The story behind The Beatles’ Eleanor Rigby - The Guide Liverpool

The story behind The Beatles’ Eleanor Rigby

31/12/2019

It’s The Beatles’ hit which led to a discovery at St Peter’s Church, Woolton, where a woman of the same name was laid to rest, but who was Eleanor Rigby and how did her legacy become a famous mystery and enduring to Beatles’ fans all over the world?


It’s 6th July 1957 when two lads called John and Paul are first introduced by tea-chest bass player Ivan Vaughan at a summer fete at St Peter’s Church, Woolton. While John’s a former member of the church choir, Paul would often cycle up to St Peter’s Churchyard to sunbathe – and it’s in that same churchyard where the headstone of Eleanor Rigby is found.

This particular day, Fifteen-year-old Paul sits off as the band set up, plays a bit of piano in the church hall, tunes up John’s guitar, has a quick go himself, singing some Chuck Berry before handing it back over and sticking around to watch seventeen-year-old John Lennon perform with his band.

Paul thinks John stands out from the rest of The Quarrymen. He’s a confident frontman, looks cool, sounds great. The audience love it – including young Bob Molyneux who records the live set on a reel-to-reel recorder. 

What Bob doesn’t realise is how he’s recording a piece of Rock & Roll history and in 1994, when Bob’s a retired policeman, he’ll find the long-forgotten recording and despite the poor audio quality it will sell at Sotherby’s that September for £78,500 to EMI.

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Paul thinks John stands out from the rest of The Quarrymen. He’s a confident frontman, looks cool, sounds great. The audience love it – including young Bob Molyneux who records the live set on a reel-to-reel recorder.

What Bob doesn’t realise is how he’s recording a piece of Rock & Roll history and in 1994, when Bob’s a retired policeman, he’ll find the long-forgotten recording and despite the poor audio quality it will sell at Sotherby’s that September for £78,500 to EMI.

Later that afternoon, John and his bandmates agree Paul’s a sound lad and invite him for a drink, lying about their ages to get served. John’s equally impressed by Paul’s natural ability with a guitar. He’s into the same music, passionate about it, in fact. He dresses in the same drainpipe kecks, and he’s not too shabby with his vocals, either.

That night, the band chat about inviting Paul to join The Quarrymen, and two weeks later, band member Pete Shotton spots McCartney cycling through Woolton Village and invites Paul to his first jam session as one of The Quarrymen.

Nine years later, as a founding member of the most famous band in the world, Paul McCartney will take Beatles’ fans back to that fated first meeting place, and make Eleanor Rigby immortal in the eponymous hit released in 1966 as a double A-side single also featuring Yellow Submarine from the album, Revolver.

The single was released on the same day as the album, spending four weeks at number one in the UK charts, and reaching number 11 in the USA, where it was nominated for three Grammys.

The headstone wasn’t discovered until the early 1980s, when Paul first denied it was the inspiration behind the song, saying the two names were chosen from the actress Eleanor Bron, who starred in The Bealtes’ film Help! and a liquor store in Bristol.

However, in 1989, music therapist Annie Mawson who ran a charity called Sunbeams Trust, wrote to Sir Paul about her work with children with disabilities and adults with brain injuries, asking for his support in opening a purpose-built centre, and offering her experiences about how music therapy enhanced quality of life and supported recovery.

Shortly afterwards, in June 1990, Annie was delighted to receive a response from Sir Paul – and astounded by the contents. Inside, she found an ancient parchment containing a scroll of names and a list of wages from 1911 from a hospital in Liverpool.

Down the list was the name E. Rigby who had signed for the amount of one pound three and 11 pence. A scullery maid born on 29th August 1895, Eleanor Rigby married Thomas Woods on Boxing Day 1930 and died of a brain haemorrhage at the age of 44 in 1939.

The document sold at auction in November 2008 for £115,000.

While this points to Eleanor being influential in Sir Paul’s writing, in 2017 the deeds to Eleanor Rigby’s grave failed to sell at auction after he once again claimed Eleanor Rigby was a totally fictious character, and if somebody wanted to spend money to prove she was the inspiration behind his lyrics, that was fine by him.

So, if Paul himself owned Eleanor Rigby’s signature on a list of wages, and sent that to Annie Mawson knowing the potential value of the item, why would he step in to suggest the deeds to Eleanor’s grave had nothing to do with The Beatles’ hit?

Well, quite simply, he admits the headstone may have been a subconscious influence but insists Daisy Hawkins was the first name he had in mind for the song. Daisy became Eleanor as he worked on the melody, and he changed Hawkins to Rigby from the name of a store he spotted in Bristol – Rigby & Evens Ltd, Wine & Spirit Shippers.

“I just liked the name,” Sir Paul said in 1984. “I was looking for a name that sounded natural. Eleanor Rigby sounded natural.”

That maybe so, but is it too much of a coincidence that the lyrics first place Eleanor Rigby at a church and the song goes onto describe how she is buried at that same church?

While questions linger, the legacy of Eleanor Rigby continue with her statue which sits at the side of the MET Quarter, leading to Mathew Street. On 3rd December 1982 the bronze rendition of Eleanor Rigby was unveiled and made by former teen idol and entertainer Tommy Steele OBE who dedicated her to, ‘All the lonely people.’

A frequent hotspot for selfies and tourists, urban folklore prevails that Steele placed a page from the Bible, a pair of football socks, a four leaf clover, a couple of Shakespearian sonnets and a four leaf clover inside the statue to bring good luck to the city.

Eleanor sits with a handbag on her lap, a shopping bag containing a milk bottle on her right, and perched on top of a copy of the Liverpool Echo – who sponsored the statue, Eleanor gazes at a sparrow next to a piece of bread. Unfortunately these later details along with her plaque were stolen by vandals in October 2019.

As for the gravestone of Eleanor Rigby, while Sir Paul remains ambivalent about the original inspiration behind the song, a digitalised version of the headstone was included at the four-minute mark in The Beatles’ 1995 video for Free as a Bird and continues to attract Beatles fans from around the world.

So one thing’s for sure, whether Paul McCartney intended to make this hospital scullery maid a forever famous name or not, Eleanor Rigby will never again be one of the lonely people.

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