Mary Elizabeth “Mimi” Smith (née Stanley; 24 April 1906 – 6 December 1991) was the maternal aunt and parental guardian of the English musician, John Lennon. Mimi Stanley was born in Liverpool, England; the oldest of five daughters. She became a resident trainee nurse at the Woolton Convalescent Hospital, and later worked as a private secretary. On 15 September 1939, she married George Smith, who ran his family’s dairy farm and a shop in Woolton, a suburb of Liverpool.
After her younger sister, Julia Lennon, separated from her husband, she and her son (Lennon), moved in with a new partner, but Mimi contacted Liverpool’s Social Services and complained about him sleeping in the same bed as the two adults. Julia was eventually persuaded to hand the care of Lennon over to the Smiths. Lennon lived with the Smiths for most of his childhood, and remained close to his aunt, even though she was highly dismissive of his musical ambitions, his girlfriends, and wives.
She often told the teenage Lennon: “The guitar’s all right John, but you’ll never make a living out of it”. In 1965, Lennon bought her a bungalow in Poole, Dorset, where she lived until her death in 1991. Despite later losing touch with other family members, Lennon kept in close contact and telephoned her every week, until his death in 1980. The Smiths’ house in Liverpool was later donated to The National Trust.
According to Lennon, the Stanley family once owned the whole of Woolton village. Mimi’s father, George Stanley, was born in the Everton district of Liverpool in 1874, and became a sailor. Her mother, Annie Jane Millward, was born in Chester around 1875, to Welsh parents. Annie’s first two children, a boy and a girl, died shortly after birth, and she had five additional children: Mary, known as ‘Mimi’ (1906 to 1991); Elizabeth ‘Mater’ (1908 to 1976); Anne ‘Nanny’ (1911–1988); Julia ‘Judy’ (1914–1958); and Harriet ‘Harrie’ (1916–1972).
After the birth of his daughters, Stanley retired from sailing and found a job with the Liverpool and Glasgow Tug Salvage Company as an insurance investigator. He moved his family to the Liverpool suburb of Allerton, where they lived in a small terraced house at 9 Newcastle Road. According to Beatles biographer Bob Spitz, Mimi assumed a matriarchal role in the Stanley house to help her mother, and dressed “as if she was on her way to a weekly garden club meeting”. Friends of Lennon later stated that his aunt based everything on decorum, honesty, and a black-and-white attitude: “Either you were good enough or you were not.” Lennon’s school friend, Pete Shotton, later commented that she “had a very strong sense of what was right or wrong”. Annie Stanley died in 1945, so Mimi accepted the responsibility of caring for her father, with help from her younger sister, Julia.
When other girls were thinking of marriage, Mimi talked of challenges and adventures that arose from her attitude of “stubborn independence”, and often said that she never wanted to get married because she hated the idea of being “tied to the kitchen sink”. She became a resident trainee nurse at the Woolton Convalescent Hospital, and later worked as a private secretary for Ernest Vickers, who was an industrial magnate with businesses in Manchester and Liverpool. She had long-term plans to buy a house in a “respected suburb” of Liverpool one day so that she could entertain the “scholars and dignitaries of Liverpool society”.
Mimi and Smith were finally married on 15 September 1939. They bought a semi-detached house called Mendips—named after the range of hills—at 251 Menlove Avenue, in a middle class area of Liverpool. Menlove Avenue suffered extensive damage during World War II, and she said that she often had to throw a wet blanket on incendiary bombs that fell in the garden. During the war the government took over the Smiths’ farmland for war work, and Smith was called up for service, but was discharged three years later, working in an aircraft factory in Speke until the end of the war. Smith later left the milk trade and started a small bookmaker’s business, which led Mimi to complain later that he was a compulsive gambler, and had lost most of their money.
Julia Stanley married Alfred (“Alf” or “Fred”) Lennon on 3 December 1938, and on 9 October 1940, the couple’s first and only child was born. Mimi phoned the Oxford Street Maternity Hospital that evening and was told that Julia had given birth to a boy. According to Mimi, she went straight to the hospital during the middle of an air raid, and was forced to hide in doorways to avoid the shrapnel. She ran, as she later recalled, “as fast as my legs could carry me”. When a parachute-borne landmine fell outside the hospital, she later said, “My sister [Julia] stayed in bed, and they put the baby [Lennon] under the bed. They wanted me to go into the basement, but I wouldn’t. I ran all the way back to Newcastle Road to tell father [Stanley] the news. ‘Get under the shelter,’ the wardens were shouting. ‘Oh, be quiet,’ I told them.” The story about the air-raid has since been repudiated, as there was no attack that night. The previous raid had been on 21–22 September, and the next was on 16 October, when the areas of Walton and Everton were badly hit.
After Julia separated from her husband, she and the infant Lennon moved in with her new partner, John Albert “Bobby” Dykins, but Mimi twice contacted Liverpool’s Social Services and complained about Lennon sleeping in the same bed as Julia and Dykins. Julia was eventually persuaded to hand the care of Lennon over to the Smiths, who had no children of their own. Mimi later confided to a relative that although she had never wanted children, she had “always wanted John”. In July 1946, Alf Lennon visited the Smiths and took Lennon to Blackpool, ostensibly for a long holiday, but with the secret intention of emigrating to New Zealand with him. Julia went to Blackpool and took Lennon back to her house, but a few weeks later she handed him back over to Mimi. Lennon then lived continuously at Mendips, in the smallest bedroom above the front door. Although she was a caring guardian, she was also known for being very strict, compared to the more relaxed influence of her husband and Lennon’s mother. Family friends described Mimi as stubborn, impatient, and unforgiving, but also said that she had a strong sense of humour. On many occasions when she criticised Lennon, he would respond with a joke, and the two of them would be “rolling around, laughing together”.
Mimi bought volumes of short stories for Lennon, and her husband taught Lennon to read at the age of five by reading aloud the headlines of the Liverpool Echo. Every summer, from the age of nine until he was fifteen, she sent Lennon alone on a ten-hour bus journey to visit his Aunt Mater and cousin Stanley Parkes at their home near Loch Meadie in Durness, Scotland. Mimi also took her charge to a garden party in Calderstones Park every year, where a Salvation Army band played. She remembered Lennon pulling her by the hand to get there, saying, “Hurry up Mimi – we’re going to be late”. Strawberry Field, in Beaconsfield Road, was the name of a Salvation Army house that Lennon would later immortalise in the Beatles‘ song, “Strawberry Fields Forever“. She would later say: “John loved his uncle George [Smith]. I felt quite left out of that. They’d go off together, just leaving me a bar of chocolate and a note saying, ‘Have a happy day'”.
Smith died of a liver haemorrhage in June 1953, at the age of fifty, leaving £2000 in his will. The Smiths had rented their two first-floor bedrooms to students for extra income since 1947, while the Smiths slept in the former dining room; on the ground floor, at the back of the house. Some of the students who lodged there included John Cavill (from September 1949 until June 1950). Cavill played piano, but as the house had none he bought a guitar; admitting he knew almost nothing about chords: “My father had a violin and I had learned to play pizzicato on it, so when I got the guitar I played tunes on the strings, and John [Lennon] did the same”. Michael Fishwick also lodged there (from October 1951 until December 1958), as did Keith Capron (September 1956 to July 1959). Both Capron and Cavill were studying veterinary science at the University of Liverpool, with Fishwick studying biochemistry.
Five years after Smith’s death, Lennon’s mother was killed on Menlove Avenue—shortly after a visit to Mendips—when she was knocked down by a car driven by a drunk, off-duty police officer; PC Eric Clague. Mimi did not witness the accident, but shortly after was seen crying hysterically over Julia’s body until the ambulance arrived. Clague was acquitted of all charges, given a reprimand, and a short suspension from duty. When Mimi heard the verdict she shouted “Murderer!” at Clague.
After Lennon became famous, she berated him for speaking in a Liverpudlian accent, but Lennon replied: “That’s showbusiness, they want me to speak more Liverpool”. Despite the talk of Lennon being working class—as were Paul McCartney, George Harrison and Ringo Starr—he later refuted the idea by saying, “I was a nice clean-cut suburban boy, and in the class system I was about a half an inch in a higher class than Paul, George and Ringo, who lived in subsidised government houses. We owned our own house, had our own garden. They didn’t have anything like that”.
Although Mimi later claimed that she had bought Lennon’s first guitar, it was actually his mother, after Lennon had pestered her incessantly for weeks. Julia insisted that the £5 instrument had to be delivered to her house and not to her sister’s. The two sisters first saw Lennon perform with the Quarrymen at the Woolton St. Peter’s Church fête on the afternoon of 6 July 1957.Julia (who knew that her son would be performing) heard music coming from the field behind the church (now the site of the Bishop Martin School), and pulled Mimi along with her to listen. Lennon saw his aunt coming through the crowd and comically changed the words of a song to feature her name: “Oh-oh, here comes Mimi down the aisle now…” Mimi related two versions of what she thought that day after seeing Lennon on stage: “I was horrified to behold John in front of a microphone”, and “as pleased as Punch to see him up there”.
With help from Mimi and Lennon’s headmaster, Lennon was accepted into the Liverpool College of Art because his aunt insisted that he should have some sort of academic qualifications, even though Lennon was beginning to show an interest in music. She opposed the idea of him forming a band and disapproved of McCartney because he was, “working class”, calling him “John’s little friend”. When she later met Harrison, she “hated him” because of his thick Liverpudlian accent and Teddy Boy clothes. Lennon and McCartney often met at Mendips to write songs, and rehearsed in the glass-panelled porch at the front of the house, which was the only place they were allowed to play. She once asked Parkes to take her to The Cavern to see Lennon and the Beatles play, but when she descended into the damp, dark cellar; full of screaming teenagers, she shouted to Parkes, “Get him [Lennon] out, get him out! Tell him to come off the stage! He can’t stay here…. We’ll have to stop this!” The band’s first residency in Hamburg exasperated her because she wanted Lennon to continue his studies, but he placated her by greatly exaggerating the sum of money he would earn.
She hoped Lennon would become bored with music; often saying, “The guitar’s all right John, but you’ll never make a living out of it”. In later years, Lennon would jokingly remind her of the comment, and later had a silver plaque made engraved with her words. When later asked about the plaque, she would say that Lennon had it made for her husband, and not her.
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