumping technique known as the "Valentin position", allowing him better control of his movements in the air.

In February 1948 he made a world-record delayed parachute drop without a respirator, free-falling 20,200 feet, and set a record for the longest night free fall (14,550 feet). Shortly thereafter he left the army after ten years of service to continue his experiments as a civilian.

His demonstrations of ‘birdman’ gliding begain in 1950 at Villacoublay airfield, not far from Paris, when Valentin attempted his first "wing jump" using wings made of canvas, but he failed to achieve any forward speed. He then tried rigid wings to prevent the wings from collapsing. On 13 May 1954, with the help of a set of rigid wooden wings, he finally managed some kind of stability with the initial spiral. Valentin later claimed that he managed to fly for three miles using his wooden wings.

His reputation grew, many viewing the Frenchman as a pioneer of a coming era promised in popular Saturday morning science fiction serials such as ‘Flash Gordon’ and within the pages of the futuristic Eagle comic (first published April 1950).

On 21 May 1956 Valentin, his name already a byword for courage and recklessness arrived in Liverpool for the Whit Monday air pageant at Speke airport. This was his first appearance in the UK and news of his visit had created a huge atmosphere of anticipation.

It was the sort of bank holiday everyone dreams about. Blazing sunshine, the gentlest of breezes and a vivid blue sky. 100,000 people had made their way to the airport for an exciting day out.

All Post-war baby boomers were fascinated with planes and parachutes but airshows were not just about aircraft. Also taking part were the daredevil flyers and stunt performers that took to the skies to enthral and inspire those who came to see the show.

Two hours earlier the Speke crowd had roared with excitement as Valentin made a delayed parachute drop, without his saffron coloured wooden wings in aid of the Soldiers’ Sailors and Airmen’s Families Association. They’d enjoyed fly-pasts by four Canberra T4s,  formation acrobatics by four Sea Hawks and four Meteor F8s and demonstration flights by a Blackburn Beverley, a B.E.A. Pionair and an Airwork Viking but now it was time for what promised to be the highlight of the afternoon: The ‘Birdman’.

It was Valentin’s intention, after jumping from the Starways Dakota at 9,000 feet to glide for several miles using his new pair of wooden wings fitted with ailerons, before parachuting down to the aerodrome.

The Dakota had its rear door removed so Valentin could exit safely. Valentin climbed aboard pausing to wave at the expectant crowd, and then fitted into his wings, the plane took off.

Philip Newton was just 16 when his father took him to the airshow: My dad and I had climbed on the roof of a low brick building near the Boulevard and saw the whole thing through binoculars. There was a blue sky, not much wind....

As the Dakota twice circled high above the Speke crowd the buzz of expectancy became a roar of excitement as they saw the small black shape fell from the plane. People with binoculars said they could see the ‘birdman’s’ wings flapping.

The stunt immediately went wrong......

A young reporter, Richard Whittington-Egan was on board the Dakota at the time and twenty years later wrote of the fateful moment: 4.21 (pm) He has gone. A buffet of wind seems to catch him and whip him out of the aircraft into the slipstream. Simultaneously I hear a terrible splintering noise above the roar of the engines. I see a tiny fragment of orange wood whisked away by the wind. His wings have hit the tail.

Is our  tail-plane damaged? If it will be the end of us all. Luckily it was not. But Valentin was in deadly trouble. 

Philip Newton: (Valentin) jumped outside the back of the plane - we saw him with his orange wings spread horizontally and feet down and he just hung there, stationary, in a sort of ‘Angel of the North’ position (like a kind of cross figure), just hovering. He was suspended. He didn’t move his wings.

Richard Whittington-Egan:  Craning out I catch a glimpse of him. He is spinning, clockwise, smashed orange wings glistening like blood in the sunlight, spiralling like an autumn leaf to earth. He has two chances – two parachutes....

When he was still several thousand feet below the aircraft but still some hundred feet from the ground Valentin pulled his parachute ripcord.

Richard Whittington-Egan: He was about 1,000 feet down when he pulled the ripcord but the parachute didn’t open. Then I knew he would never make it.

The sun glinted on an orange wing, and his gleaming white parachute ‘candled’ and trailed out behind.

Paul McCartney: (the)’birdman’ flew out of an airplane and his parachute didn't open. And we watched him drop and went, 'Uh-oh…I don't think that was right.…' We thought, 'Any second now his parachute's gonna open’, and it never did....

Peter Merce was also there and still remembers it vividly:  Kenneth Wolstenholme was doing the on field commentary and I recall him saying something like "And there he goes floating down safely with his parachute" No doubt he realised what was happening and was trying to keep everyone calm.

With his wings spinning continuously Valentin continued to hurtle vertically at 120 mph until he was lost to sight behind an airport hangar. On the photograph above Valentin's fall is circled. 

Richard Whittington-Egan: He (is) less that 1,000 feet from the ground when his second parachute opens, but it fails to develop. It lashes around his face and wraps itself about his body like a corpse cloth. I watch him struggling frantically to free himself.

Philip Newton: He fell and he fell. He took ages to fall. The backup parachute just wrapped around him, like a shroud. He disapeared over a line of trees about North –North West of the airport I guess. Everything stopped and there was a deathly hush.

Paul McCartney: We went, 'I don't think he survived that.' And he didn't.

A helicopter was later spotted flying in the direction of where Valentin fell but no mention of the accident was mentioned over the public-address system. As the fall had taken place some distance away, newspaper articles in the following days reported that many of the spectators were unaware of the tragedy on leaving at the end of the display.

Joe Barlow was one: I was there with my Dad. I was aged about 10. Whilst looking towards the river the plane came slowly from the right and as the ‘Birdman’ leapt from the plane one of his wings caught the plane and came off, spiraling towards the ground. I expect this caused the man himself to go into a spin and tangle his chutes. I remember him falling and disappearing behind trees to the left. Only later did we find out that he had died.

Some of the spectators perhaps, but not all.

Keith Baldock was six years old and remembers: It was (Valentin’s)  second jump of the day and I remember everyone being shocked and talking about it on the bus home to Woolton Village.

Peter Merce: The next morning there was an even sadder photo in the paper of a crumpled parachute in a field with only a pair of legs showing from beneath

Philip Newton: He landed in a field between Mackets Lane and Halewood. Next day an apprentice at work said he was in the cadets and part of the rescue team.

The Frenchman’s body, grotesque with splintered ‘wings’ still fastened to his steel corset was found two miles away in a field of young wheat near Halewood station*. The huge white nylon parachute which had failed to open, and thus killed him, was draped across his body.

The body of Léo Valentin arrived by plane at the airbase Luxeuil-St-Sauveur (BA 116), where military honours were rendered to him. Placed on a command car of the French Air Force and covered with flowers, the body arrived at the church of Saint-Sauveur, Haute-Saône on 3 June 1956.


On Friday 25 May 1956 a inquest was held in Widnes. The coroner said ‘This man lost his life like many pioneers in the world of aviation’. The jury returned a verdict of ‘Death by Misadventure.’


Viewing the show from a cornfield nearby was the famous horror writer Clive Barker, then three years old: There are no other events in my early life which carry quite the primal force of Leo Valentin’s fall (Clive Barker, 1999). Valentins’ fall often appears in Barker’s novels embodied in the familiar character of a winged man or birdman. It’s power to ‘insist itself upon’ the imagination seared the fall onto the ‘rock’ of Barker’s skull as he puts it – rendering a mould or a blueprint ‘from whlch all manner of other tales and pictures would in time be derived’.  Twelve years behind John Lennon, he was born in October 1952, attended Dovedale Road Primary School and Quarry Bank High School.

* The author presently lives on a housing development built on former fields near Halewood station.


You can read the fantastic GQ interview here: