Few events in John Lennon’s brief life were as traumatic and painful than the death of his mother, Julia, when he was 17.
Although Julia had abandoned John to be brought up by her sister, Mimi, the event proved important in cementing his close working partnership with Paul McCartney, whose mother had died from an embolism when he was 14.
The road accident that killed Julia -- with an off-duty policeman at the wheel -- confirmed Lennon in his distrust of anyone in authority.
Lennon’s first son, Julian, is named after his mother.
But most of all Julia’s death was a musical inspiration. Both his gentle ballad to his absent mother on the White Album (1968) -- “Half of what I say is meaningless,/ but I say it just to please you, Julia” -- and “Mother,” his anguished recollection of her death that opened his first single album, John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band (1970) -- “Mother, You had me. I never had you./ I wanted you but you didn't want me” -- prove pivotal in understanding the pain that lies just beneath the surface of a Lennon song.
Julia was often at Mimi’s. Their original relationship had been rekindled since John began shuttling between them. Her visit on Tuesday, July 15 1958, had a purpose, though. The summer term at Liverpool College of Art had ended on Friday the 4th, three days after Julia’s lover Bobby Dykins lost his driving license and his job and had been fined the equivalent of about three weeks’ wages, cash they may not have had.
Financially, things were suddenly tight at 1 Blomfield Road, and Dykins had told Julia a stark truth as he saw it: they could no longer afford to have John staying at the house. It was going to be hard enough to feed [her] two girls without a gluttonous young man eating them out of house and home.
If Julia didn’t agree, then perhaps discussions became heated, because—heavy-hearted or otherwise—she ended up going to Mimi’s home to convey this very message. John was at Blomfield Road when she left to pay the visit.
Having said what she’d gone there to say, Julia left for home at 9:45. She had three choices: to walk all the way, perhaps cutting across the golf course; to walk down to Woolton Road and catch the bus to Garston (and then walk); or to cross Menlove Avenue and catch the bus going north, toward Penny Lane, and then change for a bus cutting back south again, to Springwood.
She chose the last. On another day, Bobby might have come to collect her . . . if right here on Menlove Avenue he hadn’t lost his license . . . but for which she mightn’t have been here at all.
Mimi sometimes walked Julia to the bus stop, but this summer’s evening they parted at the gate. A number 4 was due within a couple of minutes. Just as Julia was about to head off, Nigel Walley came along, hoping to find John at home.
Mimi said John was out, then Julia said, “Oh Nigel, you’ve just arrived in time to escort me to the bus stop.” Julia said her goodbyes to Mimi and I started walking with her. When we got to Vale Road I turned up while she crossed Menlove Avenue, and at that moment I heard a car skidding and a thump and I turned to see her body flying through the air.
“I rushed over. It wasn’t a gory mess but she must have had severe internal injuries. To my mind, she’d been killed instantly. I can still see her gingery hair fluttering in the breeze, blowing across her face.”
Walley ran to Mendips, but the commotion had already brought Mimi back outside. By chance, long-term lodger Michael Fishwick was there too. “Mimi and I heard the screech of brakes. We looked at each other and took off in full-flight out of the house. We ran up the road and across and there was Julia, looking quite peaceful, bloodied only at the back of her head. A crowd gathered. Someone ran off to ring for an ambulance. She gave one final breath and died.”
Mimi, still in her carpet slippers, went in the back of the ambulance that sped Julia’s body to Sefton General Hospital. What hell that must have been. Fishwick followed with her shoes and handbag, and then the police took them to Blomfield Road where no one yet had any idea of the terrible events.
Mimi would recall John being out at the time, but when he came in and was told the news he broke down, saying, “Oh God, oh God.”
John’s own recollection, when talking about it nine years later, was different. He remembered a policeman coming to the door and, as if in a film scene, asking for confirmation he was Julia Dykins’ son. When John mumbled a yes, the constable replied, “I’m sorry to tell you your mother’s dead.”
Bobby phoned for a taxi to get him and John to the hospital. As John would recall, “He [Twitchy] said, ‘Who’s going to look after the kids?’ and I hated him. Bloody selfishness.”
John gabbled hysterically all the way, but when they got to the hospital, unlike Bobby, he couldn’t bring himself to see the body. “It was the worst thing that ever happened to me. We’d caught up so much, me and Julia, in just a few years. We could communicate. We got on. She was great. I thought, ‘Fuck it, fuck it, fuck it. That’s really fucked everything. I’ve no responsibilities to anyone now.’ ”
The funeral was the following Monday, July 21, at Allerton Cemetery. John never spoke of it publicly and there’s only one reliable witness to confirm he was in some way part of it. His cousin Liela (while not saying explicitly that John was or wasn’t at the cemetery) would relate how she and John were at The Cottage, 120a Allerton Road, afterward, for post-funeral sandwiches.
“John and I just sat there on the couch, him with his head on my lap. I never said a word. I can’t even recall telling him I was sorry. There was nothing you could say. We were both numb with anguish.”
The grief was not John’s alone. In one instant, four children had lost a mother, an estranged husband lost a wife, a man lost his partner, four women lost a loved sister, three nephews and a niece lost an aunt, and Liverpool lost one of its colorful characters. The fallout was widespread.
Julia’s two youngest daughters, Julia and Jacqui, weren’t at the funeral and for many months weren’t told their mum was dead or why they weren’t seeing her, nor did they carry on living with their father. For reasons that aren’t clear (but may be related to Bobby’s comment in the taxi, or the family’s knowledge of the accident’s wider cause), they were allowed to be made “wards of court” and raised by their Aunt Harrie and Uncle Norman at The Cottage. As a consequence of losing a mother they lost their father too, and were never really told why.
Because the law ruled there had to be an inquest, newspaper reports were inevitable, and in these the secret of Julia’s surname spilled out. The first mention in the Liverpool Weekly News called her Mrs. Juliette Dykins, aged 40, the second—correctly—Mrs. Julia Lennon, 44.
The authorities finally realized that the longtime occupants of the council house at field Road weren’t who they’d said they were, that the property had been obtained on the lie of a pretense marriage. Julia and Bobby Dykins were instantly exposed to one and all as having “lived in sin,” their two girls illegitimate in the eyes of the law and the morals of the day.
This could explain why Bobby was so quickly gone from the house. In the space of weeks, perhaps even days, he lost his car, his job, his wife, his children and his home. Strangely, though, his new home was better situated than Blomfield Road. 97 School Lane wasn’t on an estate but among trees, backing onto Woolton Golf Course and facing Woolton Woods, an ordinary council house but on a quiet and pleasant rural lane.
The fatal accident hardened, irrevocably, John Lennon’s view of the Establishment, and especially the police. Coming to believe the driver who killed his mother was “a drunk off-duty cop,” his respect for authority, and especially the law, crumbled and would only ever worsen. Where most people saw law and order, John would only see rank hypocrisy.
The driver, Eric Clague, was an off-duty cop. He was also a learner-driver and shouldn’t have been on the road unaccompanied, and was suspended from the force because of it. But he was never charged with being drunk, and alcohol wasn’t mentioned at the inquest. Though it’s possible it was suppressed, it’s also possible this cornerstone of John’s lasting grudge against the police was set in misinformation
Reprinted from The Beatles: All These Years: Tune In © 2013 by Mark Lewisohn. Published by Crown Archetype, a division of Penguin Random House, LLC