How Notting Hill Race Riots Inspired London’s Caribbean Carnival

Revellers at Notting Hill Carnival
Revellers at Notting Hill Carnival | © Charlie Marshall / Flickr
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History Editor
Updated: 19 June 2019
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Notting Hill Carnival is London’s biggest street party with costumed revellers and steel bands bringing the city to life in a colourful celebration of West Indian culture. In sharp contrast to its euphoric atmosphere, Carnival’s origins lie in race riots that saw the newly arrived immigrant population attacked by white nationalists.

When Majbritt Morrison argued with her husband Raymond Morrison outside Latimer Road Tube station on 29 August 1958, neither could have anticipated what happened next. The mixed-race couple’s argument – Majbritt was Swedish and Raymond, Jamaican – became the catalyst for racially motivated attacks carried out by a white nationalist subset of the youth movement called the Teddy Boys.

This sub-group was long critical of West Indian immigration to the North Kensington district, especially when it came to interracial relationships. When Majbritt rebuffed Ted’s attempts to aid her, they flung insults at her, calling her a “black man’s trollop”.

Police break up riots in Notting Hill in 1958
© Daily Sketch/REX/Shutterstock

The following night, Notting Hill erupted in violence as hundreds of young white men took to the streets, throwing home-made firebombs at the homes of black residents. One resident described the experience to the BBC: “They’re marking the outside of the houses for the [Teddy] Boys to know where to bomb and where not to bomb.” The attacks continued until 5 September.

The end of the Notting Hill riots was far from the end of racism against Britain’s West Indian population. Some, like the disgraced politician Sir Oswald Mosley, used the political climate to incite more racial tension. In 1959, Mosley ran for the North Kensington parliamentary seat on a platform that called for forced repatriation of West Indian people and a ban on interracial marriages. Mosley was defeated, and instead community activists focussed on a way to show white Britons what the West Indian population had to offer in terms of cultural wealth.

Carnival became a source of healing for London’s West Indian population

The very first London Caribbean Carnival was held indoors at St Pancras Town Hall in January 1959. The event, televised by the BBC, was organised by Claudia Jones, who has gone down in history as the Mother of Caribbean Carnival in Britain.

Jones, born in Trinidad, moved to the US as a child where she was later exiled for her Communist beliefs. Jones moved to the British Isles in 1955 and was a part of a larger movement of black writers and artists who aimed to empower black diaspora through cultural education and representation.

West Indian immigrants to Britain during the post-war period had experienced a series of disappointments upon their arrival. Dubbed the Windrush generation– a reference to the ship Empire Windrush which arrived from Jamaica in 1948 – hundreds of British subjects left their homes after WWII, eager to find success in the ‘motherland’, only to receive a lukewarm welcome.

Women competing in a beauty pageant for London Carnival in 1959
© Frank Rust/ANL/REX/Shutterstock

Jamaican immigrant Constance Nembhard recalls to The Conversation: “We grew up under the colonial system and we knew everything about England – everything. And we came here, nobody had ever heard of Jamaica. I mean few, few, people. And it was funny, the few who had heard of Jamaica treated you differently. Those who had never heard, they all had the opinion that we lived in trees.”

In 1958, Jones started the UK’s first weekly black newspaper, the West Indian Gazette, later the West Indian Gazette and Afro-Asian Caribbean News, which gave the community a chance to connect in their new home. Jones used the network she created through her newspaper subscription to rally the victims together after the violence. One of her writers, Donald Hinds, remembers that Jones sought to “wash the taste of Notting Hill and Nottingham out of our mouths” following the riots. Carnival, as a vibrant celebration of black freedom in the Caribbean, was a perfect way to heal.

Jones’s carnival was mainly celebrated by West Indians and became a yearly festivity until her death in 1964. However, the event was still regarded with suspicion from white Brits. Immigrant populations across Britain continued to complain of discrimination from landlords, employers and businesses. Eventually, Members of Parliament passed the first Race Relations Act in 1965, which made racial discrimination illegal.

Notting Hill Carnival was originally Notting Hill Fayre

Though undoubtedly influenced by Jones’s event, Notting Hill Carnival was initially modelled after a traditional British fete. The event was put on by community activist and one of the founders of the London Free School, Rhaune Laslett, who aimed to highlight the cultural richness of the area.

Laslett, born to a Native American mother and Russian father, saw Notting Hill’s diversity as something to be celebrated. The week-long festival was called Notting Hill Fayre and included pageants, food stalls and music, and the celebrations ended with a parade reminiscent of carnival processions.

Notably, Laslett invited the musician Russell Henderson and his Trinidadian steel band to perform for the crowd. Henderson also performed at Jones’s carnival and was well loved in the West Indian community. In conjunction with the London Free School, the Notting Hill Fayre intended to give Londoners exposure to the cultures around them in the hopes that they would find common ground.

Crowd gathers to listen to the steel band at Notting Hill Carnival 1977
© ANL/REX/Shutterstock

Henderson initially played on a stage, but the atmosphere didn’t feel dynamic enough. As Henderson recalled to The Guardian before his death in 2015: “I said, ‘We got to do something to make this thing come alive.’” That meant an impromptu procession through the streets, led by the distinctive beat of his band’s calypso music.

“There was no route, really – if you saw a bus coming, you just went another way,” said Henderson. The spectacle was captivating and revolutionary. It became a symbol of the endurance of West Indian culture and identity in the North Kensington district.

Under Laslett’s direction, Notting Hill Fayre was only loosely associated with carnival, but as the area’s West Indian population established itself, their presence became dominant. Most came to the event after hearing of Henderson’s march through Notting Hill, and after Laslett relinquished control of the festivities to the residents of the city, the Fayre was transformed into Carnival.

Today, the event is a signature of London’s summer. Notting Hill Carnival is a delightful celebration of the resilience of the city’s West Indian community. Despite the gross racial violence and discrimination they faced, carnival became a way for West Indian people to assert their belonging to the motherland.

Children in costume for Notting Hill Carnival
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