Estimated reading time:9 minutes, 34 seconds
Everyone has a story. Professor Jerry White is one of London’s leading social historians. He started his career inspecting homes in Islington after taking a job as a Public Health Inspector for Islington Council back in the 1970s. Jerry has written many history books about London including Islington’s most notorious street, Campbell Road in Finsbury Park. It was pulled down in the 1950s, but is still remembered as the Campbell Bunk. Here Jerry White talks about memories of Islington. Interview by Nicola Baird
“I followed a career in local government for 42 years and enjoyed it,” says Jerry White modestly, neglecting to mention that he was Chief Executive of Hackney Council from 1989-1995. “I didn’t want to become an academic even though I was also writing history books,” he says over the phone after I tracked him down as a result of finding his fascinating book Campbell Bunk in the N4 Library.
“Islington gave me a love of London: the motivating force for my whole life for the past 40-odd years. And that was partly from working in Islington as a public health inspector (nowadays the job is called an Environmental Health Inspector). I was 21 when I came here, and spent my first 11 years working on bad housing conditions. Your first job is always such a formative experience, so that for me was undoubtedly life changing.”
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Although Jerry’s been teaching London history at Birkbeck University since 2009, he now lives in Leamington Spa, in a Victorian house. He’s often in London – and was here in June to give a talk at the Spitalfields Festival about Georgian London – a taster for his next book, a History of the Marshalsea Prison where debtors, such as Charles Dicken’s father, were sent, sometimes for owing no more than £250 in today’s money.
Perhaps Jerry’s best-known book is about a now-demolished street in Finsbury Park, just parallel to Fonthill Roa, see Campbell Bunk: the worst street in London between the wars “It was begun in 1976, finished in 1986 but not published until 1986,” he says.
“In September 1970 I moved into a grotty attic room in Kelross Road. There was no water supply. It was very primitive and I was there for a very short time,” remembers Jerry.
“My job took me into people’s homes – privately owned properties which people were complaining about. My job was taking me around the grottiest living conditions in Highbury. My district was Seven Sisters road to east of Holloway Road. I saw terrible slum conditions – seven people in a room. Some of it was unbelievable. There was a brothel on Riversdale Road that was filthy; people were shitting in the bath. I’d never seen stuff like this before.”
“The whole of Barnsbury was considered to be one of the worst slums in London in 1970. On every street you could guarantee there’d be some property just left out by gentrification – it had missed out. It’s all gentrified now.”
“But Islington in the 1970s was nothing like as bad as Islington in the 1950s.”
Campbell Road – a long street just to the west of Fonthill Road, off Seven Sisters – used to be notorious. You can see the Islington Faces review of Campbell Bunk: the worst street in London between the wars here.
To summarise: Campbell Road had a bad reputation from the moment it was built. Campbell Road residents were frightened to give their address as it often meant they wouldn’t be given a job at the numerous small factories in Islington. Career criminals lived there, soon police officers feared to go down it while any stranger was likely to be attacked. People were really poor, many of them with large families. With such over-crowded rooms life was often lived in the street. Men and boys loved to gamble and fight, many residents were big drinkers. There was fierce territorial rivalry between the top and bottom end: Campbell Road residents looked out for themselves when a choice came up between them and us. Much of the rest of the time they were settling scores or setting up deals in the street.
Even though the street was demolished in the 1950s – it’s now where the Six Acre estate is – locals still talk about doing a Campbell Bunk or getting-away-with-it.
Jerry’s book includes many interviews of former residents. It follows a classic Marxist analysis, but with a twist – the focus on gender differences and the younger generation’s desire to better themselves.
“The generation battle in Campbell Bunk became the central argument in the book. I started with class, but at the end of the day class wasn’t enough. Your gender too became the key mobilising fact in internal change in Campbell Bunk.
I’d done a similar project on Rothschild Buildings in Spitalfields and I then became interested in Campbell Road. I wrote to the local paper and said I wanted to talk to people who lived in Campbell Bunk. I went to local old peoples homes and gave a little talk about the street and asked if anyone had lived there.
Often they wouldn’t put their hands up but got in touch with me after. They were still ashamed of the place. Then they’d put me in touch with other people. Everyone I spoke to had lived in Campbell Bunk stayed locally in Islington. But when I wrote to the retired London police officers who’d policed in Campbell Bunk they had all moved away and were in Brighton, Suffolk, the West Country.
“In the 1970s some estates had a terribly bad reputation and I think that’s partly because people from Campbell Bunk had been moved there in the late ‘50s – there was a definite prejudice. But I found people to be pretty friendly. Only a couple were cadgey.”
Is life as bad?
Campbell Road was notorious for its over-crowding. Many families struggled to keep jobs, or chose to work outside the labour market in businesses that weren’t strictly legal – begging, gaming, theft. The kids went to schools we are still familiar with, such as Pooles Park, but many were barefoot and in constant need of a meal.
“Poverty isn’t the same as then,” says the professor.” Thank goodness there’s no longer the deprivation that some of these kids were brought up with or the brutality in the family. You hear some dreadful tales now, but culturally the working class have become softer and not so violent, especially to their children.”
The interview with Jerry was during Islington Giving week – an event that helps highlight the many people in Islington who still struggle to get by. They’ve helped make it clear that Islington has become a borough of two halves – the rich and the poorest.
- Of the 40,000 children and young people living in Islington, 13,000 live below the poverty line. This is the 4th highest rate in England and the second highest in London.
- 4 per cent of families have incomes of over £75,000 whilst a further 28.7 per cent of families in Islington have incomes of less than £20,000.
- Islington has the highest level of male suicide in London.
“I’ve been writing about London since middle of 1970s I started with a book on the east end, then did Campbell Bunk, then in the 1990s and 2000s three big books on London and Londoners over the last century. The whole issue of change in London is one of my big themes. So I’ve thought a lot about why the city has changed and how, including the loss of industry in central London – which is largely, but not entirely, a post World War Two phenomenon.”
Although Jerry doesn’t have answers he points out that: “What’s happened to London in the past 70 years is unprecedented in its history. Extraordinary proportions of Londoners weren’t born here. That phenomenon of provincials coming to London is a very old one. When I came in the 1970s every Londoner wanted to get out. And they did seem to get out.”
“London lost 2 million people between 1939 and 1986. We’ve not yet quite recovered the London population that it had in 1939,” says Jerry. Islington in 2015 has around 200,000 people. That’s the same number living in Finsbury before WW2.
Living on your wits
Of course this has brought about all sorts of change.
“The wit and a quick-wittedness that was bred through the generations living in London – that you see in Campbell Bunk – is no doubt still there, but adapting itself to streetwise cultures imported from all over the world,” suggests Jerry.
It’s a fair point, and may also be why so many of us love modern Islington – a place where there are still old-style Italian delis but where change seems unstoppable and often welcome. So now the area that was once Finsbury Park goods yard, a couple of streets from Campbell Bunk, has a new theatre, two big student accommodation complexes and at the same time is also home to Algerian butchers, Ethiopian restaurants, a Korean noodle bar and Turkish-owned corner shops. There are two big mosques, an evangelical church in the old Empire cinema plus the German-owned supermarket Lidl, where we all mix in the queue.
Really if you live in Islington you either have no excuse to travel at all – or are being pulled at from all corners of the world. It just depends on how you view life. And that ability to adapt, so excellently captured by Jerry in Campbell Bunk remains a London speciality.
- Campbell Bunk: the worst street in London between the wars (1986)
- London in the Twentieth Century: A City and Its People, winner of the Wolfson History Prize in 2002;
- London in the Nineteenth Century: ‘A Human Awful Wonder of God’
- London in the Eighteenth Century: A Great and Monstrous Thing (2012).
- Zeppelin Nights. London in the First World War (2014) won the Spear’s Social History Prize for that year.
Over to you
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This blog is inspired by Spitalfields Life written by the Gentle Author.