“There was a battle, a pitched battle, in Powis Terrace where I lived. I looked through the fifth floor window where I was, and there was a battle between black men, policemen, white yobbos and Teddy Boys. I mean, the street was alight, except for fires and that – Molotov cocktails and so on. And blood was everywhere and it was awful.”
As the ‘biggest street party in Europe’, the Notting Hill Carnival, comes round again, it’s always worth remembering its origins… With the myth of British tolerance and a somewhat blinkered view of our past as rosy and open, the Carnival is often held up as an example of the best in multi-cultural Britain, evidence of how easily and warmly the UK welcomes incomers. It’s essential even for tory leaders to turn up, parade, or at least pretend to approve. The friendliest police are wheeled out. It’s even sometimes mentioned (though not on the bbc news) that Carnival was born after the race riots of 1958, when white gangs, inspired at least if not organized by rightwing groups, launched racist attacks on Afro-Caribbean migrants in Notting Hill.
Carnival evolved in the West Indies from a heady mix of Spanish and French catholic religious traditions, mixing with dances and parades from the culture of the African slaves shipped to the Caribbean in their thousands…
West Indians migrating to Britain in the 1950s, created Carnival in its west London incarnation, however, in 1959-60 as a way of both bringing white and black communities together, and celebrating the migrant Caribbean culture that was to some extent under siege by racism from whites in Notting Hill, West London.
Notting Hill was one of the areas where the first generation of West Indians moving to Britain after World War 2 had begun to build a community.
The initial migrants from the West Indies faced a wall of racism, hostility and discrimination in many arenas in those first years; housing was one. Many landlords wouldn’t rent houses or flats to black people (the infamous sign in the front window of houses to rent being: ‘No Irish No Blacks no Dogs’). In some neighbourhoods such restrictions were less rigidly applied. Often the poorest places, the slums, where vicious landlords were willing to let run-down, rat-infested housing at inflated rents to people who had nowhere else to go…
Notting Hill had been home to the poorest for a century – migrants, casual workers, the lowest paid. West Indians found homes here…
They also found prejudice: resentment from poor white working class locals, xenophobia and fear of the other and economic competition, all fanned by a jumble of fascist groups – the White Defence League, Oswald Mosley’s Union Movement, the National Labour Party and more… all active in the area, stirring it up, provoking hatred where fear already was… For instance, from January 1958 the Union Movement held regular street corner meetings in Notting Hill, outside Kensington Park Road synagogue. “When Mosley came down to Notting Dale some people were sympathetic to his cause, that can’t be denied. He recruited some workers from the Thames Gas Board coal and coke wharf near Ladbroke Grove and local Teddy boys. Some of these were little stinkers, but we were living in uncertain times and Mosley provided people with instant solutions; scapegoating the blacks and Irish, telling people that it was their fault that we had poor housing and that they would take all the jobs.” (‘The Story Of Notting Dale’, Ron Greenwood)… Colin Jordan’s White Defence League had its base on Tavistock Road, from where a swastika flag is flown, loud militaristic music played and ‘The Black and White News’ distributed… fascists also had a base in Princedale Road.
Teddyboys proved a fertile recruiting ground for the fash; young white working class teens, a growing subculture, already well-known for violence, both between teds from different areas, against the police and authority in general, but easily also slipping into racist attacks.
Racist attitudes increased turning into violent attacks on black people through the summer of 1958: coming to a head in the last week of August. On the 24th ten white youths committed serious assaults on six West Indian men in four separate incidents. Just prior to the Notting Hill riots, there was racial unrest in Nottingham, which began on 23 August, and continued intermittently for two weeks.
The rioting was triggered by an assault against Majbritt Morrison, a white Swedish woman, on 29 August. Morrison was arguing with her Jamaican husband Raymond Morrison at the Latimer Road tube station. A group of various white people attempted to intervene in the argument and a small fight broke out between the intervening people and some of Raymond Morrison’s friends.
The following day, August 30th, Majbritt was verbally and physically attacked by a gang of white youths who threw milk bottles at Morrison and called her racial slurs such as “Black man’s trollop”, she was also struck in the back with an iron bar.
Later that night a mob of 300 to 400 white people, many of them Teddy Boys, were seen on Bramley Road attacking the houses of West Indian residents. The disturbances, rioting and attacks continued every night until 5 September, although the worst of the aggro was over by the 3rd…
Crowds of white youths roamed the area every night for days, attacking any black people in the street, attacking houses where black people were living, with bricks, petrol bombs… After repeated warning from the community had failed to rouse the police to take any action against the white mobs, local blacks got together to resist the racists by force… “black men used to come from surrounding areas, like Paddington and Brixton and Shepherd’s Bush, knowing they’re going to hit this particular street, knowing the whites were going to hit this particular street, this particular night. They would come in solidarity, to fight. In other words, many black people felt, In for a penny, in for a pound.”
“lt’s decided to make a stand at Totobag’s cafe at 9 Blenheim Crescent, between Portobello and Kensington Park Road… As the tension mounts the rest of the afternoon is spent amassing an armoury of weapons, including milk bottles, petrol and sand for Molotov cocktails. Then they wait. An estimated 300 in all, men in ‘The Fortress’ at No. 9, women across the road in No. 6, with lights out and curtain’s drawn. At 10pm a white mob starts sniffing around and there’s shouts of “Let’s burn the niggers out.” At which point the top floor windows of No. 9 are opened and Molotov cocktails rain down, scattering the whites. Baron Baker says he ironically shouts, “Get back to where you come from!” and everybody charges out of Totobag’s waving machetes and cleavers. Only a few of the white rioters stick around to throw missiles back. Then a Black Maria hurtles onto Blenheim Crescent and rams the front door of No. 9. Michael de Freitas, Baron Baker, 6 other blacks and 3 whites are subsequently arrested for causing affray. With Jamaican reinforcements coming in from Brixton to counter the white attacks, the police finally get their act together. Just before things develop into out and out race war. On the Monday night they mount one of the biggest co-ordinated policing operations of the 50s. 11 radio-cars and a few Black Marias are soon in the vicinity of Blenheim Crescent. While, at the same time, a house in Bard Road, back on Latimer Road, is attacked by 50 or more white youths, in retaliation for a fire-bomb attack on Mosley’s Portobello HQ, other side of Westway. A paraffin lamp is thrown through the ground floor window setting light to a bed. Then a big black woman runs out into the street brandishing an axe and shouting ‘I’ll murder you for this!’ Whereupon the white rioters turn and run.”
The West Indian resistance finally prompted the police (who had been widely accused of turning a blind eye to the violence if not actively condoning it) to make an attempt to get to grips with the situation. They couldn’t have people organising their own self-defence – where would it end? When a large crowd of would be white rioters marched down looking for trouble, this time the police dispersed them and made 50 arrests. The night of Tuesday 2nd was said to be relatively quiet’.
Sporadic incidents continued until September 5th, and black people, who had been avoiding going out, started to venture from their homes…
‘Only a few frightened faces were to be seen among the debris of bricks, broken glass and traces of blood that littered west London. Notting Hill was deathly quiet and unnaturally deserted and police kept a low profile. Pubs, which had been packed during the riot weekend, were now almost empty…’ A month after the riots some still kept their lights out at night and whites are also wary of going out after dark.
More than 140 people were nicked during the disturbances, mostly white youths but also many black people found carrying weapons to defend themselves. A report to the Metropolitan Police Commissioner stated that of the 108 people charged with crimes such as grievous bodily harm, affray and riot and possessing offensive weapons, 72 were white and 36 were black.
In 2002, files were released that revealed that senior police officers at the time had assured the Home Secretary, Rab Butler, that there was little or no racial motivation behind the disturbance, despite testimony from individual police officers to the contrary.
In January 1959, five months after the riot, the first carnival was held indoors at St Pancras town hall in central London as an act of solidarity and defiance in response to the racist events. Black radical Claudia Jones among others, was central to organising the event which in 1965 became an annual outdoor parade in Notting Hill. But the tensions that led to the riot had one more act to play out – in May 1959, a carpenter from Antigua, Kelso Cochrane, was stabbed to death in Kensal Rise by a gang of white men. More than 1,200 people, both black and white, attended his funeral, which, in some ways more than the riots, began the process of reversing the racist feeling…
An entry in the 2016 London Rebel History Calendar – check it out online