on 9 June 2015
I write interviews with people who live or work in Islington so I was bound to love this book which has an extra dollop of academic rigour.
Verdict: a must read, especially for anyone who lives or works (or uses the station) near Finsbury Park.
Campbell Road in Finsbury Park – now covered by part of the Six Acres Estate – had such a bad reputation from the 1880s to World War Two that if you gave it as your address you were unlikely to be given a job, even cleaning doorsteps.
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It was known as the Campbell Bunk because the police wouldn’t dare to follow suspects who ducked into Campbell Road. Police didn’t even dare patrol down it. It was a well-known haunt for thieves, with hard drink acerbating the violence. And as houses were uncomfortable and overcrowded (residents also moved a lot within the street) much of the action is outside, with witnesses. It must have offered pure London street theatre.
Historian Jerry White interviewed many ex-residents about growing up and living in Campbell Road. The stories are shocking – casual violence, mindless cruelties, poverty and an ever-present hunger. The Victorian houses were eventually removed during Islington’s over-enthusiastic phase of slum clearance between 1953-57. Campbell Street is no more, but it was parallel to Fonthill Road, on the westside –where Whadcoat Street comes off Seven Sisters Road.
Jerry White makes the people seem so much like us. We see the kids growing up, and trying to better themselves. Often the women get jobs in the numerous factories around the area including Blackstock Road, Riversdale Road, Hornsey Road and further afield along Holloway or up to Wood Green. There are jobs in jam, sweets, toy making and a host of mechanical tasks. The women who land these jobs are often well-paid (relatively) and keen to move away from their notorious home in a bid to escape the demands for housekeeping money from their mums. These mums are often drunks, living with drunks (often the children’s stepfather).
In contrast the boys grow up to have a big network of male friends (a gang) who they seem loath to leave. Their street life – fighting, gambling and practical jokes – is far more attractive than the option of settling into one job as a wage slave or moving away as a husband.
Campbell Road had a bad reputation for years – an early warning of the struggles the unemployed and low wage earners without health care or social support were to face in the grim inter-war period. This is when George Orwell (who moved to a rather grim Canonbury Square around 1943) was writing his essays about being Down and Out in Paris and London. Turns out he only needed to take the 19 down Blackstock Road.
Jerry White has a fabulous understanding of social history and by assessing lives in a particular Marxist dialectic he makes the story of the Campbell Road lumpenproletariat an important Islington moment. His record of us, then – independent, lawless, humorous, sometimes cruel and with a reputation that far extends the locality – still has some resonance for many Islingtonians.