Penny Lane and the Slave Trader Debate - Rolling Stone
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The Windy History of Penny Lane: The Beatles, the Slave Trade and a Now-Resolved Controversy

Was Penny Lane named after a notorious slave trader? Recent protests reignited the debate

An original Penny Lane street sign, protected by perspex, is pictured on Penny Lane in Liverpool, north west England on June 12, 2020, after a wall and street signs were defaced with graffiti. - Road signs and a wall on Penny Lane, made famous by the The Beatles song of the same name, were defaced following speculation that the road had been named after the slave trader James Penny. Britain has seen days of protests sparked by the death in police custody of George Floyd, an unarmed black man, in the United States. (Photo by Oli SCARFF / AFP) (Photo by OLI SCARFF/AFP via Getty Images)

Was Penny Lane named after a notorious slave trader? The history of a Beatles landmark explained.

Oli Scarff/AFP/Getty Images

The signs for Liverpool’s Penny Lane are often decorated with graffiti: names, dates, well wishes to the Beatles who immortalized the street in their 1967 hit. This month, though, the scrawlings changed: the word “Penny” eviscerated with black paint and “racist” scrawled above the signs. An old theory linking the street to a notorious slave trader had resurfaced due to the protests surrounding the police killing of George Floyd — and a cadre of local historians discovered that their research was now thrust into the public eye.

“[Me and a group of historians] have been working on this since about 2010 together — if not slightly earlier individually,” tour guide and local historian Richard MacDonald tells Rolling Stone. “It’s been an academic debate, really. So it’s a bit of a surprise to us all, to be honest; we’re sort of taken aback. We’re not used to this larger media interest in the names of streets going back to this, you know, 17- and 1800s — it’s not the usual thing that makes the news.”

Following the graffiting of the signs, though, Liverpool’s Metro Mayor Steve Rotheram made international news after proclaiming the famed street name may be changed if there was evidence it was named after 1700s slave trader James Penny. “If it is as a direct consequence of that road being called Penny Lane because of James Penny, then that needs to be investigated,” Rotheram said. “Something needs to happen and I would say that sign and that road may well be in danger of being renamed.”

Enter MacDonald and other historians, who have been researching the area for more than 10 years and claim there is no connection between Penny Lane and the slave trade. According to the historian, the earliest mention of the lane was from the 1840s, when it was listed as Pennies Lane. In maps going back to the 1700s, it was merely an unnamed country road. Meanwhile, James Penny died in 1799 — plus, he already had a street named after him: Arrad Street, named for his birthplace in Ulverston, Cumbria.

“Penny Lane about that time would have been a fairly rural country lane,” MacDonald says. “So that struck me. It would be very off that a lane in the middle of the country would be named after somebody in the same way that prestigious streets in the town center would.”

Several streets in Liverpool are named for slave traders, however, which fueled the idea that the Beatles song namesake could have been connected to James Penny. In 2006, local counselor Barbara Mace called for all slavery-related street names in Liverpool to be changed. “My proposal is to rename several of the streets in the city center which are named after the more notorious slave traders and replace them with the names of people who have done something positive,” she told the BBC.

Pressure mounted to change Penny Lane’s name when Stephen Guy, a press officer for National Museums, Liverpool, suggested that it was named after the slave trader when discussing the upcoming opening of Liverpool’s International Slavery Museum. In a later press release he wrote: “I confess to helping to raise awareness about the sinister origins of perhaps Liverpool’s best-known thoroughfare. Penny Lane — immortalized by the Beatles’ song — is probably named after notorious slave trader James Penny. Like other byways named after people, Penny or his family either owned land in the area or had strong associations with it.” (Guy did not respond to Rolling Stone‘s request for comment.)

The reaction from Beatles fans and historians was decidedly negative — due both to the area’s significance to John, Paul, Ringo and George and also the dearth of evidence that the lane was associated with the slave trade. David Bedford, author of Liddypool: Birthplace of the Beatles and Liverpool resident, is quick to interject when the media discuss the possible link. Having done extensive research on the area and its famous former residents, he extolls the significance of Penny Lane.

“I started realizing the importance of the area; I’ve lived around Penny Lane for over 30 years now,” he tells Rolling Stone. “I realized this isn’t just a little song about a place that they Beatles remembered — when they say it’s in their ears, in their eyes, this was their childhood. Everything comes back to Penny Lane. Unless you come to the area and see it for yourself, you don’t get the full significance of it.”

In the end, no streets were renamed; instead, plaques explaining the history of their names were installed. The International Slavery Museum, however, did include Penny Lane in an exhibit of streets named after slave traders. That is, until last week, when interest in the street name boiled over once more, impelling to the museum to dig into its research. The results delighted Bedford — and no doubt Beatles fans the world over.

On June 19th, Executive Director of Museums & Participation Janet Dugdale posted a statement proclaiming that Penny Lane has no connection to the slave trade: “After speaking with Liverpool slavery historian Laurence Westgaph, Tony Tibbles, our Emeritus Keeper of Slavery History (also former Director of Merseyside Maritime Museum) and historian and blogger Glen Huntley, we have concluded that the comprehensive research available to us now demonstrates that there is no historical evidence linking Penny Lane to James Penny. We are therefore extending our original review and setting up a participative project to renew our interactive display.”

In short, the Penny Lane street sign will no longer be a part of the display. “I am delighted to hear that the International Slavery Museum has reviewed the historical research that has been carried out and confirmed what we had been saying, that there is no evidence to link James Penny with Penny Lane,” Bedford says. “This will be a relief to Beatles fans and the local tourism industry, but it also means that the Slavery Museum can continue with the excellent work they do to educate, inform and help us learn from history.”

Still, the newfound attention on Liverpool and its history has had a positive effect. “It’s still been a good debate to have,” says Mike Doran, communications manager for the Liverpool City Council. “Just today [June 19], the mayor to the city [Joe Anderson] announced a commission into racial inequality. We already had a task force looking into how the city would look into its slavery connections since January. [Penny Lane] has caused international and national interest because of the Beatles, but the debate that it’s stimulated has made people sit up and actually revisit what they did and what they didn’t know about Liverpool and its connections to the slave trade.”

Dugdale echoed that sentiment in her statement: “At National Museums Liverpool we welcome discussion and debate even when the conversation is uncomfortable. Engaging with public history gives us a strong sense of purpose. Being a safe place to reflect, review and respond is an important role for museums in society.”

As for why Penny Lane is called Penny Lane remains a mystery. “One of the major problems we’ve got is that it’s almost impossible to say exactly why it was named Penny Lane,” the historian MacDonald says. “It’s one of the things about history — quite often, when you go back that far, when you go back [200] or 300 years, you’re very unlikely to get solid answers to almost any question, because we just don’t have the records. And, you know, why would somebody record the name of a country lane?”

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