One of the interesting sidelines of being a Beatles’ historian is that the research process takes one down many surprising avenues, and often unearths unexpected results. This also leads to a richer knowledge of the city that shaped The Beatles. For many people, Liverpool is The Beatles, and The Beatles are Liverpool, and while that could possibly said about the second half of the twentieth century, the city of hundred years before was about shipping and international trade. It is not surprising, then, that our story of Strawberry Field, the site immortalized by John Lennon, begins with a man who made a fortune in the traditional Liverpool manner.
George Warren was born in Surrey in 1819, and arrived in Liverpool with his American wife, Mary Ann in 1853 to manage the Liverpool office of the White Diamond Line of Boston, Massachusetts. When this company failed, Warren bought up many of its ships, and formed the ‘George Warren’s Line of Liverpool and Boston Packets’, later ‘George Warren & Company.’ The Warren Line maintained the regular trade route between Liverpool and Boston, graduating from sails to steam, adding a passenger service in 1865, and amassing a great fortune in the process. During the 1860s, he was living in middle-class luxury in Grove Park, a street filled with large villas, but was looking for a piece of land to build a mansion worthy of his status.
Little Woolton, now part of the suburb of Woolton, was in those days a separate village outside the city, and it was here that Warren found the land he was looking for, a piece of former farmland that had been used for cultivating strawberries, and was known, not surprisingly, as Strawberry Fields. Immediately, a couple of those aforementioned results emerge here, and both concern The Beatles song. Firstly, given that the land was originally referred to in the plural, was Lennon not correct in using that form in the song, rather than the later singular name? Secondly, the building of the house took place around 1866-1867, so would it be too far-fetched to think of the song as an unintentional 100th anniversary tribute to the place?
The imposing 3-storey mansion that Warren built was in Gothic-revival style using local brick, with sandstone dressings and window surrounds, and he was known to be living here in 1868. By 1871, he was widowed, and living with his five children. Despite having such a grand place to live, due to his international business commitments he was absent for long periods, and a report of the death of one George Booth in 1879 showed his father, Henry, occupying the house. He was almost certainly a member of the family of another shipping line, Albert Booth & Co, that did business with the Warrens. Another coincidence can be noted here, as Booth was also the name of the founding family of the Salvation Army, who would take over the house many decades later. One year later, on 10th October 1880, we learn about the death of George Warren on another of his travels, in Bellagio, Italy. He left a will of £250,000, around £30m today.
Although his son, George Hignett Warren took over the business, it was his daughter, Mary, who inherited Strawberry Fields. In the time-honoured tradition, Mary consolidated the family fortune the following year but marrying Philip Samuel Swire, another wealthy Liverpool shipowner who traded with China. They would have known each other through his business associate, Philip Holt, who was also an associate of Albert Booth & Co. After the marriage, they resided in another desirable mansion in Bedfordshire, in the south of England, and in a townhouse in London, leaving brother George as the head of the household at Strawberry Fields.
George H. Warren was born in Boston around 1852, and returned there many times, appearing on several passenger lists. He was a man of many talents, known variously as a footballer, athlete, competitive yachtsman, fisherman and big game hunter who rode with the Cheshire Hunt, and a photographer. Perhaps his extra-curricular activities were of more importance to him than the business, as when he died in 1912, his fortune had shrunk to around a fifth of the 1880 value, even allowing for Mary’s ownership of Strawberry Fields.
A couple of years after George’s death, we find Strawberry Fields (still known in the plural) up for sale. Exactly what was its fate during the new few years – which take in the Great War (WW1 – 1914-1918) isn’t clear, but a newspaper advertisement of 10th July 1918 throws up another surprise. The ‘Situations Vacant’ ad is asking for a kitchen-hand at a Woolton ‘children’s home’ in Woolton, with the contact details given as the ‘Superintendent’ of Strawberry Field. This raises the very real possibility that the house was used as a children’s home long before the well-known conversion by the Salvation Army in 1936. To add evidence to the claim, I submit the fact that ‘Superintendent’ is not a post usually associated with a private residence, and also include, below, an image of the ad, and front page header of the newspaper it came from, eliminating the possibility of a filing error in the newspaper archives. We know the new owner, Alexander Cameron Mitchell, was not living in the house in 1917, due to a report of the death of one his gardeners – John Matthew Hull, killed in action in Flanders – giving his address as his previous home, Weston House, in nearby Halewood.
Alexander Mitchell was a Scotsman, who by the time he arrived at Strawberry Field (now in the singular) was 75 years old. He had worked for 50 years as a partner for the Liverpool shipping and mining company, Duncan Fox & Co., whose main trading business was in Chile and Peru. The company had been set up in 1863 by another Scot, David Duncan, who was briefly a Liberal Member of Parliament for the constituency of Liverpool Exchange, the same seat much later occupied for 25 years with great distinction by the legendary Labour member, Bessie Braddock. Little more is known about his time at Strawberry Field, but it appears he lived there at least from 1919, until his death in 1927.
His widow and daughter continued to live at the house until 1935, although they completed the sale to the Salvation Army the year before. When Mary Jane Fowler, a Methodist, who had a long-standing friendship with the Salvation Army founder, Gen. William Booth, died in January 1913, she bequeathed £90,000 to Booth (around £10m today). Three or four social projects around the city were established by the Salvation Army using this money, including the purchase of Strawberry Field, which opened in 1936 as the ‘Salvation Army Home for Little Girls’. John Lennon would visit some of the fund-raising events held in the grounds with his Aunt Mimi during the 1940s, and as an adolescent would enter surreptitiously with his friends, scaling the wall in Vale Road, around the corner from his home in Menlove Avenue, and not, as the legions of visiting fans would believe, climbing the famous gates in Beaconsfield Road.
Boys were later admitted to the children’s home, but the end for the historic house came in 1973, when it was demolished due to the high cost of renovation, and replaced with purpose-built accommodation.
Copyright 2018 Philip Kirkland. No original part of this work may be reproduced in whole or in part in any manner without the permission of the copyright owner.