John and Fred Lennon: In Their Life

Over the last 38 years, I’ve heard John Lennon’s mate and noted Beatles author Bill Harry say many times, “Fred Lennon is the most maligned character in the entire Beatles story.” And I agree. Although John’s father Fred was an admitted rascal with a penchant for “wine, women, and song,” he sincerely loved his son and tried to do good things for him. However, almost nothing Fred attempted turned out as planned.

After young Alfred Lennon and Julia Stanley had dated for quite a few years, Julia teased Fred that he was “scared to put up the [marriage] banns.” With a twinkle in his eye, he retorted, “I’ll bet you I’ll do it tomorrow!” Three weeks later, the two were married at Liverpool’s Mount Pleasant Register Office (where John Lennon and Cynthia Powell would marry years later). It was all fun and games, getting married. In fact, that evening, the new Mr. and Mrs. went to a Mickey Rooney film and then returned to their family-of-origin homes to sleep.

Not long afterward, however, the happy-go-lucky twosome faced grim challenges as World War II swept over England. Fred, a merchant seaman, served on board a large transport ship taking soldiers to the war front. And although the crooner tried to make the best of things by performing hit songs such as “Begin the Beguine” in the mess hall after dinner, he lived under the constant threat of danger.

Back home, things were equally treacherous. Hitler’s bombs riddled Liverpool’s port, City Centre’s historic buildings, and the lives of Merseyside’s joyous Scousers. In these bleak conditions, Julia Lennon discovered she was expecting a baby.

On 9 October 1940, her child, John Winston Lennon, was born at the Oxford Street Lying-In Maternity Hospital. Julia was alone for the birth. And in the months to come, Julia continued to feel isolated, even though she and her son resided with Julia’s parents at 9 Newcastle Road. She wrote long missives to Fred about her loneliness – so, empathizing, her husband recommended that his “Julie girl” venture out to the pubs and enjoy a bit of fun. In The Ultimate Beatles Encyclopedia, Bill Harry states that Fred regretted giving his wife this advice “because she took him up on it – and he lost her.” Julia began making friends and seeing other men.

After a liaison with a Welsh soldier, Julia fell in love with a dashing waiter from Liverpool’s swish Adelphi Hotel named John Dykins – and Julia wrote to Fred, requesting a divorce. Fred, however, had always loved Julia and still did, so he asked her to be patient. He promised her that when the war was over, they would be a happy family. This was certainly not the response that Julia wanted, and despite Fred’s refusal and her parents’ protests, she moved in with Dykins anyway.

Young John Lennon’s new family – without his grandparents and with John Dykins – was disconcerting to the boy, and he began catching the bus “with the green leather seats” to visit his Aunt Mimi and Uncle George at 251 Menlove Avenue. Mimi Smith was an authoritarian, but she gave the boy his own familiar room with books and art supplies. George Toogood Smith was kind and loving, and he gave the boy his undivided attention.

Therefore, when World War II ended and Fred Lennon returned to Liverpool, he found his son living not with Julia but with Mimi and George Smith; Mimi promptly handed Fred a bill for John’s living expenses. Once acquainted with his son, Fred decided that the boy deserved to reside with his mother or father, not with an aunt and uncle. So, without asking Julia or Mimi and George, he took John to a friend’s home in Blackpool where John and he were planning to travel by ship to New Zealand. Fred and his friend, Billy Hall, decided to enter the black-market silk-stocking trade – a lucrative endeavor that would enable Fred to raise his little boy, with the assistance of Hall’s parents.

However, before Fred and John could set sail, John’s mother Julia showed up on Hall’s doorstep. John always stated that his parents put him in between the two of them and made him choose which parent he wanted. Later scholarship states that Fred and Julia discussed the situation and that Fred relented, deciding it was best that the boy live with his mother. Whatever the scenario, the outcome was identical: Fred lost the son he’d taught to whistle through his teeth, to roll up his “kecks” and wade along the ocean’s edge, and to sing Fred’s favorite song, “One Fine Day.” The dreams of father and son together instantly vanished.

Julia took four-and-a-half-year-old John back to Liverpool, but family politics mandated that the boy live not with his mother but with her “responsible and settled” older sister, Mimi and her husband, George. This decision was not explained to John, and to his mind, he was abandoned – left to be reared by an aunt and uncle. Sometime later, when John discovered that his mother lived quite close to Mimi’s house, he learned that she had two other children – his half-sisters Julia and Jackie. So, “sharp as a needle” John reasoned that it was not children that Julia didn’t want; it was him. An overwhelming feeling of inadequacy and rejection claimed him, and it directed the rest of his life.

Because that portion of John’s biography is so overarching, one tends to forget that John was also coping with the disappearance of his father. Although Fred regularly wrote letters to the child, Mimi made certain that John never saw a single missive. Indeed, she contacted Fred, informing him that if he continued to harass the child by sending letters that would “disrupt the boy’s happiness,” she would tell John about Fred’s dishonorable life. She argued that Fred’s behavior at sea had “severed any hopes [he] may have had of obtaining custody of the boy.” She wrote, “You have made an absolute shambles of your life and brought shame and scandal upon your family.” Mimi fully intended to use Fred’s maritime record against him.

To be fair, Fred had been in trouble at sea. During the war, Fred had been assigned to a ship leaving New York for England, but his post on that particular ship was a demotion. So, on the advice of a captain, he got drunk, missed the ship, and was arrested and imprisoned for a time on Ellis Island. When Fred was released, he was placed on a ship headed for North Africa. But when caught with a bottle of vodka given to him by one of the cooks, he was accused of having stolen it, and he spent the next three months under military arrest.

Though far from perfect, Fred would willingly have been a part of his son’s life. In fact, Mimi (who did not have custody of her nephew) was terrified that Fred would appear at any moment and take John away. Realizing that legally there would be nothing that she could do about this, Mimi alternately threatened Fred to leave John alone and implored him to let the child be happy. Having both a prison record and a good heart, the abashed Fred Lennon did exactly as instructed.

In 1964, when Fred left seafaring life, he returned home to England and found employment as a hotel porter. Because he resembled John Lennon – the famous Beatle with whom he shared a last name – the cook at one hotel accused Fred of being the young man’s father. Fred vehemently denied it. To avoid detection, Fred quit the job and moved on. But a reporter from the Daily Express was somehow given the scoop, and without Fred’s permission, he reported it. Soon, another reporter from the Daily Sketch approached Fred saying he knew that Fred was John Lennon’s father, and he planned an exposé. Seeing an inevitable outcome and not wanting to humiliate John, Fred asked permission to contact his son first – to alert the young man before any story was released.

Fred called Beatles manager Brian Epstein and explained the situation to him, and on 1 April 1964, Brian summoned John to a meeting at the NEMS offices in Sutherland House, London. When John arrived, Epstein confided that a man whom he sincerely believed to be John’s father was waiting in Brian’s office. John – convinced that Fred Lennon had heartlessly discarded him years ago – responded that he had absolutely no interest in speaking with the man. But as John’s manager, Epstein advised the boy to talk face-to-face with the senior Lennon before an exaggerated tale emerged in the press.

That afternoon, John and his father spent 20 minutes talking in private. Fred explained where he had been and why. He told his son about the many letters he’d sent and about Mimi’s insistence that Fred stop disturbing John’s newfound happiness. At first, John refused to shake Fred’s hand and was totally unresponsive. But as the very logical story of Mimi’s intervention unfolded, father and son began to connect. Fred explained that since his return to England, he had moved from one job to another, doing his best to escape notice by the press. Most recently, he’d left a good job in Caterham when he was discovered and now, he worked in Bognor Regis. But no matter where Fred tried to hide, the press found and hounded him.

When 20 minutes later Brian intervened to remind John of an upcoming interview with Australian Bernice Lumb, John was reluctant to say goodbye. He asked Fred to stay in touch; he asked him to leave his address at the NEMS reception desk. And afterward, during the lengthy Australian interview, John (who could never hide his moods) was happy, witty, and upbeat. The following day, John called his lifelong mate Pete Shotton and cheerfully reported that he had reconnected with his father: “He’s good news! A real funny guy – a loony just like me.”

Of course, that first meeting with Fred Lennon was not the turning of the tide. John couldn’t forgive years of silence after a single 20-minute reunion. He remained aloof. So, months later, Fred – hoping to build upon that initial conversation and wanting to meet his daughter-in-law and his grandson – turned up at Kenwood. Cynthia Lennon invited her father-in-law to stay, and during this three-day visit with his son and family, he was alternately welcomed, shunned, adored, and resented. Freighted with a lifetime of paternal silence that had wounded him more than he could understand or articulate, John floundered in this new relationship with his father.

For the rest of Fred Lennon’s life, the two men struggled to find footing. When Fred – a lifelong songster – recorded an autobiographical record, “That’s My Life (My Love and My Home),” John felt that the man was piggybacking off his success and was livid. When 56-year-old Fred married 19-year-old Pauline Jones – an Exeter University student who (as a favor to Fred) worked as a part-time nanny for Julian – John was humiliated and disgusted. Amidst a life’s storehouse of embarrassment, loneliness, and bitterness, John had seasons of welcoming his wayward father back and then pushing him away again.

In 1971, after John’s “Primal Scream Therapy” with Arthur Janov, he became more forgiving of Fred’s complex role in his life. Gradually, John began to admit that both of his parents had – for very complicated reasons – been responsible for his unhappy childhood. So, in 1976, when Fred was diagnosed with terminal stomach cancer, John sent flowers to the hospital and called Fred from New York to apologize for his past behavior as a way to set things right.

After Fred’s death, Pauline sent John the manuscript of an autobiography that his father had been writing, accompanied by a touching final letter to his son. Pauline states that as John read the unedited pages, he came to know “a man with a hatred of convention and establishment values, just like himself,” a man “with a deep sensitivity which he attempted to conceal, as John did, behind a sharp tongue and a sharp wit.” Perhaps this revelation inspired John to continue a journal he’d been writing for Julian since 1975, addressing his own absences both during the Beatle years and following his divorce from Cynthia. Perhaps reading Fred Lennon’s story, John noted the similarities that prompted him to rethink both father-son relationships. Indeed, he confided to Yoko, “You know, all [Fred] wanted was for me to hear his side of the story, which I hadn’t heard.” In the years that followed, perhaps John began to realize that with fathers, there is as much to understand as there is to forgive. Living, after all, is only easy with eyes closed.

The full story of that 1964 meeting between Fred Lennon and his son can be found in the “Sample Chapter” from Vol. 4, Should Have Known Better on The John Lennon Series website. Here is a link to that chapter, the sources, and the endnotes that fully explain the events of the day.

-Jude Southerland Kessler

Photo: Freddie Lennon, 1966 (Ron Kroon for Anefo via Wikimedia Commons)

Jude Southerland Kessler is the leading expert on the life of John Lennon and the author of The John Lennon Series, a projected 9-volume expanded biography taking readers chronologically through John’s life. The first five volumes are out in print, plus a new audiobook version of "She Loves You" (Vol. 3). With a personal Lennon library of over 300 books, Kessler undertook seven trips to Liverpool, England to interview John Lennon’s childhood friends, early band members, art college mates, and business associates before embarking on writing the series, which is told in a narrative format and heavily documented. You can learn more about Jude's work at

5 comments on “John and Fred Lennon: In Their Life

  1. Really fine stuff, Jude. It often seems that John was equal parts anger and love.

    Not too radically different from so many of us.

  2. Steven Valvano

    Great detailed piece Jude… one of many from your impressive stable!

    • Dave Bartholome

      Well, this article was way better than I expected, given the low quality of so much web-based Beatles’ journalism. Well-written and genuinely moving.

  3. I have a copy of the Fred Lennon 45 record. It’s rather mawkish.

  4. Scott M.

    Great article shedding light on a much maligned story of their relationship.

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