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© Annette Laing, 2021
“Mendips", the house in Liverpool where Beatle John Lennon grew up with his Aunt Mimi and Uncle George Smith. I wish I could show more pictures, but England's National Trust, which owns the two Beatles homes that are open to the public (although closed at time of writing), is very serious about not allowing photography. However, you can see a very few interior photos at the National Trust site. Or, once the pandemic is over, and it will end, you might go there yourself. Earworm. Just saying.
I GO DOWN TO LIVERPOOL TO SEE SOMETHING
Not all pilgrimages are religious. As a public historian, I went to Liverpool curious to visit a very different kind of house museum. I was drawn to see two homes of ordinary people rather than the Downton-style mansions that are the typical fare of England’s National Trust. I was intrigued by these two modest abodes.
Oh, who I am I kidding? YOU GUYS! They were JOHN LENNON’S AND PAUL MCCARTNEY’S CHILDHOOD HOMES!!!
You may have heard of The Beatles. I hear they’re doing very well for themselves.
What can I say?
Legends blah blah blah soundtrack of my life blah blah remember hearing about John from the BBC over breakfast blah blah blah, all the things you would expect me to say.
And, yes, touring Mendips and 20, Forthlin Road, Lennon’s and McCartney’s childhood homes, which I’ve done twice now, is a thrill for the obvious reasons. And the not so obvious.
I walked into 20, Forthlin Road, Paul’s house (because of course we’re on first-name terms, as are all his 30,000,000,000 fans) . . . Where was I? Oh, right, Paul’s house. Ahem. This is it.
Paul McCartney’s childhood home, Liverpool . ©Annette Laing, 2021
Come Inside Paul’s Childhood Home with Me
I cross the threshold, and suddenly, I’m in my past. No, I’m not that old, but things didn’t change much in older British people’s homes between Paul’s 50s childhood and mine in the 60s and 70s: The wartime generation didn’t go in much for redecorating.
So here we are in a postwar council terraced (row) house (public housing) straight from my past, down to the drab streaky beige textured council wallpaper, the linoleum floors dressed with carpet remnants bought cheap from the shop. There’s even the TV set Paul’s Mum bought in 1953 for the same reason millions of others did, so she could watch the Coronation of Queen Elizabeth.
I also see ashtrays in the living room, set on the arms of Forthlin Road’s comfy 1930s chairs. Or do I?
Maybe my memory is playing tricks about the ashtrays? I can’t check. Even in the official guidebook at my elbow, there’s only one picture from inside the house, and no ashtrays I can see.
Regardless, it’s a very respectable working-class house, and I got a huge whooomph of nostalgia.
It’s also in the middle-class suburbs, so how’s it working-class, you might ask? Paul’s widowed dad rented it from local government, and it was one of the many well-constructed rented houses built after the center of Liverpool was devastated by German bombs during World War II.
Instead of rehousing thousands in increasingly decrepit tenements and bombed slums, post-war British government offered people a way out. People took it. I grew up in a newer house, built in the 60s, but you have the idea, and my childhood home was in an entire town specifically built to rehouse the displaced Cockneys of London’s East End (think Call the Midwife).
This got me thinking. Because I can’t just enjoy myself luxuriating in the fan worship of the moment like a normal person, can I? Noooo…
John Lennon is often represented as a working-class hero. But, as Paul McCartney (who actually was working class) and Lennon himself pointed out, John was actually a middle-class boy from the Liverpool suburbs, and not the working-class housing, either.
Practically everyone who has made this point has been pretty much ignored. But I’m giving it a go.
Mendips: John’s Home with Aunt Mimi
Exploring Mendips, the carefully restored Liverpool house where John grew up with his Uncle George and Aunt Mimi Smith, I could see why Americans struggle to understand.
Mendips, which you can see at top, is a modest duplex (in American terms) on a busy street. Surely, if Forthlin Road qualifies, then Mendips is also a working-class home?
I mean, good grief, John’s Aunt Mimi, who raised him, was a nurse, like Paul’s mum Mary. After she was widowed, Mimi took in lots of student boarders to make ends meet. She even gave up her living room to the students, retreating with John to a tiny cubby off the kitchen in her leisure time. Surely this family was working class? By the standards of today's wealthy, this was squalid poverty.
But looking at Aunt Mimi's house through my postwar British eyes, there's no question that John and Paul knew what they were talking about. Lennon’s house and family would have seemed "posh" to practically everyone else in Liverpool.
An owned (not rented) semi-detached house (duplex), no matter how modest, and John’s well-spoken aspirational Aunt Mimi, no matter how self-taught her diction, scream "lower middle class." You can hear Aunt Mimi for yourself, by the way: She did a TV interview in 1981, and she does not sound remotely like a Liverpudlian (Liverpool native.) Look, if you ever watched the BBC sitcom Keeping Up Appearances, Aunt Mimi is Mrs. Bucket, OK?
Looking at the world through the lens of class is hard for many Americans. When I arrived in California from Britain as a teen, I struggled at first to understand the role that class played in the U.S., especially because so many of the people I met interpreted society only through the lens of race, which seemed to me basically racist: even early on, I could already tell that Black people were divided by class. But in America, I came to think then and I am sure of it now, you can’t really understand race without class, and vice versa.
Britain is different from the States (not necessarily better, I’m not the one to judge) and any Brit who thinks otherwise has never spent serious time over here (sorry, Disney doesn’t count). There have always been Britons of color, but very few until after World War II: For most of British history, practically everyone has been white. (How things changed among the English in America? Read my A Black Craiglist post.)
So. Until recent times, there was no question that class trumped race as a dividing factor in British society, that while people were race-conscious and often racist, that didn't get tested much, basically because almost everyone was white. Class was not defined by skin color but by all sorts of economic, social, and cultural boxes, all of which John Lennon checked as “lower middle class.” I'm particularly conscious of this, I suppose, because I’m lower middle class too.
John Lennon took pains to undermine the narrative being constructed around him of "working-class hero". In doing so, he firmly acknowledged his own privilege as a middle-class lad. Maybe that privilege is hard for most people to see in Lennon's background, especially his troubled childhood, but he was right, and all the Beatles knew it: It was there.
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An earlier version of this post appeared on my original blog at AnnetteLaing.com
Please note that I do NOT receive compensation for ANY link I post, and that I have never accepted compensation to visit or review a site or museum. If I review or recommend a place, I’ve been there, and paid my own expenses.
Now in the possession of the National Trust, Mendips is open to the public, but please note, you cannot just show up. Book well in advance for the Beatles Childhood Homes minibus tour, which also takes you to Paul McCartney's childhood home on nearby Forthlin Road. There is a charge (cheaper if you belong to the National Trust or its American arm, the Royal Oak Society), and strict rules which are enforced, as they typically are in the UK. Read everything carefully.
Want More? See George and Ringo’s houses (outside only) as part of the original Fab4 Taxi Tour of Liverpool. I have taken their tour twice, most recently in 2019, and cannot recommend them too highly. The guides who drove me were friendly, informed, and passionate about their subject. I can’t of course personally guarantee they’re all like that, but you know what to do to read recent reviews.
View from Fab4 Taxi Tour, Liverpool
Unfortunately, a taxi tour is no longer as absurdly cheap as it was, but that’s only fair. And prices are per cab, not per person. It’s worth every penny.
And seriously, if you’re going all the way to Liverpool, you really should, even if you’re not a superfan who's determined to sing Penny Lane loudly while being driven down the ACTUAL Penny Lane. . . Not that I would know anything about that.
Book ahead (always in the UK, book ahead!) Take the longest tour you can afford: The guide will take you to pick up fish and chips at the end, or wherever you want to go. Thank me later.
Can’t Go to Liverpool? Tour Paul’s house with Paul and James Corden here.
If Paul McCartney is reading this: The woman who was there the day you visited with Corden was not the guide who as led tours of your childhood home for many, many years, but a temporary caretaker. A date was changed. The permanent guide was gutted. I found that out when I asked her (2019) if she had enjoyed your visit. If you can fix that, I know you will. Just FYI. Cheers, Macca.
P.S. Aunt Mimi in Film
If you see the movie Nowhere Boy, about John Lennon’s early life with Aunt Mimi at Mendips, please bear in mind that while it’s good cinema, it’s also dramatized. When he consulted on the production, Paul McCartney took issue with the planned portrayal of John’s Aunt Mimi. I have no idea what he made of the final cut, or whether he saw it in the end. I can’t know. The closest I ever got to Aunt Mimi is this fascinating old interview from 1981 (not filmed at Mendips), and, boy, did I know a lot of women like her.
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