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IT happened in a single terrible second. A screech of tyres, a dull thump of metal against flesh, a woman lying dead, killed instantly by a car.

The sort of everyday tragedy that devastates families, and leaves the rest of the world untouched.

But when Julia Lennon (right) was fatally run over as she crossed Menlove Avenue, in Liverpool - on her way to catch a bus to Penny Lane - her death changed the course of history.

Her 17-year-old son John was plunged into such a depth of sorrow that all the fame that he enjoyed in later life, the riches beyond price, couldn't ease the pain.

Yes, it was that John Lennon, the Beatle who transformed pop music forever.

He found it impossible to forget the tragedy. Probably everything John Lennon became stemmed from that moment.

He was instantly transformed from a happy-go-lucky lad with a mate called Paul McCartney and an amateurish band called the Quarrymen into something far more dark and brooding.

He emerged from mourning a cynical boy with a chip on his shoulder and seemingly at odds with the world. The bitterness coloured his music, his songwriting and his humour.

If Julia had not stepped off that pavement on that fateful evening, we might never have had the Beatles.

Now, 40 years on, we have tracked down the driver who killed Lennon's mother.

Former police constable Eric Clague, now 64, said: "I have been haunted by this for all these years. Hardly a week goes by when I don't think about it.

"Ever since the Beatles became famous I have been expecting this to come out.

"To be honest I've been dreading it. It's not something I like to think about."

Lennon's friend and former manager of the Quarrymen, Chris Walley, said: "I witnessed the tragedy and I know what a terrible effect it had on John.

"He felt so lonely after it. His outlook changed completely. He hardened and his humour became more weird."

Julia, then 44, was hit head-on by Eric's Standard Vanguard car, thrown high in the air, and killed instantly on the night of July 15, 1958.

A post-mortem later revealed that she had died of massive brain injuries caused by skull fractures.

An inquest into the accident a month later recorded a verdict of misadventure.

The coroner said that Mrs Lennon did not appear to look either way before she walked into the road.

But it was more complicated than that. Eric, who was off duty, was an unaccompanied L-driver. He should not have been driving the car alone. He was later reprimanded by his superiors and suspended from duty for a short time. Soon afterwards he left the police altogether...and took a job as a postman.

He didn't try to contact John and the rest of the family.

"At the time I thought of sending the family my condolences, but I thought it would only make matters worse.

"They were very angry and upset by what had happened, naturally so, I suppose."

John was virtually unapproachable in his sorrow.

His half-sister Julia Baird, now a 50-year-old teacher living in Cheshire, said: "It was many years before he could bring himself to talk about that night.

"What he finally said was, 'An hour or so after it happened a copper came to the door to let us know about the accident.

"It was awful, like some dreadful film, when they ask you if you are the victim's son and all that.

"Well I was, and I can tell you it was absolutely the worst night of my entire life."

John was unable to look at his mother's body when he was taken to view it at Sefton General Hospital.

And at the funeral he was so devastated that throughout the service he lay with his head on an aunt's lap, seemingly oblivious to everything. The

emptiness he felt surfaced many years later in his songs.

One called Mummy's Dead revealed his anguish in all its rawness.

"My mummy's dead...I can't get it through my head...Though it's been so many years...My mummy's dead...I can't explain...So much pain...I could never show it."

Eric also tried to bury his feelings and build a new life for himself delivering the mail.

But it all came flooding back with a vengeance when the Beatles hit world fame in 1964.

"Like everyone else I started reading in the papers about them and they were never off the TV," he said.

"I read that John Lennon's mother was dead and that he used to live in Menlove Avenue.

"I put two and two together and realised that it was his mum that I had killed. Everything came back to me and I felt absolutely terrible.

"It had the most awful effect on me. The Beatles were everywhere, especially in Liverpool, and I couldn't get away from it."

Reminders of the accident came back to him in an even more astonishing way.

"My postman's round took in Rosthlin Road, where Paul McCartney used to live.

"At the height of the Beatles' fame I used to deliver hundreds of cards and letters to the house.

"I remember struggling up the path with them all. But of course they just reminded me of John Lennon and his mother."

For 40 years Eric has kept his awful secret to himself. He could not bring himself to reveal the truth about his involvement in the death of Julia Lennon...not even to his close family.

"It is something I have always kept deep inside," he said. "I haven't even told my wife and children. I suppose I will have to now.

"We will have to have a discussion now that it is all coming out."

What he will say to them is that he could not have helped what happened.

"I remembered how the family had blamed me and I wanted to tell them that there was really nothing I could have done.

"Mrs Lennon just ran straight out in front of me. I just couldn't avoid her. I was not speeding, I swear it. It was just one of those terrible things that happen."

Apart from the fact that Eric was an unaccompanied L-driver, other witnesses at the inquest said that he was travelling at high speed. Eric, however, insisted he was only doing around 28mph inside a 30mph limit.

"I read later how his mother's death had affected John Lennon terribly. I feel desperately sorry about that.

"But as I say, it was just an accident."

John was inconsolable. What made it worse was that Julia was on her way back from seeing him at his Aunt Mimi's house, where he was staying, when she died.

He had only just begun to rekindle a relationship with his mother after a long estrangement.

Try as she might, it was not in Julia's nature to supply the son she clearly loved with the staples of childhood... a feeling of security, regular meals, the knowledge that tomorrow would be the same as today, and the day before that.

John obviously craved this continuity. His father Freddy, a ship's waiter, left the family home while he was a toddler. All the responsibility for bringing him up then fell on Julia - and she couldn't cope.

Eventually she went off to live with another man, having "farmed out" John with sister Mimi.

But John's love for Julia was so fierce that it eclipsed all her shortcomings as a mother.

Abandonment is a strong word, but it is hard to think of another one.

After Julia died, he felt that he had been deserted by her not once, but twice.

"I lost her when I was a child of five, and then again at 17," he said. "It made me very bitter inside.

"I had just begun to re-establish a relationship with her when she was killed.

"We'd caught up on so much in just a few short years. We could communicate. We got on."

Mimi did her best, but, as John grew up, the sense of loss was always there.

His aunt gave him everything his mother was incapable of, but never totally won his heart.

It is ironic that the Beatle who symbolised everything raw, rebellious and streetwise lived in the most ordered, middle-class home. Mimi's house, called "Mendips", was opposite a golf course and just around the corner from Strawberry Fields, later to be immortalised in song.

Mimi was a Liverpudlian Hyacinth Bucket.

She had his school blazers tailor-made. She bought him a guitar, then made him go out to the front porch to practice.

Later, John was to give her a brass plaque engraved with her repeated, exasperated phrase of the time: "The guitar's all very well John, but you'll never make a living at it."

When he was re-united with his mother, there was none of this coyness.

John and Julia would belt out songs together at the tops of their voices.

The tragedy within a tragedy is that at the point they were closer than they'd ever been, she died.

In later life John could never bring himself to go back to the house at Menlove Avenue, where the accident happened. After his death, his widow Yoko Ono did once bring their son Sean to see it. They stopped on the pavement outside for a few minutes. But they never went in.

John's first wife Cynthia, and mother of his other son Julian, explained how John and his mother had begun to find happiness in each other's company again just before she died.

"During his teens, John began to see more and more of Julia and they became very close," she said.

"They would dance around the living room to the latest American records.

"One incident he told me about was when he and Julia would go on walks together.

"For a laugh Julia would put a pair of knickers on her head and wear a pair of old glasses without lenses.

"When they met someone, she had a habit of scratching her eyes through the frames. This would really crease John.

"Their sense of humour was almost identical. He was never happier than when he was with her.

"But after her death, John was left full of emptiness and bitterness and the hard exterior he built up was self-produced. He didn't want to be owned by anyone."

Or - one could be forgiven for thinking - hurt so much again.

Former Quarrymen manager Chris Walley, who now teaches golf in Argentina, revealed that John even tried to contact his mother through a seance after she died.

The pain of being parted from her never completely left him.

His half-sister Julia said he felt it acutely for the rest of his life - which like his mother's was brutally cut short when in 1980 he was gunned down by crazed fan Mark Chapman outside the New York apartment he shared with Yoko Ono.

"Even years later," she said, "when I used to phone him in New York, all he really wanted to talk about was mummy.

"He was still missing mummy. Missed her just as much as he ever did."


HERE is Eric Clague's sworn statement to the inquest into Julia Lennon's death: "I am Constable 126 C, Liverpool City Police, and live at 43 Ramilies Road, Liverpool 18. I was the driver of the motor car (private) LKF 630, which was involved in this occurrence. I have heard the statement said to have been made by me to Police Inspector Harte and I agree with it."


JOHN Lennon's Aunt Mimi was on the scene moments after the accident. She told the inquest: "At about 9.45pm the deceased left my home (in Menlove Avenue) and went in the direction of a bus stop on the opposite side by The Vineries. Shortly afterwards I was informed that she had been injured. I went to the scene... she was unconscious. I went with her to Sefton General Hospital...she was dead on arrival."


IT was a piece of astute detective work that set the Sunday Mirror on the trail of Eric Clague, the man responsible for the death of Julia Lennon.

A throwaway line in a newspaper about her being the victim of an unnamed driver led reporter Alan Rimmer to start his investigation.

By scouring biographies of Lennon and the Beatles, Rimmer discovered that Mrs Lennon had been killed on July 15, 1958, but there the trail ran cold. Unusually - especially as road deaths were relatively rare at the time - the incident went unreported by the local paper.

However, a month later, the Liverpool Echo ran a story on the inquest verdict in a small filler article only two paragraphs long.

Again the investigation appeared to have gone cold, because there were no witnesses mentioned.

Rimmer then did what all good newspapermen do...wore out shoe leather. His inquiries took him to the dusty archives in a basement at Liverpool Coroners Court. A helpful clerk agreed to help in the search for the inquest papers and there, among so many tragedies long since forgotten, came the reward for Rimmer's persistence.

Stacked beneath a report of an old woman found dead in a house lay the file on Julia Lennon, 12 pages of evidence and a post- mortem report.

Hidden inside its coldly-typed lines was also an insight into the character of John Lennon, one of the world's great rock idols.
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Copyright 1998 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Title Annotation:Features
Author:Rimmer, Alan
Publication:Sunday Mirror (London, England)
Date:Feb 22, 1998
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