Slavery Museum Concludes No Link Between Beatles Inspiration ‘Penny Lane’ + Slave Trader
Earlier this month, Liverpool's Penny Lane, which inspired the Beatles song of the same name, was vandalized with the perpetrators suggesting that the landmark had ties to 18th century slave trader James Penny. That prompted the city to request an investigation into the street's naming origin. Liverpool's International Slavery Museum has now concluded that there is no connection between Penny Lane and the aforementioned James Penny.
After the street signs were graffiti'd, Liverpool Metro Mayor Steve Rotheram suggested that if there were evidence of a tie to slavery, then the historic landmark could be in consideration to be renamed. Soon after, historian Richard MacDonald and a group of historians investigated further the origins of Penny Lane.
The earliest mention of the lane was from the 1840s, when it was known as Pennies Lane. In maps dating back to the 1700s, it was only listed as an unnamed country road. The slave trader James Penny died in 1799, but already had a street named after him with the citizens bestowing the name Arrad Street to mark his birthplace in Ulverston, Cumbria.
MacDonald says that Penny Lane would have been a fairly rural country lane at the time, so it seems out of character that a lane in the middle of the country would be named after someone the way prestigious streets in town often were.
“[Me and a group of historians] have been working on this since about 2010 together — if not slightly earlier individually,” local historian Richard MacDonald told 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.”
David Bedford, author of "Liddypool: Birthplace of the Beatles," told Rolling Stone that he had also done extensive research on the area. “I started realizing the importance of the area; I’ve lived around Penny Lane for over 30 years now. 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.”
The International Slavery Museum, which had included Penny Lane in an exhibit, has since issued a statement proclaiming there are no ties between Penny Lane and James Penny. They also are removing Penny Lane from their display. The organization spoke with multiple slavery historians and "have concluded that the comprehensive research available to us now demonstrates that there is no historical evidence linking Penny Lane to James Penny."
“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,” said Bedford after learning of the findings.
Meanwhile, the actual origin of the name "Penny Lane" still remains a bit of 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,” MacDonald stated. “It’s one of the things about history — quite often, when you go back that far, when you go back  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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