"Penny Lane is in my ears and in my eyes..."
The Beatles' peon to this unremarkable suburban lane in south Liverpool is one of their best loved tunes and has made it one of the world's most famous thoroughfares. My children go to school nearby and each day we see coach-loads of tourists risking their lives to take photographs of the famous street sign at its junction with North Mossley Hill Road.
But its name harks back to a darker chapter in Liverpool's history. The street honours one of the city's most prominent slave traders, James Penny, who lobbied parliament extensively to oppose the abolition of slavery. So energetically, in fact, that his fellow slave traders commissioned an extravagant silver table setting for him to express their gratitude. He explained to one parliamentary enquiry that he had funded eleven slaving expeditions, buying more than six hundred men and women on each trip and claiming that his ships had been designed to be kind, allowing in more light and air for the slaves' comfort.
There is no street in the city named after the Bell family, of course, but their treatment of slaves in The Sanctuary Stone is drawn from historical records in Liverpool's impressive International Museum of Slavery. And yes, things really were as bad as I've described. On another musical theme, a Liverpool slaving captain, John Newton, wrote the hymn Amazing
Grace after his conversion to evangelical Christianity. It didn't tell of his remorse at his trade in human misery, however - he continued buying slaves for some years yet - but at all the cussing and shagging he got up to during his life on the ocean waves.
PS. The 18 on the street sign signifies the 18th postal district in the city. All British cities are divided into districts like this and in Liverpool some are known by their postal number, not their historical name, most notably Liverpool 8. The sign was painted on to the wall as so many were being nicked by Beatles fans, by the way...