Beatles: Was ‘Eleanor Rigby’ Inspired by a Real Woman?

The Beatles wrote many songs centered on fictional characters, from the title character of “Mean Mr. Mustard” to Desmond and Molly Jones from “Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da.” “Eleanor Rigby” appears to be about a pair of fictional characters – Ms. Rigby and Father McKenzie. But are they fictional?

Originally, Paul McCartney believed he fabricated the names in the song. A visit to a cemetery he went to as a child convinced him otherwise. Here’s the story behind the real people who may have inspired characters in the song. 

Paul McCartney posing for a photo somewhere in the United Kingdom | Fiona Adams/Redferns

What Paul McCartney was thinking when he wrote ‘Eleanor Rigby’

The song tells the story of a sad, lonely woman named Eleanor Rigby and an ineffectual preacher named Father McKenzie. Rigby dies lonely and unmourned. McKenzie delivers the sermon at her funeral.

Paul originally thought he made up the names in the song. He believed he got the name “Eleanor” from Eleanor Bron, an actress from the Beatles’ movie Help! Eleanor Rigby’s surname was originally Bygraves, but Paul changed it to Rigby after a Bristol shop called Rigby & Evens Ltd, Wine & Spirit Shippers.

The priest in the song was originally called Father McCartney because the name fit with the beat of the song. However, Paul didn’t like this name. He flipped through the phone book, stumbled on the name “McKenzie” and voila, he was done. However, in later years, Paul came to the conclusion he might have been influenced by other sources.

The real Eleanor Rigby?

The sequence set to “Eleanor Rigby” from the classic Beatles movie Yellow Submarine.

Fans note there is a headstone in a graveyard near St. Peter’s in Woolton, Liverpool which bears the name “Eleanor Rigby.” Nearby, there’s a grave with the name “McKenzie” on it. Paul said he used to hang around that cemetery with John Lennon. Could Paul have subconsciously been influenced by the names on the gravestones?

In The Beatles Anthology, Paul  said “I thought, I swear, that I made up the name Eleanor Rigby. But it seems that up in Woolton Cemetery, where I used to hang out a lot with John, there’s a gravestone to an Eleanor Rigby. Apparently, a few yards to the right there’s someone called McKenzie.”

The tombstone of Eleanor Rigby and her family in the churchyard of St.Peter’s church in Liverpool, England | Jim Dyson/Getty Images

The real Eleanor Rigby passed away on October 10, 1939 – exactly one year before the birth of John. She was a scullery maid who died at the tragically young age of 44. The tragedy of her life aligns with the melancholy portrait painted in Paul’s lyrics. Little did she know her name would appear in one of the most famous pop songs ever!

Regardless of where Paul got the name, the grave of Eleanor Rigby is now world-famous. Many Beatles fans see it as something akin to a pilgrimage site. It even made a brief appearance in the Beatles jukebox musical Yesterday along with the Strawberry Field orphanage, another place associated with a Beatles single.

Also see: Why You Can Hear Paul McCartney Eating Celery on a Beach Boys Song