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Penny Lane of Beatles’ fame may be renamed if slavery links proven

Local resident Lucy Comerford cleans a road sign for Penny Lane, made famous by The Beatles, in Liverpool, England, after it was vandalized following perceived links with slave trader James Penny. Peter Byrne/PA Images via Getty Images

In wake of Black Lives Matter protests triggered by the killing of George Floyd last month, Penny Lane — the landmark street made famous by the Beatles — could potentially be renamed, if ties to a British 18th-century slave trader are manifested.

Four individual Penny Lane street signs were defaced by protesters on Thursday night (June 11) — one of which had the word “Penny” covered in black paint and replaced with “racist” instead — according to the BBC.

The vandalism occurred after various allegations came to light that the famed Liverpool, England, location was named after the notorious slave merchant James Penny, as reported by NME.

Though Liverpool Metro Mayor Steve Rotheram claimed there is “no evidence that is the fact,” he revealed that Penny Lane could be “in danger of being renamed” if the association was proven to be true, in an interview with Sky News on Monday.

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Graffiti reading “Penny was a slave trader” is pictured on a wall on Penny Lane in Liverpool, England, on June 12, 2020. Oli Scarff/AFP via Getty Images

“If it is as a direct consequence of that road being called Penny Lane because of James Penny, then that needs to be investigated,” Rotherham, 58, told the outlet.

“Something needs to happen and I would say that sign and that road may well be in danger of being renamed,” he added.

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Penny, the Liverpool-based slave trader, transported slaves in the 1700s while running his own shipping business, James Penny & Co., according to the BBC.

Additionally, he reportedly suggested that the slaves held captive on his ships would “sleep better than the gentlemen do on shore” and sing and dance for fun.

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Penny was gifted a silver epergne by British Parliament in 1792 after speaking in favour of slave trading years prior, according to Liverpool’s International Slavery Museum. He died seven years later, in 1799.

In response to the recent backlash, the institution took to Twitter writing that the evidence that Penny Lane was named after Penny was “not conclusive.”

“We are actively carrying out research on this particular question and will re-evaluate our display on Liverpool street names and change if required,” they wrote.

The museum concluded: “This is an extremely important subject to the museum and the city of Liverpool and we want to encourage the public to share evidence and research on this topic if they have any.”

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Last Monday, British historian Laurence Westgaph criticized Liverpool’s City Council for “not doing enough” to acknowledge its history and connection with slavery, according to the BBC.

By the mid-1740s, Liverpool was Europe’s most utilized port for slave trading and accounted for much of the city’s wealth nearly 300 years ago, as reported by the outlet.

Expressing her own doubts, however, Liverpool city tour guide Jackie Spencer told the BBC that she was “absolutely livid” with the claims that Penny Lane was inspired by the slave trader.

“We’ve researched it and it has nothing to do with slavery,” she said. “James Penny was a slave trader, but he had nothing to do with the Penny Lane area. It’s pure ignorance.”

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A brief history of slavery, anti-Black racism in Canada – Jun 12, 2020

The defacing of various Penny Lane street signs follows suit with the removal of Bristol’s Edward Colston statue earlier this month.

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Anti-racism and anti-police brutality protesters tore down the statue of the 17th-century slave trader on June 7 and lobbed it into a river during a heated protest.

Adding to this, one individual even spray-painted the words “was a racist” on the plinth of the infamous Sir Winston Churchill statue in London.

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Two years before making London’s Abbey Road a household name in 1969, the Beatles first brought attention to Penny Lane by releasing the song of the same name. The 1967 hit was co-written by John Lennon and Paul McCartney.

On the meaning of the track, McCartney, 77, said it was simply about the street and its surroundings — which he added were “nostalgic” for he and Lennon in a 2009 interview with Clash Magazine.

“I’d get a bus to his house and I’d have to change at Penny Lane, or the same with him to me, so we often hung out at that terminus or roundabout,” the Yesterday singer said.

“It was a place that we both knew, and so we both knew the things that turned up in the story,” added McCartney.

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While it was initially intended to appear on Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band (1967), Penny Lane was released as a double A-side single along with the much-beloved Strawberry Fields Forever.

It later appeared on U.S. pressings of the Liverpool-based band’s follow-up 1967 album, Magical Mystery Tour.

READ MORE: Black Britons voice need for education to deal with colonial past after Colston statue toppled

On the uncertain future of Penny Lane, Rotheram pondered: “Imagine not having a Penny Lane and the Beatles’ song not being about somewhere.”

Global News has reached out to Liverpool’s International Slavery Museum seeking further comment.

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adam.wallis@globalnews.ca