In the 1950’s Notting Hill was not the stomping ground of the rich as it is today. Back then it was an area of slum housing, poverty and high crime where many gypsy and poor people lived. In 1958 the Conservative government in power promoted open immigration from the Caribbean to fill the shortage of workforce in the country due to many men being killed or injured in the World War 2. Many Londoners also did not want the low paid menial jobs on offer from public companies like Royal Mail or London Transport and neither did they want to live in derelict London and so moved out to new housing in areas like Essex.
Londons’ new workforce disgruntled many white Londoners’ at the time and West London areas such as Ladbroke Grove, Paddington and Notting Hill erupted in race riots. Cover ups by both the Home Office and Scotland Yard led to a lack of confidence in the police who had made false claims that the rioting was not about race. Years later police testimonies revealed this to be untrue. Constable Richard Bedford said he had seen a mob of over 300 to 400 white people shouting “We will kill all black bastards. Why don’t you send them home?” Another constable by the name of McQueen said that on the same night he was told “Mind your own business coppers. Keep out of it. We will settle these nigers our way. We’ll murder the bastards”. This caused distrust blacks to distrust the police. A distrust which is still present today. Further Reading can be found on the riots that reveal hidden information on the 5 nights of terrorism in Notting Hill that year.
After World War 2 the number of Caribbean migrant residents settling in London during what is known as the Windrush period was estimated at over 100,000 by 1961. Many Landlords would not rent to black families, with the slogans ‘no blacks, no Irish, no dogs’ written on doors of many establishments. Infamous landlords such Rachman bought many derelict properties in the area and decided he would only rent his substandard properties damaged in WW2 to blacks and Irish; who would group together and share housing and then invest in their own properties. There were often 2 or 3 families sharing one house.
Work was getting scarce for whites and in those days there was no social security, free health service or benefits. Financial pressure and ignorance bought about hostility toward the Caribbean community from the working class, ‘Teddy Boys’ and fascist right wing groups stirred up conflict in the area distributing anti-immigration leaflets. People such as Sir Oswald Mosley and his British Union Movement and ‘White Defence League’ held ‘Keep Britain White’ street meetings in protest against immigration, harassing black people and homeowners.
By 1958 unrest was brewing in the Notting Hill area and gangs of Teddy Boys took it on themselves to attack any Caribbean shops or business as violence towards black people in the country continued to get out of hand. Two incidents on the 24 August in Shepherds Bush and Notting Hill left several black men injured and in hospital after they were attacked by a group of white youth’s intent on harming with weapons such as iron bars and knives.
Just a few days later things took an even worse turn and riots broke out in West London. On 29 August 1958 a married couple, Jamaican husband Raymond and his white Swedish wife were having an argument near Latimer Road tube station. The argument escalated as crowds involved themselves. Shortly after 400 white men gathered together as a lynch mob and pursued any Caribbean resident. Backed against the wall Blacks had no choice but to join forces to defend themselves against the attacks on their person and homes.
All hell broke loose as weapons including glass bottles and petrol bombs were thrown at innocent West-Indian residents. Clashes continued each night until finally the police took control and arrested 140 people of who were mainly white and some blacks who had armed themselves in defence. Morrison later went on to write an autobiographical book, Jungle West 11 (Tandem Books, London 1964) were she describes what happened that day.
As an act of solidarity and defiance in response to the racist attacks 5 months later in January 1959 the first carnival was held in central London at St Pancras town hall as an inside event. Organisers of the event included Claudia Jones amongst others and in 1965 Notting Hill Carnival became an annual outdoor parade.
However despite this, tensions from the riot were still evident and in the month of May 1959 Antiguan Carpenter Kelso Cochrane was set upon by a gang of white men on his way home from Paddington General Hospital after breaking his thumb at work. He was stabbed through the heart with a Stiletto knife and died in Kensal Rise (known as Kensal New town back then). The murder marked a social turning point and over 1,200 people both black and white attended his funeral. Shortly after in the same year Oswald Mosley head of the ‘British defence league’ lost his place as the leader of the ‘British Union Movement’.
Cochrane was the Stephan Laurence of his day as his murderers were never convicted. A journalist named Mark Olden wrote a book called ‘Murder in Notting Hill’ uncovering the murderer as 20 year old Patrick Digby who was tried in Court but cleared. His step daughter in an interview with Olden described Digby as an “over the top racist’ and admitted to the Olden that she had accused her stepfather of murdering Cochrane to which he replied “yeah, so what if i did. You can’t prove nothing”.
Carnival is still an event that most people of colour look forward to celebrating every year. In 2018 what we need to remember is that many of our Grandparents came to the UK from commonwealth countries with British passports and had helped to build the country into what it was and what it is today. We should never forget those that came before us and that Notting Hill Carnival is in fact a celebration of what those that came before us went through for us to be here today.