Wednesday 21 April 2021

The Tram Sheds with no Trams

Former Tram Sheds adjacent to the Substation,
Now known as the Penny Lane Emporium
Smithdown Road,
L15 5AF

John Lennon: ‘In My Life’ started out as a bus journey from my house on 251 Menlove Avenue to town, mentioning every place that I could remember. And it was ridiculous. This is before even ‘Penny Lane’ was written and I had Penny Lane, Strawberry Fields, Tram Sheds – Tram Sheds are the depot just outside Penny Lane – and it was the most boring sort of ‘What I Did on my Holidays Bus Trip’ song and it wasn’’t working at all. I cannot do this! But then I laid back and these lyrics started coming to me about the places I remember. [1]  

So where exactly where these Tram Sheds that John was still thinking about in 1965? That's what fellow historian and Beatles blogger Steve Bradley wanted to know when he messaged me last week.  

The answer is that they were just around the corner from the 'Penny Lane' bus shelter familiar to Beatle fans the world over. The circular shelter can be seen bottom right in the above photo, while the tram sheds were once sited where the rectangular, overgrown area is to the left of centre.  The tram (later bus) depot is now occupied by a small retail park. 

The Smithdown Road depot was Liverpool's second electric tram depot and opened in 1899. In 1912 the depot employed 64 persons and had a capacity of 96 cars [2] The double-arched sheds can be seen on the right of the above photo.  

According to Ron Smith's Liverpool Trams site it was in use up to around 1936 which means the depot was out of service, and presumably without its trams, even before John Lennon's birth in 1940. 

Paul McCartney: ‘Penny Lane’ was kind of nostalgic, but it was really a place that John and I knew; it was actually a bus terminus. I’d get a bus to his house and I’d have to change at Penny Lane, or the same with him to me, so we often hung out at that terminus, like a roundabout. [3] 

Trams to Woolton via Smithdown Road and 'Penny Lane' ran until 15 October 1949 when the service was replaced by buses, which is clearly how Paul McCartney remembers it. Between 1940 and 1945 John Lennon lived for a time on Newcastle Road, just around the corner and it's no stretch to imagine that he actually saw the trams still in operation passing through the depot and heading along the bottom of his road, up Church Road towards Picton Clock. 

I used quotation marks because the bus (and former tram) terminus (the "shelter in the middle of the roundabout") is not actually on Penny Lane. It sits on a triangular junction between Church Road, Allerton Road and Smithdown Road and faces one end of Penny Lane.  Depending on where you were travelling to in the city it was often necessary to change at Penny Lane and buses with 'Penny Lane' displayed were common throughout Liverpool. 

So why didn't the buses say 'Smithdown Place'? 

John Lennon: Penny Lane is a suburban district where I lived with my mother and father (although my father was a sailor, always at sea), and my grandfather. I lived on a street called Newcastle Road [5].

So, the name Penny Lane was also applied to the area surrounding the bus terminus though some locals appear to dispute this. If you visit the area today, you might notice how many of the shops in that area have the words Penny Lane in their name (e.g., Penny Lane Flowers or the Penny Lane Emporium). Of course, these days it's hard to tell whether the owners are aware of the area name or are simply capitalizing on the Beatles' connection.   

Trams passed through Penny Lane for the last time on 6 September 1952, but some routes continued in Liverpool for the next few years. On 14 September 1957 Liverpool's trams ran for the very last time, a parade of trams running from Bowring Park where I grew up (much later) towards the city centre.

Post card showing the last tram on 14 September 1957.

In 1946, around the time that John Lennon settled in Woolton, his Uncle George was working the night shift at the depot on Woolton High Street, cleaning the trams. While John still lived at Newcastle Road it's said he enjoyed walks with his grandfather, 'Pop' Stanley and eldest cousin Stan, to places like Wavertree Park (the 'Mystery'), Sefton Park, and even as far as the Pier Head. They would have passed the entrance to the tram depot on Church Road (later known as the Prince Alfred Road bus depot) and probably paused to watch the goings on, as they walked towards Smithdown Place.  

Replace the buses with trams and add in some tracks and overhead cables and you can visualise how the depot would have looked viewed from Church Road in the late 1940s. The rear of the two tram sheds are visible in the background of this photo taken in 1985 [4]. Contrast this with the modern image below. A public house and retail park now occupy the site.

Given these early childhood memories it's likely that the young John had more than a passing interest in the trams and carried this through to his teenage years. On his way through Penny Lane on the No. 5 bus into town, heading for the Art College or perhaps a Beatles' engagement, he obviously noticed that many features of the Liverpool tram system remained well beyond the final closure. 

This picture of the Smithdown Road sheds was taken by Ron Smith on 28th September 1986 and was still standing in 1989, thirty-two years after the last Liverpool tram operated! The two depot entrances that were used by trams coming off the street can clearly be seen sealed-up at the front.  

Twenty-six years on from Ron's photo and the sheds have long gone as these shots taken in 2012 and 2019 attest. The entrance to the site was fenced off and displaying advertising hoardings until recently. 

But what's the shed-like structure on the left? This is what prompted Steve Bradley to message me. Obviously, it's not one of the two big sheds seen on the earlier photos but set back from the road, I think it could have been part of the depot. Certainly, when it's viewed from the side there are to be a number of openings, long bricked up which look to have abutted the missing sheds. 

Today this is the Penny Lane Emporium, a mix of small retail units selling antiques, antique fireplaces, vintage furniture, art and vinyl records, but this set of photos I found online shows what used to go inside. I'm no mechanic or tram expert but they look like generators of some sort, perhaps to power the trams?

Today there's a useful cut through from the retail park to Smithdown Road that runs along the side of the old sheds. If you felt inclined to stick your nose between the railings and look down you could see that the old tram tracks were still in place, though overgrown in places. It's hard to tell from the above photo, but they were visible, honestly (I'd taken this photo through the railings on 1 February 2020).

A week later, with lockdown finally over in England I happened to be at the retail park behind the site waiting to pick up my son and thought I'd try and get a better photo.

To my surprise I found all the trees and vegetation had been cleared. Work could only have started in the last few weeks because workmen and an excavator were still on site.

The rusted tram lines are now clearly visible, running diagonally from left to right. Furthermore, the excavations had uncovered a trench containing the remains of what looked to be a brick walled inspection pit.

I know I haven't been out much in the last twelve months, but I was quite excited by the unearthed archaeology.  It must have been hidden for at least a quarter of a century. If anyone knows what this trench was used for, please get in touch.

It's amazing how by digging a simple trench we can open a window on the past. Back in September 2016 resurfacing works around the junction at Smithdown Place uncovered tram tracks not seen for over 60 years. I expect I was not alone in assuming that when the trams stopped running to Penny Lane the tracks would have been lifted and removed, to be reused or sold for scrap. In fact, they were simply covered over here with a layer of tarmac, and this seems to be the case across most of the city. Presumably this was the cheaper option in the 1950s and it still appears to be the case today.    

Photos taken around the Smithdown Place roadworks in 2016, showing the shelter in the middle of the roundabout and St Barnabas Church (where Paul McCartney was a choir boy). Photos by Mr John Lunt and the Liverpool Echo.

Thursday 8 April 2021

John Lennon: A childhood in photographs

The inspiration for this latest blog is a superb book I received for Christmas - John and Yoko / Plastic Ono Band, a near 300-page hardback volume which traces the evolution of perhaps John's finest solo album through first-hand commentary by John, Yoko and members of the Plastic Ono Band, archive material, and hundreds of fascinating and largely unseen photographs. It was released last October and intended as a companion piece to the new Deluxe Plastic Ono Band CD/DVD box which was unfortunately delayed due to the current pandemic. It's finally due out this month.

Each track on the album has its own section where you can read about the genesis and recording of the song and see John's handwritten lyrics and appropriate photographs.

Naturally, to illustrate the song 'Mother' the compilers of the book have used a number of John's childhood photos, none previously unseen but all in absolutely superb quality. They look beautiful, as do the pictures in the rest of the book. Seriously, this is like the sort of book that Genesis publications would produce but at a tenth of the price.

So, while admiring the book I started wondering, just how many childhood photos of John Lennon are there? 

I started by going through all the folders on my computer and then checked a number of books just on the off chance they might contain a photo that hadn't been scanned by someone and uploaded a thousand times. They didn't. 

I grouped together every different photo I had and deleted all the duplicates, keeping only the best quality copy of each.  Then I tried to arrange them in chronological order.

This is the result.  I'm sure I've not got the order completely right and so any constructive feedback is welcomed.  I've deliberately not included any photos of John as a member of the Quarry Men or at Art School, choosing instead to focus on his family and childhood friends. I've also put some commentary in from interviews, primarily with John, to provide some context.   

9 Newcastle Road (the author, 2020)

John Lennon: Penny Lane is a suburban district where I lived with my mother and father (although my father was a sailor, always at sea), and my grandfather. I lived on a street called Newcastle Road. 

That's the first place I remember. It's a good way to start - red brick; front room never used, always curtains drawn, picture of a horse and carriage on the wall. There were only three bedrooms upstairs, one on the front of the street, one in the back, and one teeny, little room in the middle.

[Julia] My mother was a housewife, I suppose. She was a comedienne and a singer. Not professional, but she used to get up in pubs and things like that. She had a good voice. She could do Kay Starr. She used to do this little tune when I was just a one - or two-year-old. The tune was from the Disney movie - 'Want to know a secret? Promise not to tell. You are standing by a wishing well.' 

The earliest two photos date from circa 1941-44 when John was still with his mother Julia. The first is a typical photographer's studio shot of the day the sort of print you'd get done for your relatives, and perhaps dates from around John's first birthday in 1941 or Christmas that same year.  This was John's contribution to the four childhood photos of the Beatles which appeared on the sleeve of their 1967 Strawberry Fields Forever / Penny Lane single. A cropped version was later used as the rear cover of John's Plastic Ono Band album in 1970.

During 1943 John lived with both parents at the Dairy Cottage, 120a Allerton Road, Woolton.
(photo by the author) 

My mother and father split when I was four. Then my father split. He was a merchant seaman, and it was the Forties in the war, and I guess she couldn't live without somebody. She was the youngest and she couldn't cope with me, and I ended up living with her elder sister, Mimi.

Julia's sister Harriet was actually the youngest of the five Stanley girls.

John: Mimi told me my parents had fallen out of love. She never said anything directly against my father and mother. I soon forgot my father. It was like he was dead. But I did see my mother now and again and my feeling never died off for her. I often thought about her, though I'd never realized for a long time that she was living no more than five or ten miles away.

It was more like three miles!