THE REAL ELEANOR RIGBY
Our April 2016 talk - reviewed by Mike Chitty
The name Eleanor Rigby has passed into history as a result of the Beatles song. On 4th April, Alice Bennett tried to separate the fact from the fiction.
Eleanor Rigby Whitfield was born into a working-class family in Vale Road, Woolton. Her grandfather was John Rigby, who had married Frances Hesketh of Pit Place after 'lodging' with her and her mother at the time of the 1871 Census. By 1881 John and Frances were living in Cobden Street with three children. John was a stonemason, Frances a laundress. By 1891 they'd moved to the house in Vale Road, and Frances and her 2 daughters were all recorded in the Census as laundresses: self-employed women, no doubt, taking in washing from the 'big houses' of the neighbourhood and from quarry labourers.
It was the daughter Mary who married Arthur Whitfield and gave birth to Eleanor. In 1901 she was 5 years old, and the Census spells her name 'Elenor'. Alice showed us floor plans of the house - which she now owns - a typical '3 up 3 down' terraced property built in about 1860. In an outbuilding at the back, Alice had found an 'Oxford & Cambridge Geography' textbook signed Eleanor Whitfield with a faint 'R' in between. It seemed that she was a diligent schoolgirl, who liked to write notes in the margins of her books. The story in the family was that her uncle paid for her to have piano lessons. Yet (based on a wages ledger discovered several years ago) it is also said that, at age 16, she was working as a scullery maid - 'the lowest of the low' - at the City Hospital (Parkhill) in the Dingle.
Alice speculated on what life in Woolton would have been like for women of Eleanor's generation, many of whom had been left single as a direct result of WW1. Eleanor was 35 before she got married: to Thomas Woods, a man 17 years older than her. When Eleanor died, Thomas married Lilian Heatley, 26 years his junior. Thomas's mother is said to have been a Rigby, and Eleanor's mother was originally a Heatley. Alice has been trying to unravel all the interconnections.
Eleanor's life in the 1920s and 30s remains something of a mystery. Her sisters - Hannah and Edith, who worked as seamstresses - apparently never spoke about Eleanor. It is said that Eleanor had been jilted at the altar, and Thomas was her second choice. Some people claim that Eleanor attempted suicide by throwing herself down a well, and had to be dragged out by her feet. Her 1939 death certificate, though, simply gives 'aneurism at home' as the cause of death.
Nowadays the gravestone in St Peter's churchyard, Woolton - 'Eleanor Rigby wife of Thomas Woods' - is a regular stopping-point on the Beatles Liverpool tourist trail. But Paul McCartney has always claimed that Eleanor was from Eleanor Bron (the actress in 'Help!') and that Rigby was from a shop in Bristol. John Lennon is said to have been intrigued by the word 'Asleep' on a gravestone in Woolton - and that word appears just below the name Eleanor Rigby. Could John and Paul (who first met in the Church Hall across the road) have subconsciously noticed the Rigby inscription back in the 1950s?
Alice spoke of other coincidences, including the fact that the Vale Road house - of which the Rigbys and the Whitfields were tenants - was once owned by a McKenzie (another name that appears in St Peter's churchyard). What the truth is, we shall never know - but Alice's talk left us wanting to find out more.