John Lennon: There were two famous houses in Woolton. One was owned by Gladstone: a reformatory for boys, which I could see out of my window, and Strawberry Field, just around the corner from that, an old Victorian house converted for Salvation Army orphans.
Field or Fields?
The earliest reference to the Gothic Revival mansion 'Strawberry Field' dates from 1870, when it was owned by one George Hignett Warren (1819-1912), a wealthy shipping magnate.
On an 1891 Ordnance Survey map the building and its grounds appear as the plural 'Strawberry Fields', although this had changed by the 1905 survey.
The will of Mr George Hignett Warren, of Strawberry Field (The Yorkshire Post and Leeds Intelligencer 12 March 1912)
George Warren's daughter Mary Swire put the mansion up for sale in 1914. The advert below gives a good idea of the amenities within the house and surrounding grounds.
For sale in the Liverpool Daily Post, listed on 17 and 19 June 1914. Note it's Strawberry Fields again.
It was acquired by Alexander Cameron Mitchell (1844-1927), another wealthy merchant who at that time was living in Weston House, Halewood.
The Scotsman 20 January 1920 (it's back to being a Field!)
Mitchell's widow sold the estate to the Salvation Army in 1934, a few years before her death in 1940.
It was opened as a children's home for young girls on 7 July 1936 by Lady Bates in the presence of General Evangeline Booth, daughter of the Salvation Army founder. With a capacity of up to forty girls, boys under 5 were introduced in the 1950s. Later still, older boys also became resident. The home took children between the ages of 3 to 16 at which point they would either return them to their parents or help place them in a job.
Strawberry Field, photographed in 1967 (see reverse of photo at foot of page)
Despite the name on the famous gateposts it continued to be referred to as Fields in local conversation, in newspapers and by its young residents (and even in some Salvation army paperwork).
This was not a borstal - these were not bad kids and, contrary to John Lennon’s belief, they were not generally orphans – the children were there for the mistakes their parents had made (from what you'd call 'broken homes' back then) and the home gave them a refuge from turmoil and unhappiness for nearly 70 years.
As a result the children were never locked in. The gates to the road were always open and everybody attended local schools and were free to come and go in the local area. The children called themselves 'Strawbs' and were a familiar site in Woolton village.
A report in the Liverpool Daily Post, June 1939, three years after opening. The accompanying article is on the right:
In ‘Tune In’ author Mark Lewisohn writes that it may have been because of her sister Julia’s past predicaments that Mimi supported the Salvation Army’s residence for children from broken homes, after all, she had such a child living with her at ‘Mendips’.
I’d be interested to know whether Mark based this on comments made by Mimi later in her life, when she was guilty to some extent of re-writing her history, especially where John was concerned.
It’s true that she took John to the annual garden fete at Strawberry Field, telling the author Hunter Davies (after the release of the Beatles’ 1967 single) that 'as soon as we could hear the Salvation Army Band starting, John would jump up and down shouting "Mimi, come on. We're going to be late” so yes, she supported the home to some extent by buying the tickets, but what did she really think of the children who lived there?
According to John Lennon’s cousin, Stanley Parkes:
We would sneak over to the Salvation Army Home grounds through the back of ‘Mendips’ to play with the children of the Home, much to the annoyance of Mimi. She thought we should not mix with ‘those kind of children.
John Lennon, 8, with his cousin Stanley Parkes, 15
Some sources will tell you that the phrase ‘nothing to get hung about’ in the song ‘Strawberry Fields Forever’ were inspired by Mimi’s orders not to play in the grounds, to which John would reply ‘They can’t hang you for it’. For me, I think that’s a bit of a stretch, the result of a later author's creative thinking, but who knows?
Regardless of Mimi’s views, John continued to play in the grounds of Strawberry Field, either with Stanley when he was home, or with his gang – Pete Shotton, Nigel Walley and Ivan Vaughan.
They’d climb over the sandstone wall in Vale Road, sneaking through the bushes and keeping an eye out for the ‘cocky watchman’* - Mr Blaine the gardener who lived in the house behind woods, hated trespassers and would give John and his gang a good hiding, if only he could catch them.
As he grew older John continued going to the annual fete, Mimi replaced by his mates. At one fete in 1955 or 1956 he managed to obtain a monk’s cowl (with hood) and wandering amongst the cake stalls, jumble sales and brass bands he dispensed holy mutterings while respectful Wooltonians bowed to him, much to the delight of Nige Walley who cherishes the memory to this day.
The release of the Beatles’ single ‘Penny Lane’ / ‘Strawberry Fields Forever’ in early 1967 drew attention from the press with several papers sending photographers to Woolton.
One of the photos resulting from the sudden interest was this well known photo. I’ve looked at it on and off over the years and wondered who the young lad with the tired eyes was. What was his name and what became of him?
Quite unexpectedly as a result of the photo being posted on Facebook I suddenly had a name for him, together with a lovely little anecdote that links both sides of the Beatles’ single.
Mel Wold: This boys’ name is Francis Foster. I was in Strawberry Field children’s home at the same time. I was there from 1962 - 1972. We also had our hair cut by the girls of Bioletti’s at Penny Lane. They used to come to the home. I was only ever in this house and not the new built one, although I did visit the new home. Many memories. I used to go to Childwall C of E school and then Gateacre Comp(rehensive).
Bioletti’s was of course ‘the barber showing photographs’ in Penny Lane where John and Paul had their hair cut as children.
Francis Foster where are you now? I hope you had a good life.
When John returned to Liverpool in June 1969 he took his new wife Yoko to visit the children at Palmerston special school, situated opposite the gates to Strawberry Field. It’s easy to imagine him crossing Beaconsfield Road for a moment with Yoko, pausing at the gates leading up to the big house and showing her the place where he used to go to escape.
Of course, he never returned although there are stories that he had planned to visit the UK (and Liverpool in 1981). Had he done so he would have been dismayed to find the old mansion had gone.
By 1973 the structural problems, including dry rot, meant that it was more cost effective to demolish the building and replace it with a new, purpose-built children's home. This new home provided three family units, each accommodating 12 children. The driveway entrance to the building was moved further west up Beaconsfield Road so the gateposts bearing the name 'Strawberry Field' were no longer used.
Throughout the 1970s and especially post 1980, the disused entrance and its gates became a mecca for Beatles fans from around the world. As a result, the gates continued to be painted bright red and the painted nameplates were also maintained in the face of continual vandalism from visitors who feel the need to write messages all over them.
The children's home finally closed in early January 2005, and the building was used by the Salvation Army as a church and prayer centre. The famous gates marking its entrance were removed and replaced with replicas in May 2011.
The second building on site from the 1970s, after closure (Liverpool Echo).
The Salvation Army is planning to open Strawberry Field to the public for the first time, allowing visitors to explore the grounds. The demolition of the 1970’s buildings has made space for a new training centre for young people with special educational needs, and a new exhibition space dedicated to the story of the place and the song "Strawberry Fields Forever".
For decades Strawberry Field offered a place of safety and sanctuary for some of Merseyside’s most at risk children and young people. Now we are writing a new chapter in the history of this iconic site which will see the lives of so many more young people transformed for the better’
Major Ray Irving, Territorial Social Services Secretary, The Salvation Army.
And as for the Reformatory home for bad boys?
Stanley Parkes: The Bad Boys Borstal also intrigued us. That was housed in the former house and Stables that had belonged to Gladstone, the Prime Minister from Liverpool. It was situated just down the road from ‘Mendips’.
Contrary to Stanley’s memories the house did not belong to the Prime Minister. The owner, Robert Gladstone, was actually a second cousin of Prime Minister William Ewart Gladstone.
That’s not to downplay his own achievements. Robert Gladstone was an important Liverpool merchant, Chairman of the Mersey Docks and Harbour Board, freeman of the city and a founder of Liverpool University. Gladstone dock on the Mersey was named after him.
Gladstone’s house, named 'Woolton Vale' was built in 1869 on the site of an old tavern called the ‘Folly Vale Tavern’. At the time the house was built the road was part of Vale Road, which was actually called Folly Vale Lane until 1870. Menlove Avenue did not yet exist.
Menlove Avenue on 3rd May 1924 showing 'Woolton Vale' reform school on the left.
The Menlove Avenue dual carriageway was constructed in 1910. In the photo the new tram tracks are being laid which extended the tram system from Calderstones to Woolton High Street along this route.
As you can see in the photo above, the pavement on Menlove Avenue actually passed under Gladstone's former mansion. Pedestrians walked through a tunnel excavated below the billiard room.
Woolton Vale (according to one book it was officially the 'Woolton Country School for Boys' although I’ve found nothing to verify this) could accommodate 36 boys, some as young as seven years old, inner city kids who were there for various misdemeanours such as theft, anti-social behaviour and even truancy.
Brian Fitzsimmons: It was a remand home, a children’s home for naughty children. My Dad pointed this out to me years ago while he was teaching me to drive. Little did I know he and his brother were inmates and were given the birch while they were there. I think this was during the war years.
David Dutton: I used to live near there as a child. I remember my mother telling me that is where I would end up if I was naughty! More recently, I've met some former residents and apparently it was a brutal regime there.
Unlike the children at Strawberry Fields, these boys were certainly not free to come and go as they pleased, though some tried. Wearing the regulation brown shirt and short pants escapees were easily identified.
Stanley Parkes: We used to chase after the boys whenever any of them escaped and went jumping all over our neighbours garden fences trying to get away. Mimi nearly had a fit whenever we attempted to chase after them. We were not to associate with such criminals!
Given her apparent lack of sympathy for the unfortunate children in Strawberry Field you can imagine Mimi's view on the bad boys in Woolton Vale. It's likely the warnings David Dutton received from his Mum were echoed in 'Mendips'.
No doubt Mimi shared the view of many Woolton locals who feared they would encounter gangs of marauding delinquents mugging, robbing and terrorising the neighbourhood. Little did Mimi know she already had one living under her roof. Though there are no recorded incidents of John Lennon mugging anyone he was certainly 'notorious around the village' according to one resident (my Dad).
There were certainly problems with security at Woolton Vale. It was mentioned in the Liverpool Echo on 21 December 1966 and again on 5 July 1967 following a report which found that the present Liverpool Remand home at Woolton Vale was quite inadequate....(in future) security would be manned 24 hours a day and maximum security arrangements.
Living in such close proximity to these two establishments it’s easy to imagine that John, himself the product of a broken home, taken into care by his Aunt because his parents were unable or unwilling to look after him felt an affinity with the rejected, unloved, emotionally damaged children whenever he encountered them.
The system of remand homes and approved schools was abolished under the Children and Young Person Act 1969 and the philosophy behind the legislation represented a radical re-think of society's attitudes to problem children. (i.e that many offences committed by children were caused by a difficult home life or other social problems).
The act recognised that many children were sinned against rather than sinners**, something John Lennon had probably known all his life.
The site of 'Woolton Vale' today on Menlove Avenue. The tunnel was just beyond the tree in the foreground.
Quotes taken from Liverpool Old Photo Gallery.
Stanley Parkes quotes from an interview with Bill Harry.
* '"cocky watchman', alternatively John called him the 'cocky watchtower'
** Liverpool Echo 18 August 1977
Reverse of the B/W press photo