There are many Beatles myths. All researchers and historians are fallible, and sometimes even commit to print what they think must be facts, even when there is no absolute proof of said fact. The rise of social media only perpetuates such myths, which gives rise to answers such as, “Yes, it’s true; it’s in [famous author]’s book”. Some myths are considered more fact than others, and one of the stronger ones says that John (Jack) Lennon, John Winston Lennon’s grandfather, emigrated to the USA in the 1890s (or earlier) to join “Andrew Robertson’s Colored Operatic Minstrels” and, returning to Liverpool some years later, passed on his musical talent to his son, Alfred Lennon and, in turn to the famous John. A nice way to build a musical dynasty, but is it true?
I am no more able to find proof that it happened, or didn’t happen, than the most respected Beatles historian, nor would I be audacious enough to claim I have the definitive answer, but as no one has yet found incontrovertible evidence of it happening, it is interesting to look at the known facts about Jack Lennon’s life, and having done so, I come to the conclusion that no such events took place – while having an open mind, and being willing to accept the contrary evidence of some future research.
It is telling that such an authority as Mark Lewisohn doesn’t even touch on the subject in the first volume of his mega-biography and, like most Beatles’ writers, I tend to think there is a good reason for that, but it’s always a good idea to do ones own research, rather than to take someone else’s word for it, however respected the views of that author are … after all, that’s how myths start!
It’s necessary to go back a couple of generations to point out another inaccuracy that appears in many accounts. The first Lennon ancestor about which we can be fairly certain is one Patrick Lennon, John Winston’s great-great grandfather. Before that, records are sketchy. This is probably due in part to the loss of many records, including the 1821 census returns, during the Irish Civil War when, on 30 June 1922, an explosion and fire ravaged the building where they were kept, but also due to the fact that there were many Lennons in County Down, Ireland, where he was based, and that Patrick is also an exceedingly common name in Ireland!
Patrick was a poor farmer, possibly from near Banbridge, County Down, some 25 miles southwest of Belfast. The family motto ‘Prisco stirpe hibernico’, translating as ‘Ancient Irish Stock’, shows the Lennons planted firmly in the Emerald Isle, and indeed there exist records of much earlier Lennons, or variations of the name, including many notable priests. The only definitely recorded son of Patrick was James, great-grandfather of the future Beatle. This is where some accounts differ, saying Grandfather Jack’s parents were one John Lennon and Elizabeth Morris, but more recent research confirms that it was James and his wife Jane McConville. The confusion appears to stem from the fact that one researcher knew that John Winston Lennon had an ancestor called Mary Elizabeth Morris, and made a wrong assumption. In fact, this ancestor was married to John Dumbry Millward of Flintshire, Wales, grandfather of John’s Aunt Mimi, and therefore on the Stanley side on the family. It’s also possible that another John Lennon born in the same year as Jack was mistaken for Jack, and the parents of this John did have parents of that name.
James was born in County Down in 1829, and crossed the Irish Sea to Liverpool in 1849, and married Jane who, although resident in Liverpool, hailed from the same part of Ireland as the Lennons. Census returns for 1850 confirm that Lennon and the McConvilles (Jane’s parents, James and Bridget, and her brothers John and Richard) all lived on Saltney Street, down by the docks, which shouldn’t surprise us given that this was a kind of unsanitary dumping-ground for recently arrived Irish immigrants. The fact about James’ immigration has also been badly reported, suggesting that the first Lennon immigrant was Grandfather Jack. Apparently he himself was known to claim that he had been born in Dublin, but census records show this to be untrue. Between 1850 and 1867 they had seven known children, Elizabeth, James Jr., John (Jack), born in 1855, William George, Richard Francis, Joseph and Edward. (Intriguingly, in 1889, the last of these married one Ann Jane RIGBY – a surname familiar to Beatles’ fans!) William followed the ancient Lennon tradition by being ordained as a priest, holding various ecclesiastical posts around Merseyside, and even receiving a blessing from Pope Leo XIII in relation to a fund-raising event he organized in 1899. Jane Lennon died in 1869 aged 36, possibly along with an eighth child, as a result of that birth.
Lewisohn mentions a first marriage for Jack Lennon to one Annie Skalley in 1879, without having found much further detail. My own research points to one such person being born further south in Birmingham in 1855, which would make her of marrying age, and also someone of the same age marrying in Liverpool in 1879 – as well as separate record of one John Lennon marrying in Liverpool the same year. Whether Jack was legally free to marry again 9 years later is open to question. Being a Catholic, it is unlikely they divorced, and a search for a premature death of any Annie Lennon in the interim brings up the possibility of a death in not-too-distant Stockport in 1885, at the age of 36, meaning the birth dates don’t coincide, but this record does give us something to work on.
Whatever happened to the unfortunate Annie, Jack did marry Margaret Cowley in 1888. Other inaccurate reports claim that Jack’s first marriage was to an American he met during his “American Adventure” (Also, these reports only mention two marriages in total, starting with Margaret). The space between the first two marriages does provide a window of opportunity to travel. There are no reported children from the first marriage, and Jack did disappear from UK and US censuses at this point, but it unlikely that an impoverished young immigrant had the means to embark on such an adventure at this point unless he stowed away or worked his passage. Added to this, such reports claim he travelled in the 1890s.
Jack and Margaret’s first child, Mary Elizabeth was born the same year that they married – Jane walked to the altar six months pregnant – and a second child, Michael, was born in 1892, causing his mother’s death, and his own some days later. Further census returns in 1891 report that at 63, Allen Street, Warrington, the Holloway family had the following lodgers: John Lemon [sic] (33), a railway clerk, born Dublin (untrue, but consistent with his aforementioned claims), his wife Margaret (26), born in Liverpool (not the USA!), and their daughter, Mary Elizabeth (2). As Warrington is roughly midway between Liverpool and Manchester, this shows that Jack did venture out of the city, and possibly adds credence to the fact that Annie Skalley could have died in Stockport, just south of Manchester.
In 1892, following Margaret’s death, and with a young daughter to look after, Jack’s housekeeper, Mary Maguire, known to all as Polly, became an important part of his life. A strong and witty woman around 18 years his junior, their relationship soon changed from employer-employee to a couple “living in sin”, according to their Catholic upbringing. The 1901 census found that at 3 Lockhart Street, Toxteth Park, Liverpool, John (Jack) Lennon (46) is living his “wife” (another lie), Mary (Polly) “Lennon”, and daughter, Mary Elizabeth (12). What these detail fail to uncover is that between 1894 and 1901, five children had been born, and subsequently died, none of them living longer than 18 months, and most of them a lot less. This period of producing, raising, burying, and financing so many children in the space of seven years would seem to put paid to any possibility that Jack travelled to America in 1890s.
So where do all the false claims come from? It appears that it was from Jack Lennon himself, via his later surviving children. Between the time of the 1901 census and 1918, nine more children were born, of which 6 survived, including John Winston Lennon’s father, Alfred. In total, including those with Margaret Cowley, Jack fathered at least 16 children, with 7 survivors. One of the sources of later information came from the youngest of his children, John Lennon’s Uncle Charlie, who later appeared at Beatles’ conventions and talked to various authors, passing on, probably through no fault of his own, the pack of lies that his father had told him. It seems that Jack had done little in his life to be proud of and felt the need to aggrandize himself to his children. It seems that he did have some musical talent, as did many of the Lennons over the years, but most of his life was spent indulging in drinking, gambling … and sex! It would be quite easy to imagine that there were many more little Lennon’s around, the result of other conquests. The photo of Jack, posing with a similarly dressed banjo player (the main photo of this post) also raises questions. The photo, one of only two I’ve seen, belonged to Uncle Charlie, and on the back is the printing, “Photograph by Charles Howell, official photographer, Pleasure Beach, Blackpool”, dating it to some time after the opening of the venue in 1897. Charlie was not quite 3 years old when his father died, so is not even certain that the photo is genuine, given that he would have to take the word of whoever gave him the photo that it was his father. Also, he bears little resemblance to the man in the other photo (reproduced at the beginnning of this paragraph). If it is genuine, then any claims that it was a style carried over from his supposed “minstrel days” doesn’t hold too much water. It looks to me reminiscent of the style adopted by British music hall acts of the time, and in the 1890s, music hall was at its peak. Is it fanciful to believe that people would adopt the style of their heroes, in the same way that film and pop music fans did years later?
However … and this is an exciting find! During my research I found this bit of information from one Richard Edmunds:
“I think there is some confusion with ‘Andrew Robertson’s Kentucky Minstrels’ [sic], This was a British Music Hall variety troupe, musicians and comedians, nothing to do with America and they never toured there. Robertson was in fact a Scot, who put the company together in Edinburgh around 1890/91. It reached the peak of it’s popularity between 1894-96. It played Liverpool for first time February 1895, and did advertise for three new musicians whilst there, to join the troupe. They travelled up and down the UK pretty much all year. The troupe wound up around 1901, changing fashions and all that.”
I have been unable to verify this information, but if it is true, doesn’t this put an end to the myth for good?
For the record, John (Jack) Lennon passed away on 3th August 1921, aged 66, at 57 Copperfield Street, Toxteth, Liverpool, and Polly survived until 30th January 1949. They finally formalized their relationship on 27th January 1915. It is thought that Polly met her (later) famous grandson at some time during the 1940s. If that seems obvious for a grandmother, it has to be remembered that the Stanley family was mainly responsible for his care in his early years, and their opinion of the extended Lennon family was low, to say the least!
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