Edward Campbell, who died on April 4 in a Tunbridge Wells hospital, in his 90th year, was acknowledged as an authority on circuses and on the training of wild animals. He was also a noted journalist and during his 24-year career in Fleet Street, he worked successively for The Evening News, responsible for the weekly books page and for the daily short story, before his retirement in 1980.
He was helped in his first job in the newspaper industry by the writer John S Clarke, who got him work with Kemsley Newspapers on the Scottish Daily Record in the thirties. Clarke was a noted authority on the subject of circus and Campbell proof-read his work Circus Parade (published by BT Batsford Ltd, London, 1936) which remains today one of the standard works on this subject.
Born in Glasgow on August 26, 1916, Edward Cranston Campbell was the son of a printer, his mother being a mill worker. Had it not been for the early death of his father, a semi-invalid as a result of rheumatic fever, Campbell might well have gone to university and become a veterinary surgeon. He was deeply interested in magic and in circus and knew many of the great performers of that era, including the famous illusionist The Great Carmo, the circus proprietor Bertram Mills and his sons Cyril and Bernard and wild animal trainers of substance like Togare, the Hagenbecks, the Trubkas and Alfred Court. Hans Brick, the German-born animal man, was a great friend and in 1960 Campbell was able to ghost for him Brick’s autobiographical Jungle Be Gentle.
Even in the early thirties there was a strong anti-performing animal lobby in Britain, which irritated Campbell immensely, as it was largely of ignorance of the subject. Years later he declared: “Nobody who has not had the experience of long personal daily association with wild animals has any right to hold a view on the subject.”
His interest and passion for the subject was so great that he set to training a group of wild animals for himself and this he did in full view of the public. He befriended Andy Wilson, whose Glasgow Zoo in Argyll Street was more a glorified pet shop, crammed full of birds, fish and small reptiles and helped out whenever animals were needed for exhibition purposes. He was later instrumental in persuading Wilson to take over a derelict church and become an importer and dealer in more exotic animals, monkeys, small cats and reptiles. Suggesting that a small wild animal act could be a big free draw for the public, he impressed Wilson’s avaricious nature and the upshot was Wilson bought a couple of young lionesses for £15 each, acquired a cage 18 feet by 8 feet and let him set about training them. He later added a brown bear and a male lion and trained them, through patience, perseverance and kindness, to a remarkable sequence of tricks. He had them rolling over the length of the cage floor, one lioness bouncing round the cage of the bars and around the trainer and another mastered the difficult feat of walking a double tightrope 16 feet long. He was aided by another young and keen animal lover, Alexander Kerr, whose career at Wilson’s began by daily polishing the stock of 200 tortoises. Kerr went on to become the star wild animal trainer for Bertram Mills Circus and trained both a male lion and a male tiger in the tightrope feat.
Campbell’s career with wild animals came to a halt when he was called up for military service in 1940 – he had managed to train and display his wild animal act at the zoo while combining it with his job with the Daily Record.
As a young reporter in Glasgow, he interviewed Judy Garland, advising her to change her dress during the interval to sustain the audience’s interest, which she did. He also accompanied Laurel and Hardy around Glasgow, visiting Stan Laurel’s old music hall venues.
While in the RAF he was able to return to Glasgow on leaves, where he would again take up the presentation of his beloved wild animals. He was commissioned, two of the board members being an amateur magician, the other a man who had run away with the circus as a boy. Whilst interrogating at a prisoner-of-war camp in the Chilterns, he met and fell in love with Mary Patricia Sworder, a translator. They were married in 1947 and after once introducing her to the lions in their cage, he abandoned his circus career to concentrate on journalism.
Moving to Fleet Street in 1956, they settled in Sevenoaks with their three children, Robin, Ian and Sheila, born in 1949, 1952 and 1954 respectively. After his distinguished career with the Standard, Sunday Despatch and Evening News, Campbell continued to write articles, commentaries and books. In 1983 he wrote under the name of Ernest Scott The People of the Secret. He continued to keep up his interests in magic and circus and last year lectured to the Circus Zoological Society.
His wife Pat survived him by only a week, dying in the same Tunbridge Wells hospital as her husband, on April 10, only two days after her 91st birthday. Children Robin, Ian and Sheila survive them.
A joint funeral took place at Tunbridge Wells Crematorium on Friday, April 21.