The bricks that built the Beatles

Left to Right, George Harrison, John Lennon and Paul McCartney face the camera wearing grey suits and playing guitars. They are playing as 'the Quarrymen' at at Paul's cousin's wedding reception at his Auntie's house, 8 March 1958

Mendips and 20 Forthlin Road are the childhood homes of John Lennon and Paul McCartney. What happened within their walls created one of the most influential bands in the world.

Mendips and 20 Forthlin Road are two ordinary houses in suburban Liverpool. Inside their walls, two families experienced love and tragedy. Upstairs in their bedrooms, two boys found an escape from grief in music. Their shared passion led these boys to meet, and out of chaos came creativity – a musical partnership forged in boyhood friendship.

Between practising in Mendips' front porch and songwriting in the front room of Forthlin Road, these boys joined two others and together this band of teenagers turned music into opportunity. What emerged from the front door of this unassuming house would go on to become a musical phenomenon.

These two ordinary houses sparked a revolution in music, ideas and identity which shaped a generation. These are the bricks that built the Beatles.
 

Love and loss in Liverpool

 

 

Mendips

Paul McCartney remembers Mendips as ‘one of the almost posh houses’ in the Woolton area of Liverpool. In 1946, following his parents separation, John Lennon came to live at Mendips with his Aunt Mimi and her husband, George Smith, who had no children of their own. 

Together, no-nonsense Aunt Mimi and the softer-hearted Uncle George provided the loving and stable home that John badly needed. Aunt Mimi kept Mendips immaculately tidy, and John remembered his childhood here as a generally happy time. 

However, it was also marked by tragedy. On 15 July 1958, John's mother Julia, a frequent visitor to Mendips, was coming for tea with her sister. As she crossed the road to catch a bus home, she was hit by a car and killed. Though he did not show it at first, her death affected John deeply. It also strengthened John's bond with Paul, who had lost his own mother in October 1956.

Image © Mike Cadwallader

20 Forthlin Road

Mendips was under a mile from 20 Forthlin Road, but the two houses sat in different social worlds. Mendips had a grand name whereas Forthlin Road was simple but well-made social housing. 

Paul’s mother Mary was houseproud, right down to the Sanderson designer wallpaper which she hung in the parlour, carefully pieced together from inexpensive roll ends. 

However, family life at 20 Forthlin Road was also marked by loss. Mary died from breast cancer on 31 October 1956. Paul was 14 years old and his younger brother, Mike, only 12.

With their father Jim now trying to work full-time and raise two sons, the family started to struggle. Aunts and uncles stepped in to support and helped the family with meals and chores during their weekly visits.

Image © Michael McCartney

A chance meeting that changed history

On a July afternoon in 1957, a 15-year-old Paul McCartney met a young John Lennon at St Peter’s Church fete, where John was performing with his first band, the Quarrymen. John was not easily impressed, but here was someone who could really tune and play a guitar. John asked Paul to join the band, and the partnership at the heart of the Beatles was formed.

John Lennon's bedroom at Mendips with posters on the wall and a guitar propped up above the bed

By 1952, John was rebelling against the oppressive, traditional grammar school atmosphere of Quarry Bank High School in Liverpool. In 1956, John heard Elvis Presley’s ‘Heartbreak Hotel’ on Radio Luxembourg, and in his own words: ‘After that, nothing was the same for me’. He stuck up a poster of Elvis in his bedroom, and with his mother’s help bought a guitar on mail-order: a Gallatone Champion. With this, he formed his first band, the Quarrymen.

A teenage Paul McCartney sits on the floor in the front room of 20 Forthlin Road, lost in playing his guitar as the sun falls through the curtains onto his face.

Paul’s father had taught himself to play both trumpet and piano. He knew the joy that music could bring, so after the loss of their mother he encouraged his sons towards music. He bought a guitar for Paul, who found great solace in playing it. Paul also taught himself to play his father’s piano at 20 Forthlin Road.
Image © Michael McCartney

Paul McCartney's childhood bedroom at 20 Forthlin Road, containing a single bed, a chair, a side table and a guitar. The walls and curtains are yellow

At 20 Forthlin Road, Paul had a radio in his bedroom. Like John, he tuned this to Radio Luxembourg, which is where he first heard performers such as Chuck Berry and Little Richard. When Paul first met John, he impressed the older teen by knowing all the chords to his favourite Little Richard and Gene Vincent songs. Needing a better guitarist for the Quarrymen, John asked him to join the group.

John Lennon's childhood bedroom with a single bed facing the art's and craft's inspired triple windwow

When Paul started coming around to Mendips, Aunt Mimi liked him for his good manners and would call up to John’s bedroom with: ‘John, your little friend’s here’. The two friends would spend hours sitting on John’s bed in the upstairs front room of Mendips, figuring out songs and starting to compose their own. ‘Please Please Me’, ‘I Call Your Name’ and ‘I’ll Get You’ all began life at Mendips.

 Exterior of the semi-detached childhood home of John Lennon, Mendips, Liverpool

As much as Aunt Mimi liked Paul, she disliked the noise their rehearsals made. She banished the Quarrymen to practice in the front porch of Mendips – drumkit and all. This became awkward, especially as Paul played left-handed so the necks of his and John’s guitars clashed in the small space. In the end, it was easier to cycle over to Forthlin Road and practice there while Paul’s father was out.

A young John Lennon and Paul McCartney sit in the front room of 20 Forthlin Road wearing black polo necks and playing guitars. They are looking across at each other, in the process of composing 'I Saw Her Standing There'

In the parlour of 20 Forthlin Road, Paul and John would develop ideas, write them in school exercise books, practise them and then present them to the band – which as of 1958 also included George Harrison. 'She Loves You', 'I Saw Her Standing There', and 'Love Me Do' all came into being here. Over the next four years, the band changed from the Quarrymen to the Beatles. Ringo Starr joined the group in August 1962 and later that year on 5 October, the Beatles' first single ‘Love Me Do’ was released.
Image © Michael McCartney

What came forth from Forthlin

What started in 20 Forthlin Road spread from home to home, radio to radio, record player to record player, reaching out across the nation and then the world. The music that first took shape in these rooms helped spark something into life: a transformation of what it meant to be young.

The 1960s saw the birth of youth culture. Spearheaded by the Beatles and Beatlemania (the fan-culture surrounding the early years of the band), music gave a generation of young people a way to express how they were different from their parents. The Beatles' music helped create a vibrant new popular culture, one in which the youth generation had its own identity, and permission to do things differently from what had gone before.

By 1965, the effect was so strong that it led the then editor of Vogue magazine, Diana Vreeland, to coin the term ‘youthquake’ to describe how British youth culture was redrawing the map of music and fashion. Politicians were also quick to capitalise on the cultural shift. Later that same year, Prime Minister Harold Wilson shocked the establishment by awarding the Beatles with MBEs. It was a move many thought won him the following election.  

This is the lasting legacy of Mendips and 20 Forthlin Road: young people who had permission to be creative and different, and helped give an entire generation permission to do the same. A message spreading from home to home, person to person, and now generation to generation.

Caring for these homes

 

 

Mendips

Although he was away a lot with the band, Mendips remained home for John. It was here Aunt Mimi kept his OBE, though, ever the rebel, John returned the medal in 1969.

Despite John’s stardom, Aunt Mimi never let his fame change her. She was proud of her nephew’s achievements, but to her, John would always be the wayward but essentially soft-hearted teenager in need of firm guidance. Often taking pity on the fans who had travelled hundreds of miles for a sight of John’s childhood home, Aunt Mimi would invite them in for tea and sandwiches. But she found that she had to start locking the kitchen door to stop them pinching crockery as souvenirs.

In 1965, Aunt Mimi left Mendips to retire to Poole in Dorset, and although John would have liked to have kept the house, it was sold. However, he never forgot his years at Mendips. In 2002, Yoko Ono Lennon heard the house was up for sale. She decided to buy it and donate it to the National Trust, so it would be well looked after as a place for people to visit and see for themselves where it all began.

Image © Mike Cadwallader

20 Forthlin Road

20 Forthlin Road remained the McCartneys' home for several years. At the height of the Beatles' fame, Paul had moved to London and Mike was still living with his father at Forthlin Road, where Beatles fans gathered on the pavement outside. In July 1964, Paul bought his father a house in Heswall overlooking the Dee estuary. They moved out of 20 Forthlin Road at midnight, to avoid unwanted attention from Beatles fans. 

The Jones family moved into 20 Forthlin Road, and eventually bought the house from the council. Despite the change in ownership, fans continued to visit Forthlin Road. Like Aunt Mimi at Mendips, Mrs Jones would often invite them in for a cup of tea. However, after 30 years, she’d had enough. Mrs Jones gave the McCartney family the chance to buy back 20 Forthlin Road in 1995. However, they declined and Mrs Jones offered it to the National Trust instead.

Image © Michael McCartney

Visiting Mendips and 20 Forthlin Road

Both Mendips and 20 Forthlin Road are open to the public, so why not follow in John and Paul's footsteps on a guided tour? Step inside the rooms where some of the nation’s favourite songs were written.

These houses were ordinary family homes, and although what emerged from them had worldwide impact, they also tell an intimate story of family life which is just as important to uphold. As a mark of respect, Mendips is shut every year on John's birthday and the anniversary of his death.