Which Beatle had the most difficult childhood?
Not the ‘working class hero’ or the council house boys.
All four Beatles had what Mark Lewisohn calls ‘unvarnished working class roots’ in an industrial city that had seen better days. Liverpool was heavily bombed during the war and its docks long in decline. The rationing of food and clothing (until 1954) added to a general austerity. There was plenty of manual work around but it was not well paid. Housing was similarly limited — the national shortage was particularly acute in in the city.
When they first met John Lennon, John and Paul both lived in council houses (social housing). Neither considered themselves to be poor, but they conscious of a social divide between their households and that of their new friend and band leader.
John lived in a large semi-detached house in a prosperous suburb. His house even had a name Mendips and had been built (in the 1930s) with room for servants. This had never been a plausible prospect and (Aunt) Mimi Smith and her husband George never had such grand aspirations. They wanted millions across the post war western world aspired to: a nice house in a nice neighbourhood with a bathroom, garden and front drive.
Of course, the relative affluence of John Lennon’s suburban upbringing the came at the cost of emotional disturbance in early childhood. The unseemly battle for his custody between his biological mother Julia and his much maligned biological father, Freddie, left deep scars.
Paul often points out that this contrasted with his own experience: ‘the kind of happy home I thought everyone had’. Here he is partly alluding to Aunt Mimi’s (overdone) Cruela da Ville reputation but more specifically to the death of Julia Lennon in hit-and-run accident in 1958.
The trauma inflicted by that drunk driver cannot be overstated. Nonetheless Paul’s late teen ‘happy home’. was also marked by a destabilizing personal tragedy: the loss of ‘Mother Mary’ to a previously unmentioned cancer.
John and Paul shared the heartache of early bereavement but also the security of relative material comfort and good health. Only one future member of The Beatles emerged from absolute poverty and what biographer Bob Spitz terms “a Dickensian chronicle of misfortune”
Richard Starkey grew up at 10 Admiral Grove. This was a back-to-back house in Dingle — an area associated with crime, poverty and social deprivation. As a child he had neither a bathroom or formal education.
Though his local primary school was literally at the end of his street, R Starkey made rare appearances there. At Dingle Vale Secondary Modern, he was taken off the school roll long before he was legally entitled to leave. While others were taking exams, Richard was sitting at home, listening to his stepfather’s jazz records
Ringo’s biological father, Richard, is described as a ‘confectioner’ in official records. Informal reports suggest he spent much of his time ‘drinking and dancing in pubs, sometimes for several consecutive days.’ Helping out at the bakers was only one of his portfolio of casual jobs that kept him in beer and ballroom shoes.
Richard (senior) bolted early — taking his sugary cakes with him. The parallel with one Alfred Lennon would not have escaped Mimi. Starkey Senior made even the hapless Freddie seem a model of paternal dedication. Ringo would later say that he had only met his biological father on a couple of occasions and had no memories of him at all.
As with John, an admirable stepfather stepped up to the parenting plate: Harry Graves. And his biological mother, Elsie, was even more fiercely protective than Mimi.
Familial upheaval in infancy had a less obvious impact on Ringo than it did John. What marked him more profoundly was a series of health crises in his childhood and adolescence. Three times doctors warned Elsie and Harry that ‘he’d not make it through through the night’ (Lewisohn). Few would have bet on the frail sickly young Starkey making it out of his teens.
When he was thirteen, young Richard contracted tuberculosis, the scourge of the urban poor. After a long spell in hospital, he made a full recovery but never returned to the classroom. It was a bleak reminder of the world Mimi Smith wished to leave in her rear view mirror.
Peace and Love
Ringo’s performance in A Hard Day’s Night (1964) impressed early reviewers. They noted his winning combination of modesty, vulnerability and amiable charm. These qualities have carried Richard Starkey through a very tough childhood, the madness of Beatlemania and a later struggle with alcoholism.
There is photo of the six-year-old Richie on his hospital bed. Dangerously ill, he still grins cheerfully for the camera. Somehow that sheer joie de vivre has miraculously remained intact — as it does to this day.