How did two ‘ordinary’ houses in Liverpool come to join castles, churches and palaces among the listed buildings of England? Emily Gee of English Heritage tells the story of how two ‘resolutely representative’ – but culturally significant – dwellings took their place in history.
When you think of listed buildings, you are unlikely to picture suburban houses, or even the place that inspired Penny Lane. Indeed, when the National Heritage List for England was launched by the Minister for Tourism and Heritage last year, there was only a tiny handful of inter-war suburban semis on it – mostly modernist gems. Now, however, a smart, middle-class – and resolutely representative – semi in suburban Liverpool has joined them: Mendips, the house where John Lennon lived as a young boy into the early Beatles years (1945-63). Also now listed is the even more unlikely case of a post-war terraced council house – an extraordinary one, where the young Paul McCartney learned to play the guitar and composed up to 100 Beatles songs.
Listing is about protecting buildings through the planning process (hardly necessary here since the two houses are beautifully cared for by The National Trust), but it is also about celebrating the special. This is often manifest in the architecturally special, but the legislation also allows for listing on special historic grounds: the strong associations with two of our country’s most important twentieth century musicians certainly meets that test. Liverpool rightly claims these men as her own, but their reach and significance stretches far beyond our shores.
English Heritage, which advises government on listing matters, must be highly selective when considering national designation, and not every place associated with the Fab Four could possibly be listed. The Beatles phenomenon – so important to our mid-twentieth century national story – is reflected on the National Heritage List for England in other sites too: the Casbah Club, where the first performances of The Beatles took place in the basement; the purpose-built Abbey Road recording studios; and – unusually – the celebrated zebra crossing nearby which features on that much-loved album cover (likely to be the only listed example of such a crossing flanked by the increasingly rare beacons invented by Lord Hore-Belisha). English Heritage has, however, not recommended listing (and the Minister has agreed) the childhood homes of fellow Beatles George Harrison and Ringo Starr. This by no means reflects the significance of the musicians, but their connection with the houses, which have been much altered, is not nearly so strong. Ringo Starr’s house on Admiral Grove was not a place of rehearsal or composition and he only lived in Madryn Street as a very young boy; likewise, Harrison had left his home on Arnold Grove long before he joined The Beatles. These buildings have strong local historic meaning but do not meet the test for national designation.
Listing for historic interest is nothing new: the National Heritage List for England includes many buildings where well-documented historic associations of national importance have justified listing, such as the seaside shelter in Margate where T.S. Eliot partly wrote The Wasteland. Usually, a building will possess architectural interest as well, or should be preserved in a form that illustrates its cultural connection, but with modern figures of cultural importance, it is less likely that their homes will be listed for age or architectural reasons alone. This highlights the particular resonance of people and their homes, which is so effectively captured by plaques (Lennon was commemorated with an English Heritage blue plaque at Mendips in 2000, a rare example of one outside the capital).
It is unusual to consider the historic interest of a figure while they are still living, as of course is Sir Paul, but here there is a well established view of The Beatles’ significance which was nearly 50 years ago, providing ample distance with which to judge. We can only wonder which musicians and writers of the early twenty first century will one day deserve similar recognition (could a band like my favourite, Foo Fighters, ever justify such an accolade?)
Mendips and 20 Forthlin Road are architecturally unassuming, but the historic connection of Lennon and McCartney to their respective houses is powerful. Both houses witnessed the young men’s joint musical apprenticeship and they both constitute sites of intensive composition, practice and imminent international success. Their survival and excellent presentation mean that visitors can experience the artistic talent and energy within their evocative rooms or even on pilgrimage to the outside. As Heritage Minister John Penrose and I left Mendips – through the glazed porch where Lennon and McCartney faced each other with their guitars and played – that remarkable connection of special people in a special building was acutely resounding.