Hackney People: Jim Campbell

This 83-year-old resident of Stoke Newington with memories of the Blitz, half a century of teaching and his part in Hitler’s downfall…

On February 19, 1942, Jim Campbell’s house took a direct hit from a German bomb. His mother, working nearby as head nurse at a local first aid post, received the dread communication – Direct Hit 70-74 Albion Road. Her family lived at number 72. Jim found himself unexpectedly thrown together with his brothers despite the fact they were playing upstairs seconds earlier. Also dazed but unharmed in the rubble of his former home was Jim’s father, dug out from beneath his bath and no doubt bemoaning the impossibility of finding a quiet, peaceful moment in wartime. The only inanimate object that survived the bomb was a Bible.

Most days in Stoke Newington proved more peaceful for Jim’s family. Neighbours donated clothes and the family was sheltered in emergency centres and temporary houses over the next few years. Once Jim found himself living across from his grandad’s junkshop selling everything and nothing before Woolworth’s cornered the market. The boys were later evacuated to Rugby to escape the worst of the Blitz. Even the new town hall – painted glossy white for its 1939 opening – had to be coloured over for camouflage. Ironically, for one who spent 50 years teaching, Jim left school at 13.

He celebrated his 17th birthday by joining the army in 1943 and on his 18th – as soon as he was legal to be dispatched overseas – he was sent to Germany. During the journey, the train, battered and holed through its front-line service pulled up to allow the troops a break for refreshments. Their tea-break was interrupted by a crackling announcement in a plummy accent over the tannoy. It announced that the war was officially over.

‘I never tired of telling my pupils that the day Hitler heard Jim Campbell was coming, he gave up!’ Jim recalled. Despite the end of hostilities, he worked in Germany for the Intelligence Corps and learnt to speak fluent German. Years later, he returned to the same area and taught in a local German secondary school for four years. Despite the obvious tensions expected in his role, he has nothing but fond memories of the people he met and taught during his time there.

Jim left the army in 1948 and studied to be a teacher in York. Not having attended a grammar school, he hadn’t been eligible for university, but his army work offered a loophole for entry. At Deal Street primary school in Whitechapel, he became the first male nursery school teacher to work in London.

‘I have very fond memories. Most of the students were Jewish and I was made to feel very welcome. Stoke Newington itself was influenced by the influx of immigrants from the Caribbean, Cyprus, and Africa. Jewish, Christian and now Muslim folk have lived relatively happily alongside each other for years. Sure, it’s had problems – we had gangs fighting here decades ago, but it’s just like any other inner city community – only more so.’ One of his early students was a certain Barbara Deekes – later Hackney stalwart Barbara Windsor, whom he described as ‘delightful’.

Jim continued to live in interesting times by joining the Merchant Navy in 1952 even taking part in the ill-starred Suez invasion. Jim’s wanderlust had been ignited by the sight of the passing sea trade while recuperating from an operation in Portsmouth. Over the next few years, he travelled the world gathering stories and materials that he would later pass on to his young charges in the classroom. On his return, he worked as a rank and file teacher and eventually head-teacher in primary schools around Stoke Newington. He finally retired a decade ago after many years working in a support role in the area.

While Jim has given up on reaching some far-flung shores, the lure of travel remains. He regularly visits Morocco and is planning to spend a few months with friends during the English winter’s darkest and coldest nights. His flat on the Woodberry Estate is adorned with souvenirs and pictures tracking his adventures through the decades and continents. Despite the attractions of kinder climates, Jim’s affection for Stoke Newington remains undimmed.

‘I remember it as a relatively peaceful place. Although the city grew out towards us – the Stoke Newington area was really a series of greens linked by one road. This was the area that Dick Turpin patrolled for stagecoach victims and before that where Henry V111 stored several of his myriad mistresses. People didn’t do a lot here – it was more of a place of rest before their next project. Edgar Alan Poe was pulled out of the gutter here drunk and then went to write his great works elsewhere!

‘There were no major markets or big stores but there was a strong community. I was born in Mathias Road, Newington Green, which was once described as “the most impoverished street in London.” As far as worldly possessions go – it’s true, but the community was full of love, and the local church, which then took a lot of responsibility for the poor, was wonderful.’

Most of Jim’s memories are fond but he still remembers with a shiver the old Pumping House where Green Lanes and Manor Road met and which he passed by on the way home from school with his siblings.

‘It was built like a castle, and through the windows we could see these huge dark shadows of the pistons pumping up and down and accompanied by this deep booming sound. We thought a giant lived there and ran across the park screaming for our lives!’

It was just another lucky escape in a most eventful life.

Hackney Today 2009