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Obituary: Inspirational teacher and historian Jack Whitehead left schools with learning legacy

Historian Jack Whitehead has died aged 98. Picture: Polly Hancock Historian Jack Whitehead has died aged 98. Picture: Polly Hancock

Monday, August 18, 2014
1:52 PM

Jack Whitehead, who has died aged 98, was an inspired teacher all his life, both in schools and just as much through his many friendships and publications.

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No one ever had a conversation with Jack without learning something new or the title of another book to read.

His hinterland of learning was a rich cultural territory with a strong sense of history, but he wore his knowledge lightly and with modesty and self-effacement.

He lived in north London all his life and this rootedness became the source of his hunting ground which led to four remarkable and much admired local and historical studies published as The Growth of Stoke Newington, Muswell Hill, Camden Town, Marylebone & Paddington. In his last years he was working on a study of Islington.

During 38 years of contented retirement, Jack was able to research and expand his interest in introducing teachers and children to explore, understand and appreciate their own local built environment, and the historic world on their doorstep, through a series of walks and sequence of maps and research.

The materials he developed were to go into the local schools’ libraries to which children and teachers could contribute.

He argued that by exploring the immediate built and natural environment, children would be led into many unexpected avenues of important learning, an individual local model at odds with a more centrist and controlled curriculum.

He argued that each school could identify a retired teacher like himself to help research and develop materials for their own school.

Jack received the essential almost weekly help of his nephew, Keith Robinson, and together they built the website to put his wealth of knowledge online in locallocalhistory.co.uk, which is receiving around 1,500 hits a week.

Jack had been born in the First World War in Muswell Hill. He remembered at the age of two opening the door to a strange man who turned out to be his father returning home from the war. His parents were both skilled musicians.

After attending the local school, Jack went to training college in Shoreditch, which led to his teaching at Crouch End School, where he taught craft and technical drawing.

In the 1930s as a young man, having taken part in the Battle of Cable Street, he joined Unity Theatre and found himself in an environment of left wing ideas and people. There he met his wife Pat. These experiences and the Spanish Civil War were the source of his political awareness and formation.

On one occasion Jack found himself at a charity dance in a Mayfair Gallery where by chance Picasso’s Guernica was hanging. The impact and shock of the painting left a lifelong mark on his values and political outlook.

During the Second World War, Jack joined the RAF and was posted to North Africa on duties to rescue and salvage ditched aircraft in the deserts of Libya. The task of retrieving and repairing appealed to his practical and mechanical interests. He moved with the army to Italy and became an education officer for the last two years of the war.

After the war he resumed teaching at Crouch End School until 1956 when he was able to join Woodberry Down Comprehensive School, one of the London County Council’s first new schools, designed and built as part of the post-war settlement that sought to establish the common school for all.

Jack continued to teach his love of craft and technical drawing, which was later to lead him to write and publish a book on graphic communications, in which he argued the need for everyone to be not only literate and mathematical, but equally at ease with graphical skills.

Later Jack became a much respected head of a pastoral house. Using his sensitivity and ability to listen but decide matters with a firm sense of justice and care brought him great respect, and staff have spoken of their sense of inspiration working alongside him. There is little doubt that Jack was one of the best read and cultured people one could work with.

When his wife Pat died in 2002, Jack moved from Parliament Hill, NW3, and went to live with his granddaughter and great grandchildren in Stoke Newington. He leaves his son, also Jack, his two grandchildren Susie and Tom, and three great-grandchildren, Abby, Billy and Ruby.

Jack Whitehead was born on February 27, 1916 and died on July 2, 2014

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