Thursday 28 May 2015

Wings Over Birkdale

Air Training Corps Club,
St. Peter's School,
Upper Aughton Road,
Birkdale, Southport
Lancashire, PR8 5NH 

Birkdale is a village and district in the southern part of Southport, a seaside town north of Liverpool on the coast of the Irish Sea. It is known world-wide as the home of Royal Birkdale Golf Club which hosted its first Open Championship in 1954 and has been on the Open rota ever since, hosting the men’s championship nine times, most recently in July 2008.

On the whole this is a wealthy residential area comprising of many large Victorian and Edwardian houses, and over the years has become popular with footballers from local Merseyside and Lancashire clubs. It is also the home of two low key venues where the Beatles appeared on the evening of 9 March 1961, neither of which were dated in Mark Lewisohn's groundbreaking book "The Beatles Live!" or his subsequent "The Beatles Chronicle".  Instead we have to thank local author Ray O'Brien and his book, the ingeniously titled "There Are Places I'll Remember" for establishing the actual date of the engagements.

Birkdale was a heck of a journey by road from South Liverpool in 1961, a distance of 20 miles. Even now, all these years later, it still is.

For this one and only appearance at the headquarters of the 281 (Southport) Squadron, they were paid £10 between them before they travelled the three miles or so to the next venue, the Labour Club in Devonshire Road, High Park. 

I suspect they performed two shows on the same evening to make the journey worth their while once they’d deducted travelling expenses. 

The Beatles performing 
with Stuart Sutcliffe in early 1961      

Stuart Sutcliffe had returned to Liverpool from Hamburg around 15 January and played a few engagements with the Beatles until going back to Germany on 15 March. It’s therefore possible that those in the audience on this night were amongst the few who saw the five-man Beatles on British soil.

Given the venue, I wonder whether the Beatles first audience this evening would rather have seen Wings!

Tuesday 26 May 2015

Faded Seaside Glamour - The Ritz, Rhyl 1963

Ritz Ballroom,
Rhyl, Wales

19 and 20 July 1963

Rhyl began to take off as holiday resort following the opening of its train station in 1848 and the fairground at Marine Lake was seeing thousands of visitors annually. Under the name Ocean Beach it  relocated in 1954 to the West end of the promenade.

Standing on the Ocean Beach Fun Fair site facing the sea, the dance hall was created in a part of the old Alhambra Restaurant and given the name Ritz Ballroom in 1955. The resident orchestra was initially led by drummer Laurie Williams, then by drummer Ken Bailey and eventually by trumpeter Duke Gordon.

Jess Ballard, Holywell: I was working in the cash box [at Rhyl] at the time and so was my husband, the band leader who went under the name ‘Duke Gordon and the Ritz Showband’. The main Beatles' hits at the time I believe were ‘Please Please me’ and ‘Love Me Do’.

The Beatles performed at the Ritz Ballroom for two consecutive nights in July 1963, one year to the very week that they made their first, rather more low key, Welsh debut in Rhyl at the Dansette.  They played two concerts on each day, both of which sold out well in advance.
After this first concert The Beatles stayed at the bridal suite in the Westminster Hotel located 55 yards from the promenade at 11-12 East Parade. It's still there today.

A film of early 1960s Rhyl in Colour. Look out for the Ritz at the end! 

The Beatles on stage at the Ritz (above) and some of the autographs obtained by fans during the Rhyl performances. At the end of the second night The Beatles drove straight back to Liverpool. The following evening they performed at the Queens Theatre, Blackpool before commencing a 6 night stint at the Odeon theatre in Weston-super-Mare from 22-27 July 1963. 

The Ritz was destroyed by fire in 1968 (see photo below).

The town and the park declined in popularity after the 1960s and there was very little investment in new rides or attractions during its final years. The amusement park closed for the final time on 2 September 2007. Plans to build a retail and leisure complex on the site of the old Ocean Beach site, known as Ocean Plaza due to commence building in May 2009 have been delayed.

She's coming down fast!

Monday 25 May 2015

Rhyl Love

Regent Dansette,
High Street,
Rhyl, Flintshire

Rhyl in the early 1960s 

Rhyl is a seaside resort town in Denbighshire on the north east coast of Wales which has been a popular tourist destination for people from all over Britain and particularly the north west of England.

Once an elegant Victorian resort, Rhyl saw an influx of people from Liverpool and Manchester after the second Word War which changed the face of the town. Like a number of seaside towns the area had declined dramatically by 1990 but has recently began to see some regeneration, the Welsh government managing to secure European funding to redevelop Rhyl’s seafront.

It was here that the Beatles made their very first performance on Welsh soil.

Saturday 14 July 1962

The Regent Dansette was a ballroom situated at 38 High Street, like so many snooker and billiards clubs of the day, above a branch of Burton's tailors. Indeed, the stage upon which the Beatles performed was made from wood laid over billiard tables.

A mix of tourists and locals were in the audience, and were more likely to have been at the venue to dance than to listen to a live band. Paying the admission charge of just five shillings (25p), the crowd were entertained from 8pm to 11.30pm. The Beatles were paid £4 for their performance.

Richard Evans: I saw The Beatles – with Pete Best on drums – at the Embassy Dansette Ballroom in Rhyl on 14 July 1962. I think it cost 2/3 to get in – that’s about 14p today. They were supported by local band The Strangers.

John, Paul, George and Pete, shared a bill with a local group, The Strangers. They were Jeff Sutton (guitar, vocals), Dennis Rothwell (guitar), Pat Shuttle (bass guitar) and Pete Williams (drums).

The Strangers on 7 July 1962, one week before sharing a bill with the Beatles (photo is the property of Mrs. Jane Shuttle, from the book Rhyl Music In The Ritz Years 1955-1968)

The building that still houses Burtons and Dorothy Perkins, 38 High Street, Rhyl, has a lot of history. When the business was just "Burton The Tailor" its distinctive flat roof provided a handy place for fire-watchers during World War 2 (Paul McCartney’s dad Jim was a fire-watcher in the Norris Green area of Liverpool). After the war the upstairs part of the building became the Regent Ballroom then Regent Dansette where The Beatles played in 1962.

The manager of the venue was Joe Young, whose wife worked on the cash desk. Their grand-daughter, JoAnne Francis recalls: My grandfather had the Regent Ballroom in Rhyl and the Beatles played there before Ringo joined the band. The stage was wood built over the billiard tables and my nan said during the day John Lennon was playing classical music on the piano, and lots of girls arrived to see them before the gig and my nan sent them away.

Pete Best would later recall that prior to the concert the Beatles spent a few memorable hours exploring Rhyl, including the delights of the local funfair and remarkably we have almost 18 minutes of film taken at the Ocean Beach funfair, Rhyl in August 1962, just a couple of weeks after the Beatles appeared.

The Beatles never returned to the Regent Dansette, but they did perform again in Rhyl, on 19 and 20 July 1963.

And according to Brent Davies: The Beatles came to Rhyl in the early 60s just before they became famous, and to get a bit more cash they crossed the Foryd Bridge and came to The Clwyd Hotel (now The Harbour) and asked my Dad, Haydn Davies, who was the first licensee on the North Wales coast to put on cabaret in a pub, for some extra work. But Dad being Dad turned them away saying 'I'm not having long haired yobos like that in my pub!' Oh if he only knew.  

I visited Rhyl one early summer's evening just as the market stall traders on High Street were packing up for the day. One of the men watched me taking photographs for a while before asking me why I was so interested in this branch of Dorothy Perkins. I explained that the Beatles had played there in 1962 and the plaque on the wall commemorated the event. He started laughing and said he'd had his stall outside there for years and until I pointed it out had never noticed the plaque! 

The blue plaque is on the wall next to the shop window on the right hand side.  Wales seems to have made an effort to mark all of the extant buildings where the Beatles performed with plaques, something that unfortunately cannot be said for Liverpool. 


The Beatles and Wales (David Jones, 2002)

Monday 11 May 2015

Tune In: The Beatles - Who, How, and from Where?

A lecture by Beatles' biographer Mark Lewisohn, followed by a walk around Shaw Street and Salisbury Street

It was a pleasure to attend Mark's talk at Liverpool Hope University Campus with my friend Jean Catharell and meet with him afterwards where he was kind enough to sign not only my copy of "Tune In" but also his first book "The Beatles Live!". I told him that he'd got off lightly because if my bag had been bigger I would have brought his "Recording Sessions" and "Chronicle" books to sign as well!

Mark's presentation, as the advertisement above accurately describes was NOT just for Beatles fans but anyone who loves or is interested in the city, and was intended to put this most phenomenal global history back on to the streets and inside the houses of everyone's Liverpool. 

I told him afterwards that in my opinion he got the balance absolutely right, as he had with “Tune In”.  As I realised when I first started this blog, this is not just the story of four families in Liverpool whose children became the Beatles. This is the tale of how life was for my parents growing up in the 1940s in Wavertree, Woolton and Childwall and my grandparents before them – how their lives were affected by migration, poverty, two World Wars, unemployment, and the advent of Rock ‘n’ Roll in a city which was slow to rebuild and recover after 1945. During the question and answer session at the end with the predominantly local audience it was clear how intertwined our own histories are - there was the lady in the audience who grew up in the Sir Thomas White Gardens tenements, another who had lived in Fishguard Street and a man who had been delivered by midwife Mary McCartney whilst living in Speke. Familar faces in the audience included musician Pete Wylie and Radio Merseyside presenter and author Spencer Leigh, together with some old friends of mine, Dave Glover and Dave Ravenscroft.

As always I was impressed, but not surprised given my familiarity with his previous work, at the lengths to which Mark went to ensure his book is accurate, and amused at some of the documents he uncovered during his research. John Lennon's ancestors were living on Walton Breck Road, a couple of doors down from the Flat Iron Pub.  Once Mark had discovered that the landlord's surname was Jagger he began researching Mick's family history to try and make the connection (alas he couldn't!).

In the same vicinity, a generation later, Mark found that Jim and Mary McCartney's neighbours in Sunbury Road were, yes, Lennons! Again no direct link could be found here but there are instances of the Beatles family histories crossing at several points in the story. Some co-incidences were even more bizarre. Whilst researching the Harrisons former home in Abyssinia Street, Wavertree, he was amused to discover that the next road to them was called, inexplicably, ONO street.

Potential tenants queue for a vacant property on Ono Street

Over the years Mark has spent hours walking the city and photographing Beatles related sites and other important and interesting buildings (sounds like a fine pastime) and he said he may exhibit them all one day. He has a particular passion for old cinemas and feels strongly that we must protect them from developers, singling out the three under threat on Lime Street, in particular the Forum/ABC which he said was worthy of renovation following the Capital of Culture in 2008 but overlooked by our City planners.

There are a lot of former cinema buildings in Liverpool that have been left to rot and some are being needlessly demolished – two of the aforementioned cinemas in Lime Street look set to go, as does the lovely art-deco Curzon in Old Swan. I will post as many as I can so at least we can see what we still have...and what we look likely to lose.

Hope University Campus is in a part of Liverpool I am not overly familiar with and so following Mark's talk I took the opportunity to have a look at the surrounding streets, some I'd only seen previously in photographs, and look for the Beatle connections.

Facing the University on Shaw Street is the former Liverpool Collegiate, founded in 1839, the first of the great Victorian Schools.  A striking Grade II listed building in red sandstone quarried in Woolton and designed by Harvey Lonsdale Elmes, the architect of St. George's Hall. The School’s founders had set an architectural competition for the design of the school which they had decided in advance should be built in “the Tudor style”. Submissions for the design were made anonymously so clearly Elmes, only 26 years old at the time, was on something of a roll. Having already won competitions for St. George’s Hall and the Assize Courts his vision for the Collegiate completed the hat-trick.

The attractive grassed area facing the Collegiate has been developed since I took the above photograph in 2008.

The Shaw Street site was chosen because of its proximity to the fashionable housing area of Everton which in the mid-1800s contained some of the town’s finest mansions. The Collegiate was opened on 6 January 1843, originally as a fee-paying school for boys of middle class parents.

This was the school where Harry Epstein, the father of Brian would receive his education before running the family business. Other notable former pupils include Radio Merseyside DJ Billy Butler, Frankie Goes to Hollywood frontman Holly Johnson, actors Sam Kelly ("Porridge", "Allo Allo!"), and Leonard Rossiter ("Rising Damp"), comedian Ted Ray and the Beatles’ drummer, Pete Best.

Randolph Peter Best was born in Madras, India on 24 November 1941 to Alice Mona Shaw and Donald Peter Scanland.  It is not known whether they married or what ultimately became of Scanland but in 1944 Mona married the man Pete would call Father, Johnny Best, a well known boxing promoter in Liverpool who had been posted to India at the outbreak of the war as an Army physical training instructor. Mona, Indian born and working for the Red Cross at the time of her marriage, gave birth to Johnny's son, and Pete's half brother, Rory in January 1945.

The Bests returned to Liverpool around Christmas 1945, and Johnny resumed his boxing promotions. The family lived in various properties before settling at 8 Hayman's Green, West Derby in the late 1950s. With the change of addresses Pete had attended several schools, passing the eleven plus exam at Blackmoor Park primary before winning a scholarship for the Liverpool Collegiate.

Pete Best, back row, second from left, with the Collegiate football team

Quiet, but sporty, 17 years of age and with five 'O' Levels, Pete was half way through his A-level course with dreams of becoming a teacher when his mother, Mona decided to open a coffee club in the cellar of their house in West Derby. Initially intended simply as a place where Pete could hang out with his friends after school and listen to records, 'Mo' then had the brainwave: Why not turn the cellar into a coffee bar type of club, perhaps featuring live music, like the ones she had read about in Soho, London? 

The Casbah Club was born and at its peak membership would reach 2,000. A regular visitor to the new club was Chas Newby, another Collegiate pupil and friend of Best. Newby would join Best in the Beatles and play several engagements with them following their return from Hamburg at the end of 1960. 

Shaw Street, 1952. The turrets of the Collegiate are visible on the left.

The Collegiate is clearly visible in the top centre of the photograph taken during the 1930s.  Below it and slightly to the left is SFX church on Salisbury Street, running left to right. The vast majority of these buildings have now gone, some, including the church to the left of the Collegiate, destroyed during the Blitz, the remainder through the massive slum clearances in the 1960s.

Collegiate turret detail

The school closed in 1987, and sadly was left to rot, falling victim to looters, vandals and several fires, the last in 1994 causing so much damage that the building was considered beyond saving. However, a number of regeneration proposals were put forward and in 1998 the facade which had thankfully remained intact, sides, and interior entrance hallway of the building were restored and today front designer apartments which opened in 2000.

Whitley Gardens 1958

Alongside the school on Shaw Street is the entrance to Whitley Gardens, which must be one of, if not the, smallest parks in the city. No doubt popular with pupils from the School next door I have to confess I’d never heard of it until recently when I was doing some research on War Memorials.

Despite the diminutive nature of the park there is a huge Celtic Cross here, a monument to soldiers of the 8th battalion of the Kings Regiment who lost their lives during the Indian Mutiny in 1857-58. This is the third site for this memorial which was originally erected in Portsmouth in 1863, moved to Chelsea in 1877 and then sent north to Everton in 1911.

Whitley Gardens / Shaw Street (1959)

Shaw Street, like most of the surrounding area was terribly run down by the 1960s, the mansions were long gone and the rows of early 19th century houses with their fine doorways and iron balconies fell into decades of neglect and dereliction. Today, the Collegiate end of Shaw Street has seen some renovation, and those buildings closest to the former school and dating from the 1830s have now been successfully regenerated as modern apartments, including the former Baptist Chapel dating from 1847 and now grade II listed.

Continuing my walk I then turned left down William Henry Street, long cleared of the original housing, the north side still undeveloped, and headed towards the junction with Salisbury Street.

George Ernest Stanley, John Lennon’s maternal grandfather, and known to his grandson as "Pop", was born at 120 Salisbury Street on 22 August 1874. His father, William Henry Stanley was book-keeping in a local office at the time.

Cleared as early as 1963, Salisbury Street is today an unremarkable estate of modern housing, dominated by the spire of Saint Francis Xavier's Church. The massive influx of Roman Catholic Irish arriving in Liverpool at the time of the Great Famine and the lack of suitable places of worship led to the appointment of architect Joseph John Scoles by the members of the Society of St Francis Xavier who had decided a new Church was needed. The foundation stone was laid in 1842 and opened six years later on 4 December 1848. The spire was not added until 1883.

Scoles had designed the church to hold 1,000 people but even this was insufficient for the swollen congregation. In 1888 an additional chapel, the Edmund Kirby designed Sodality Chapel was opened and the wall dividing it from the main part of the church was demolished in 1898. At the outbreak of the Second World War the church had the largest Roman Catholic parish in England, with over 13,000 Catholics but within 20 years this had rapidly decreased as the slum housing around Salisbury Street was cleared and the residents re-housed elsewhere.

Looking down Salisbury Street, the birthplace of John Lennon's grandfather

I walked towards the end of Salisbury Street in the direction of Islington. At Carver Street I turned left to head back towards where I'd parked my car in the Campus building on Shaw Steet, pausing on the corner of what is officially named Islington Square.

Anyone who has read Oliver Twist will be aware that Victorian Britain in the late 19th century was a time of social deprivation and great hardship for those children who were born into poverty, and there were many.

Children were often forced to work long hours in hazardous occupations in factories, down mines and up chimneys and this coupled with poor diet, a lack of healthcare, and overcrowded dwellings with little sanitation meant disease was rife and mortality high. Large numbers of children were also orphaned and ended up living on the streets.

That the priorities of those in charge were confused to say the least was raised in a letter of concern from The Reverend George Staite to the Liverpool Mercury newspaper in 1881 in which he pleaded “…whilst we have a Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, can we not do something to prevent cruelty to children?”

That same year during a trip to New York, a Liverpool Banker named Thomas Agnew paid a visit to the New York Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children. He was so impressed by the charity, that on his return he set up a similar venture in Liverpool in 1883, the 'Liverpool Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children'.

The first premises of the Liverpool Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children was based here in Islington Square and still stands today. 

I was pleased to see that a new use had been found for an old building with such a worthwhile past, especially as most of the neighbourhood had fallen to the wrecking ball,  -  a vaccination centre for Yellow Fever.



Tune In (Mark Lewisohn)

Beatle! (Pete Best and Patrick Doncaster)