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A backstreet in Finsbury Park evokes grief, love and a long migrant history

Whadcoat Street, which hardly merits the latter word, is a strange little appendage to one of the busiest highways in north London. A cul-de-sac that strikes north from Seven Sisters Road roughly opposite the old Astoria cinema, later the Rainbow, where Jimi Hendrix burned his first guitar, it can’t be more than 50 metres long. All this week, flowers and messages of love and solidarity have decorated one short side of it, because it was here that Makram Ali died and 11 other people were injured, two seriously, after a white van mounted the Seven Sisters Road pavement soon after midnight on Monday, ploughing into a group of worshippers who were returning from Ramadan prayers before it made a sharp left turn into the side street.

I live a 20-minute walk away, but I had never noticed Whadcoat Street before. Normally, there is nothing much to see: a turn-off that ends in a line of bollards, and beyond the bollards a path that leads to a neat little housing estate. In fact, what the van driver turned into and the mourners came to lay their flowers in is all that remains of one of London’s most notorious streets, as well as one of the few to have an entire book devoted to its history. Before 1937, when Islington council changed its name, Whadcoat Street had been Campbell Road, known locally as “Campbell Bunk” from the number of furnished rooms and common lodging houses it contained. In the words of the historian Jerry White, Campbell Road was “a sort of collective Artful Dodger” in the popular memory of Islington.

Many working-class districts used to have such streets, and perhaps still have them. I spent some of my childhood in Lancashire in a prewar settlement of groves and avenues that had been named after flowers and therefore seemed almost to guarantee the good behaviour of its residents: what badness could a man do who lived at an address in Begonia, Lupin or Daisy? And yet Pansy Road caused a small ripple of apprehension whenever its name came up because the people who lived there – the “Pansy Roaders” – were thought to be rougher, wilder and, in the fearful world of children, more dangerous than the rest.

Campbell Road, however, was a serious example of the phenomenon. Not for nothing did it develop a reputation in the inter-war years as the “worst street” in Islington. Its Victorian terraces housed the very poor, men and women who took work where they could find it, who were often drunk and violent, in the home and outside it, and had a tendency to live at least partly outside the law, some men as thieves and some women as prostitutes. And yet, as White writes, it was remembered in contrasting ways: on the one hand as a “corrective to the good-old-days vision of past and present”, and on the other as a confirmation of that very same vision, as a place of vigorous community life, resistant to control by outsiders, where people “were somehow more real, less conformist and stereotyped”.

Without White’s intervention, both versions of the street’s history would have passed into oblivion and Campbell Road would scarcely be remembered at all. Its new name did nothing much to improve it, and it was almost entirely demolished as a slum in the 1950s, to survive in local conversation as the location of rough-and-tumble stories that White first heard when he was working as a public health inspector for Islington council in the early 1970s. Intrigued by these tales of “Campbell Bunk”, White began to work up a piece for the journal History Workshop, founded by the Marxist historian Raphael Samuel to promote, research and publish “history from below”. The piece became a book, published in 1986 as The Worst Street in North London and which more than 30 years later is still in print.

What does it tell us? One of its lessons is how easily things can go askew. Campbell Road was built piecemeal in the 1860s and 1870s as a development of commodious houses – six rooms, scullery, an outside WC and sometimes attic accommodation for a skivvy – for the families of clerks and artisans who were moving to the new suburb of Holloway. But by the time the street was finished, the market was oversupplied. The lower middle class had begun to move to suburbs further out, and the landlords of Campbell Road needed to drop rents low enough to attract porters, sweepers and washerwomen, and the coal-heavers who were employed every winter in Finsbury Park’s extensive railway sidings to shift the coal that arrived in trainloads from the northern pits into the horse-drawn carts that would deliver it to the hearths of the capital. Parents and their children shared single rooms where they ate and slept. A lodging house was licensed to sleep 90 men. Long before the end of the 19th century, the fate of the street was sealed.

Jeremy Corbyn has been the area’s MP since 1983 – the seat, Islington North, has returned a Labour MP in every election since 1937 – but White notes that the Labour movement was slow to make significant inroads. In the inter-war years, Campbell Road’s worldview mixed egalitarianism with individualism and added a good dollop of chauvinism. Trade unions were resented as a hindrance to casual employment, while loyalty was extended more to country than any large idea of social class. On national occasions – the armistice, the silver jubilee of George V and the coronation of George VI – the people of Campbell Road hung across their street a banner made of bed sheets that read “POOR BUT LOYAL”.

Immigration from Cyprus added resentment to a list that included the Irish, the Jews and others from anywhere overseas

White writes that this was less an expression of English nationalism than a “mistrust, fear, even hatred of foreign people and things” among poor people who felt themselves to be outcasts in their own country. Immigration from Cyprus, which began in the 1930s, added another resentment to a list that already included the Irish and the Jews and others from anywhere else overseas. (A street trader remembered telling a Belgian woman, “You old cow! Get back to your fuckin’ country where you belong to.”) In the face of what White calls their “comprehensive rejection” by English society, the people of Campbell Bunk found an external source of pride in England’s achievements: “not domestic progress, which had touched the Bunk hardly at all, but rather the domination over foreign competitors in the struggle for empire”.

When White researched his book, many people who had lived in the prewar Bunk were still alive. He and I arrived in Islington around the same time, nearly 50 years ago, when it was still possible to hear Sunday night sing-songs in pubs that sold barley wine; and when Finsbury Park had begun to add migrants from Mauritius, Hong Kong and the Asian communities of east Africa to those already long-settled from Cyprus, Ireland, Italy and the Caribbean. “What time is it where you come from?” asked a cheery Irish stranger of an Indian friend of mine one day in the street.

It seemed unlikely then that the population of Finsbury Park could get more various. Nobody foresaw that it would add the substantial numbers of Syrians, Algerians, Eritreans, south Asians and eastern Europeans that must make it one of the most diversely populated districts in the world.

Today, a denizen of Campbell Bunk would be hard-pressed to recognise even just the route of his old street. But if he found his way to the bottom of it, where its stump joins Seven Sisters Road, he would be intrigued by the bouquets, the tealights and the cards. He might guess it to be some new form of memorial. Certainly he would be struck by its use of an unfamiliar public word – love.