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Alfred 'Freddie' Lennon, father of Beatle John Lennon, had an almost outrageously unbelievable life. In many biographies he has been perhaps unfairly accused of deserting his son. It is true that he did not spend much time with his son during his early childhood. As John was born in 1940, during the Second World War, National Service prevented Freddie from being with his son during his formative years. This was something John never forgave his father for.
Freddie was born in 1912, the fourth of five surviving sons and one daughter of John 'Jack' and his second wife, Mary 'Polly' Lennon. He suffered badly from rickets1 as a child, which prevented his legs from fully growing, resulting in his being much shorter than the rest of his family. When his father died in 1919 his mother, unable to look after all her children, gave Freddie, only seven, and his younger sister Edith to the Bluecoat Orphanage. Freddie hated the orphanage and when he was 14 he ran away and successfully auditioned to join Will Murray's musical show. Although he travelled to Glasgow with them, he was found and returned.
Marriage to Julia Stanley
Freddie met middle-class Julia Stanley shortly after he left the orphanage, when he was 15, in Sefton Park. In March 1930 Freddie was employed by Cunard on the SS Montrose, the first of many ships he would work on as a steward. On his voyages he frequently entertained passengers and crew with his singing and comedy act. On each voyage he would write letters to Julia, who never replied. Despite this, they married on 3 December, 1938 at the Mount Pleasant Registry Office2. They did not tell their families, except Freddie's older brother Sydney, who was his witness. Shortly after the wedding Freddie was called away to sea. On his return he was informed that his father-in-law, George Stanley, had offered to share his two-bedroom house with the happy couple.
During the Second World War, Freddie served in the Merchant Navy. Between 1940 and 1944, he only spent three months in Liverpool due to his compulsory war duties. Freddie left in August 1940 on board the Empress of Canada and was in New York when his son, John, was born on 9 October, 1940. Freddie claimed that he chose the name John after his father, although John's Aunt Mary, known as Mimi, would always insist that she chose the name John.
In New York, Freddie was promised a promotion to Chief Steward and a position on board one of the new Liberty ships due to sail back to England. Due to a mix-up, Freddie was instead assigned to the Berengaria, a ship due to sail to the Middle East. Anxious to return to his wife, he deliberately missed this boat, hoping to catch the next ship sailing back to England. Instead he was charged with desertion, taken into custody by immigration officers and interned on Ellis Island and his wages were stopped. This caused Julia great financial problems. Freddie was then forced to sail on the next available ship, the Sammex which was heading to the Far East. On the voyage, other crewmembers on board were involved in cigarette and alcohol smuggling, and in North Africa a bottle of whiskey was found in his cabin. Freddie, along with several other members of the crew, were sentenced to three-months in prison, accused of 'stealing by finding'. By the time he was cleared, he had served all but nine days of this sentence. Freddie finally returned to Liverpool 18 months after he left.
Meanwhile, Julia's childless older sister Mimi had arranged for Julia and John to live in their own cottage, one that Mimi's husband George Smith owned. Mimi did this so that her favourite nephew, John, would be closer to her. However, this meant that Julia, instead of living with her parents, was unsupervised and had the freedom to do as she wanted. When Freddie returned to Liverpool he discovered that Julia had become an alcoholic in his absence, addicted to pub life and the company of men. After another compulsory 18-month trip away, he returned after the war to find that their house now had lodgers in; Julia had not told Freddie she had moved house. Not only that, she was also pregnant.
With her husband away at sea, Julia had been lonely and had befriended Taffy Williams, a soldier she met at her local pub. Although at first she told Freddie that she had been raped, Freddie managed to find out that Williams was the father and that he had asked Julia to marry him. Julia finally confessed to Freddie that she had been having an affair. During the fracas Julia's father, learning his daughter was pregnant, forced her to give up the child, threatening Julia with homelessness. Both Freddie and Julia's sister Mimi had wished to raise the child as if it was their own. When Julia's daughter Victoria Elizabeth was born at a Salvation Army hostel on 19 June, 1945, while Freddie was away on his next compulsory voyage on board the Dominion Monarch, Julia's father George Stanley gave Victoria Elizabeth to be adopted by a Norwegian captain, never to be seen again by her blood family.
Battle for John
When Freddie next returned to England in March 1946, he discovered that Julia had moved in with yet another man, John 'Bobby' Dykins3. Freddie threw Bobby out of the house, but Julia left also, taking John with her to Bobby's one-bedroom flat. Two weeks later Freddie was again called up, this time to sail on the Queen Mary, but would return within the month.
While he was at sea, John ran away from home to his Aunt Mimi's house. Mimi then declared that Julia was an unfit mother who should give John to her to raise. When Julia refused, Mimi contacted Social Services, who on their second inspection discovered that John was sharing the only bed in the place with Julia and her lover Bobby. In the end it was arranged that John would live with Mimi, although it is believed that John spent up to nine months living with Freddie's older brother Sydney Lennon and his wife Madge, who hoped to adopt John.
When Freddie returned he took John on a holiday to Blackpool, staying with the Hall family. The Halls planned to emigrate to New Zealand and asked Freddie to come too. Freddie asked John if he wished to emigrate with him. Julia and Mimi tracked Freddie down on 22 June, 1946. Freddie begged Julia to leave Bobby and return to a normal married life, but she refused. Unable to agree who should look after their son, the five-year-old John was asked to choose who he wanted to spend the rest of his life with. Initially John said his father, but when his mother ran off in tears, he ran after her.
Freddie left for Southampton without John, but did not travel to New Zealand. He realised that if he left England for good, he would never see his wife and son again. As Julia had not asked for a divorce, he clung to the belief that the family would get back together. Freddie signed up on board the Almanzora from 29 June, 1946 to 13 December, 1947, taking several voyages all around the world with no opportunity to return to Liverpool. What Freddie did not know was that instead of raising their son herself, Julia immediately gave John to be brought up by her sister Mimi. Sydney never forgave Freddie for promising to give him John, but instead letting Mimi raise his nephew.
In January 1948 Freddie sailed on the latest Royal Mail Line ship, the Andes. In the summer, the ship called in to Buenos Aires. When on shore leave, Freddie was almost mistakenly executed for murder in Argentina. His identity card, which read 'Next Of Kin: John Lennon – signed A Lennon', was confused by local authorities with John Alennon, a notorious Argentinean murderer. He was held without food or drink for three days. Fortunately the situation was explained the day before he was due to be executed.
In December 1949 Freddie returned to England and planned on heading to Liverpool to be reunited with his wife and son. Entering London, he and other sailors became drunk. Under the influence he spotted a mannequin in a shop window that, in his state of mind, reminded him of the wife he hadn't seen for three years. He broke the window and danced in the streets with the mannequin, only to be detained by a passing policeman. Although a first offence, he was sentenced to six months in prison, where he was allowed one sheet of paper to write a letter. He wrote to Mimi asking her advice. She replied,
You must resign yourself to the fact that you have now completely severed any hopes you may have had of obtaining custody of the boy. You have made an absolute shambles of your life and have brought shame and scandal upon your family. If you have a shred of decency left I advise you to go to New Zealand alone and put your past life behind you. Surely you don't want your son to know you've been in gaol?
Freddie's terrible act against society meant that, with a prison record, he was unable to find shipboard employment. Returning to Liverpool, he learnt that his mother had died4. Freddie spent the 1950s drifting from lowly job to lowly job, usually as a kitchen porter, trying to earn enough to stay alive.
Freddie did not hear of Julia's death in July 1958 until after the funeral. As Julia's next of kin, her lawyers informed him he was entitled to Julia's possessions, but he insisted that John should inherit. He stayed out of John's life at the continued request of John's Aunt Mimi.
Reunion with John
After the Beatles became famous, John's aunt Mimi was often asked by reporters about John's childhood. In these interviews she took great care to prevent any hint of a scandal from blotting her sister's name. She invariably presented herself as the saintly mother figure who cared for John after his mother's tragic death and Freddie as the evil, uncaring deserting father.
Cleaning kitchens, far removed from the glamour of show business, Freddie remained unaware that the Beatles had any connection with his son until early 1964, when he asked his younger brother Charlie if he knew what his son was doing. Charlie not only confirmed that the famous John Lennon of the Beatles was his son, but also insisted that Freddie should defend himself. When Freddie Lennon read newspaper articles that stated he had abandoned John as a child, he felt hurt that the truth was being distorted. Freddie contacted a newspaper, the Daily Sketch to request a chance to meet up with his son John again to ensure that he knew the truth. These events are dramatised in the film Lennon Naked.
Brian Epstein agreed to the meeting, which took place on the set of A Hard Day's Night. Freddie first met Brian, then was shown to a room containing all four Beatles, before Paul McCartney, George Harrison and Ringo Starr left, allowing John to spend time with his father alone. John was wary of Freddie, asking him what he wanted, to which Freddie replied he wanted nothing other than a chance to say that the papers weren't telling him the truth about what had happened when he was young. After ten minutes the meeting was over, and although John later told his friend Pete Shotton that he liked his father, after years of being told he had been abandoned as a baby, John was not prepared to trust him.
Top of the Pops?
After meeting John, Freddie was bombarded by reporters. The more he tried to avoid the press, the more derogatory the stories they printed about him became. Frustrated, he decided to sell his life story to Tit-Bits magazine, feeling it was the only way the truth would be told.
Shortly after the interview in early 1965, he was working in a hotel in Shepperton, not only in the kitchens but also providing entertainment. While there he met singer Tom Jones and Tony Cartwright, Tom's road manager, who were staying at the hotel. Cartwright, impressed with what he heard, persuaded Freddie into making a record, to be released by Pye Records.
Taking advantage of the Lennon name and inspired by the success of the Beatles song 'In My Life', Freddie's song was entitled 'That's My Life (My Love And My Home)', an autobiographical tale of his life.
It started in Liverpool
Where I was born
No father to advise me
But I carried on
The first time I saw the sea
I just knew this had to be
That's my life
That's my love
And my home.
With an old Vera Lynn number, 'The Next Time You Feel Important', as the B-Side, Freddie first performed the song live in Amsterdam in Dutch. This was a language he knew only a few basic phrases in from his travels, but he memorised the words before his performance. On release in the UK, it entered the charts at number 37. Then, without explanation, all copies of it were removed from sale and its airplay banned. A secretary initially contacted Freddie to say that Brian Epstein, the Beatles' manager, had blocked and withdrawn the record, wishing to protect the Beatles' name. When he tried to contact the secretary again, she had been promoted and sent to Los Angeles.
Tony Cartwright advised Freddie to see if John would be able to help get his record released. Freddie and Tony turned up unannounced at John's house at 11pm. John did not appreciate being disturbed at such a late hour without warning, refused to see him and slammed the door in his face. He felt that his father, who he had not seen for a year, had been exploiting his family name and taking advantage of him. John, though, had bought a copy and was proud that his father had talent. John's son Julian reportedly frequently asked his mother to 'play granddad's song'.
Life with the Lennons
Freddie Lennon, his music career over, returned to his familiar life of a kitchen porter and barman. At the Toby Jug Hotel in Tolworth he met Pauline Jones, a student at Exeter University who was working over Christmas and New Year 1966-7 to finance her studies. When Pauline returned at Easter, Freddie asked her to marry him, despite the 35-year age gap.
In the summer of 1967, Freddie's loyal brother Charlie learnt that John had slammed the door in his father's face. Charlie, furious, wrote a stern letter to John, urging him not to listen to lies about his father and learn the truth face-to-face. At the same time, Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, the leader of the Transcendental Meditation movement, was urging John to embrace peace, love and forgiveness.
A month later, John sent his chauffeur to bring Freddie to Kenwood, his house where he lived with his wife Cynthia and son Julian. John told Freddie to forget the past and asked him to move into Kenwood's attic suite. Freddie eagerly agreed; John, however, was usually out all day every day, very rarely at home. Freddie felt trapped in Kenwood, an often-empty manor with an oppressive atmosphere, and asked if he could move to somewhere nearby.
When John and Cynthia learnt of Freddie's relationship with Pauline, Cynthia decided to employ Pauline as a live-in nanny, mother's help and secretary. This would enable Cynthia to go out at short notice and have a guaranteed babysitter for Julian. Pauline replaced Freddie in the attic suite while Freddie moved to a nearby flat at Kew, with a £10 a week allowance from John. Pauline, too, found life at Kenwood difficult and soon moved into Freddie's flat.
Front Page News
Pauline's mother Jean did not approve of Freddie or their relationship and when Pauline became pregnant before her 20th birthday, she applied to make Pauline a ward of court. If successful, Freddie would be imprisoned if he saw Pauline again. The press attention and stress that this created resulted in Pauline suffering a miscarriage. John paid for a lawyer to represent Freddie and Pauline, and the judge ruled that the relationship could continue, but that Freddie and Pauline were not to marry before Pauline's 21st birthday. This story made the front page of the Daily Mirror and they were bombarded by the press.
Wishing to move out of the public eye, Freddie and Pauline moved into a one-bedroom flat in Brighton, which John paid for. In June 1968, Pauline became pregnant again, and John paid for them to elope to Scotland5 and stay in Edinburgh for the required three weeks before the wedding. He also bought them a larger house in Brighton, although he retained the deeds himself.
However, once Freddie and Pauline's son David Henry was born in February 1969, John broke off all contact with his father.
Last Meeting between John and Freddie
The last meeting between John and his father took place on 9 October, 1970, John's 30th birthday. By now, John had divorced Cynthia and was married to Yoko Ono. Freddie, his wife and son were invited to John and Yoko's house, Tittenhurst Park. John had recently been undergoing Primal Scream Therapy, based on the theory that neuroses are caused by the lack of parental love between the ages of five and seven. Dr Arthur Janov, who had developed the theory and was undergoing sessions with both John and Yoko, advocated that the way for John to cure his neuroses was to exorcise the ghosts caused by his lack of parental love by symbolically screaming at his parents. While he was undergoing this therapy, John composed the Plastic Ono Band album in September. This included the song 'Mother' about his feeling abandoned by both of his parents.
Slightly misinterpreting Primal Scream Therapy's symbolic screaming technique, John decided to invite his father around not only to scream at him, but also to threaten to murder him6. With Yoko's encouragement, these threats were made in front of his crying baby half-brother. John then informed his father that the house in Brighton was still owned by him, and that Freddie and Pauline had to leave it immediately. Pauline, Freddie and baby David were forced to move house.
This was the only time John met his half-brother David, and he never met Freddie and Pauline's second son Robin, who was born in October 1973.
With his experience working in kitchens and his regret in not being there to raise John, Freddie decided to be a stay-at-home father and raise the two young children he had with Pauline. Freddie began work on writing his autobiography, wanting all three of his sons to know his side of his story, although he could not find an interested publisher in his lifetime.
Soon after this, Freddie developed stomach cancer. When Pauline realised that it was terminal in March 1976, she contacted the Beatles' company Apple Corps saying that John's father was ill and was having an operation, but she deliberately withheld the fact that Freddie was dying. Apple informed John, who had a long telephone conversation with Freddie, burying the hatchet. John also sent his father a large bunch of flowers inscribed with the note,
To Dad - Get well soon - with much love from John, Yoko and Sean.
John did not visit Freddie in hospital, however. At the time he was unaware that Freddie's condition was serious. John was also worried that if he left America, he would not be allowed to return. Freddie died soon after, on 1 April, 1976. Although John offered to pay for the funeral, Pauline refused to accept the money.
John described his relationship with his father with the words:
I never knew my father. I saw him twice in my life till I was twenty-two, when he turned up after I'd had a few hit records. I saw him and spoke to him and decided I still didn't want to know him.
He turned up after I was famous, which I wasn't very pleased about. He knew where I was all my life – I'd lived in the same house in the same place for most of my childhood, and he knew where. I thought it was a bit suspicious, but I gave him the benefit of the doubt after he'd put a lot of pressure on me in the press. I opened up the paper – the front-page news is 'John's Dad is washing dishes, why isn't John looking after him?' I said, 'Because he never looked after me.' So I looked after him for the same period he'd looked after me, about four years.
I started supporting him, then I went to therapy and re-remembered how furious I was in the depths of my soul about being left as a child... So I came out of the therapy and told him to get the hell out, and I wish I hadn't... He died a few years later of cancer.
Freddie's wife Pauline used Freddie's unfinished autobiography as the basis for her book Daddy, Come Home - The True Story of John Lennon and his Father, published in 1991. The title was inspired by the lyrics to the John Lennon song 'Mother', composed shortly before John and Freddie's last meeting,
Father you left me
But I never left you
Oh I needed you
But you didn't need me.
So I just got to tell you
Goodbye – Goodbye
Mama don't go
Daddy come home.
Freddie Lennon has appeared in two Beatles Biopics. In Nowhere Boy he appears briefly in flashback sequences. He had a greater role in Lennon Naked, a film that was part of BBC 4's Fatherhood Season, where he is played by Christopher Fairbank.