It may not have been the haunt of footballers, pop stars and Russian plutocrats that it is today, but when John Lennon bought his aunt Mimi Smith a waterside home at Sandbanks around fifty years ago, it was already an exclusive address. The average price of a house in 1965 was little more than £3,500, but the Beatle shelled out £25,000 to buy Harbour’s Edge, a six-bedroomed semi-bungalow at 126 Panorama Road.
He had been stirred into action after finding his aunt in tears on the stairs of the Liverpool home in which she had brought him up from the age of five. It was there she had bought him his first guitar for the princely sum of £17 and told him: ‘The guitar’s all right as a hobby John, but you’ll never make a living out of it.’ Lennon later had those words set as a plaque, which hung on the wall at Harbour’s Edge.
According to John’s wife Cynthia, Mimi was in a grumpy mood the day they took her house hunting, but having rejected three of the four houses they had to view, she cheered up after deciding Harbour’s Edge, the final one, would do. The local rumour mill soon sprang into action prompting the vendor’s wife to tell the Evening Echo: ‘It is true we are selling and that a woman is concerned, but it’s not a Beatle’s aunt. This whole business of a Beatle coming here has been built up from nothing and we hotly deny any connection with it and are heartily sick of it by now. We just want to be left in peace.’
But the truth will out and on 9 September 1965 the new resident was revealed with a headline announcing that ‘Beatle aunt will bring her own furniture’ and a report in which a spokesman for estate agents Rumsey & Rumsey described Mimi as ‘a very pleasant lady of quiet disposition who wanted an easily-run place with seclusion’.
John had a balcony made with a white-painted wrought iron balustrade of seven hearts from which Mimi would sit and watch the boats go by.
‘He would just turn up and there would be a whirlwind when he arrived,’ said Mimi in 1981 during her only television interview, with Southern Television reporter Christopher Peacock. ‘It was usually when the pressure got a bit much. He used to like to come here and turn cartwheels on the beach just by himself; there was nobody else there.’
If John wasn’t larking about on the beach, or relaxing on the terrace overlooking the harbour, he enjoyed sailing trips and made the journey up the River Frome to Wareham in a small boat belonging to a neighbour, Peter Sandeman whose landlady had told Mimi he had a boat that John could use.
‘They arranged for me to meet him and one day he just knocked at my door,’ Peter said in 2006. ‘John was a couple of years younger than me and not really my kind of bloke, but my wife Pamela, who was then my girlfriend, loved The Beatles. When I asked her if she wanted to go out on the boat for the day with John Lennon she was very cool and said ‘OK’. Then she went into the bathroom and made a big scream.
‘The first line of Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds is “Picture yourself in a boat on a river”; and when John was my friend we were always out on my little cruiser taking pictures on the river.’
John and Cynthia divorced in 1968, but Lennon continued to visit Mimi in Sandbanks with Yoko Ono. On one such trip he dispatched his chauffeur, Les Anthony, to Southampton to find out if he and Yoko could marry at sea. They couldn’t so Lennon chartered a private jet to take them to Paris, from where they left to ‘get married in Gibraltar near Spain’, as related in The Beatles’ final number one single, The Ballad Of John and Yoko.
Around the time the Ono-Lennons moved to New York in 1971, at John’s instigation, Mimi gave a newspaper interview to reporter Mike Hennessey and photographer Tom Hanley.
‘John suggested they send us to do the job, but there was no direction as to what we could and couldn’t do. We’d known John for years and he knew we’d go there, interview her and photograph her. It was done on trust,’ Tom recalled. ‘We spent the best part of a day with Mimi and found her to be a very nice, very generous old lady, not at all how she has been portrayed since.’
The account is born out by Tony O’Hara who as a teenage milkman in the early 1970s delivered to Mimi’s house. He remembers: ‘She was a very dignified and friendly lady, not at all snobby but there was nothing low about her either. She was a wonderful lady. When I was 17 I wore glasses similar to her nephew, all coincidentally of course, and she asked me if I was growing my hair long now. When I replied I was she said: ‘You’ll soon look like John Lennon!’ and walked back indoors, laughing.’
Unsubstantiated rumours persist to this day, but John never returned to Sandbanks and Mimi heard the terrible news of his murder, just like millions of Britons, soon after she awoke on 9 December 1980.
‘I first heard the tail end of it, at seven o’clock,’ Mimi told Christopher Peacock. ‘John Lennon, now what’s he been up to? And I thought by the tone of the voice it was serious so I shot out of bed and I came down and before I could put the news on Yoko rang up, that was just after seven. Well of course I was stunned, completely stunned and it hasn’t sunk in yet. I can’t believe it.’
Her pain was all the more acute for John’s recent promises to visit her so she could meet his second son Sean. In the years that followed she largely kept to herself although she enthusiastically exchanged letters with a handful of Beatles fans. One such was American fan Kathy Burns who had set up a Cynthia Lennon fan club in the sixties. She has written about her friendship in the book The Guitar’s All Right As a Hobby, John.
‘So often, in books, movies, and articles, she [Mimi] was portrayed as a strict disciplinarian with no sense of humor and sharp tongued,’ says Kathy. ‘I wanted to acknowledge the Mimi I knew; she could be critical but not unfairly and more often than not with a twinkle in her eye. I loved Mimi and miss her to this day.’
A friend of a friend invited music publisher David Stark to stay at Mimi’s who he remembers as ‘completely normal, down to earth. If she wanted a meal, she’d just get the frying pan out, egg and chips that was it. The most amazing thing was she had most of [John’s] childhood clothes and drawings, plus she kept his room, but it was single bed I seem to remember – the whole place kind of resonated with his presence to a degree.’
In her final years Mimi’s main passions were the squirrels and the seagulls that she fed and watched from the window. As her health faltered she was cared for at home by auxiliary nurse Louise Varcoe whose mother ran the Varcoe Nursing Agency in Poole and found Mimi a big black cat called Thomas to keep her company. She died at home on 6 December 1991. She was 85.
‘Mimi’s last words were actually ‘Hello, John’. I never told Yoko that – being older and wiser now – I wish that I had,’ Lynne Varcoe told Ernie Sutton in an interview with the British Beatles Fan Club magazine. Yoko and Sean, as well as Cynthia, went to her funeral at Poole Crematorium six days later. Imagine was played and there were floral arrangements from Paul, George and Ringo. Afterwards at the Harbour Heights Hotel Yoko thanked the nurses who attended Mimi and Sean met his English relatives for the first time.
Beatles history hasn’t been kind to Mimi. The popular view of her is of a cold-hearted, distant, controlling woman who was unpleasant to the women in John’s life and made life difficult for him, but that’s not how she is remembered by the people who saw her as part of their daily lives.
John Clarke has owned the Haven Ferry Shop since the early 1970s and saw Mimi regularly before and after her nephew’s death.
‘That upset her terribly,’ he recalls, ‘she was quite a different lady after that, it was an awful time. She used to come up to the shop, often for a loaf of bread to feed the birds – she loved to feed the birds. She was a nice person, very direct. There’s not a bad word to say about her, although I would say I found it best to let her speak to you first. If you did that you could have a nice conversation with her, but sometimes if you spoke first she’d cut you short and disappear off home.’
Harbour’s Edge is long gone – sold soon after Mimi’s death and in 1994, following a short spell as a squat, demolished and the site redeveloped. Land at Sandbanks is among the most expensive on the planet and the rash of exorbitantly priced houses there reflects that, yet even now it is still just about possible to imagine the peace and calm that prompted John Lennon to call it ‘the most beautiful place I know’.
• Article first published in Dorset Life – The Dorset Magazine
• Yeah Yeah Yeah: The Beatles & Bournemouth is available at a special price from the publisher.
• More photos of John at Sandbanks can be found at the now-neglected blog The Beatles & Bournemouth