The Windy History of Penny Lane: The Beatles, the Slave Trade and a Now-Resolved Controversy

The signs for Liverpool’s Penny Lane are often decorated with graffiti: names, dates, well wishes to the Beatles who immortalized the street in their 1967 hit. This month, though, the scrawlings changed: the word “Penny” eviscerated with black paint and “racist” scrawled above the signs. An old theory linking the street to a notorious slave trader had resurfaced due to the protests surrounding the police killing of George Floyd — and a cadre of local historians discovered that their research was now thrust into the public eye.

“[Me and a group of historians] have been working on this since about 2010 together — if not slightly earlier individually,” tour guide and local historian Richard MacDonald tells Rolling Stone. “It’s been an academic debate, really. So it’s a bit of a surprise to us all, to be honest; we’re sort of taken aback. We’re not used to this larger media interest in the names of streets going back to this, you know, 17- and 1800s — it’s not the usual thing that makes the news.”

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