Vibrant. Diverse. Energetic. These descriptors of the modern day Notting Hill carnival, encapsulate the bright, cultural event that occurs each year in August. However, the seemingly multicultural event has its roots in a darker part of British history, shrouded in racially motivated violence. But just how did the turmoil, stemming from racial injustice, give way to an emblem of hope and harmony, uniting people from all backgrounds?
The year is 1948. ‘Empire Windrush’ has just arrived at Tilbury Docks, London, and 492 migrants tentatively step foot off the ship and onto British soil for the first time1. Most are from the West Indies or other British Colonies; all are united by the common hope for a better life within the ‘mother country’. What started as a dream for each of the migrants would soon manifest into a harsher reality, as they found themselves marginalised by British citizens, and forced into separate communities, notably Clapham and Brixton, within London2.
Worse still for the migrants, no legal protection for them existed at the time, so they often found that they were denied service in hotels and shops, and would be made to pay unfair prices for housing. Moreover, racist sentiments were fuelled by the emergence of fascist groups in the UK, such as Oswald Mosley’s Union Movement3. These groups pushed for a halt in West Indian immigration to ‘protect British society’, and incited the actions of the English ”Teddy Boys”, who would roam the streets of neighbourhoods at night, with a violent intent.
”Take action now. Protect your jobs. Stop coloured immigration. Houses for white people – not coloured immigrants.”A racist pamphlet distributed by Oswald Mosley
Although attempts had been made to integrate the West Indians into British society, rising tensions came to peak in Notting Hill (August, 1958)4. On the 29th of August, Swedish born Majbritt Morrison and her Jamaican husband, Raymond Morrison were seen arguing at a tube station. Intervening groups tried to break up the argument, including a group of Raymond’s friends, and the next day, Majbritt was spotted by a group of ‘Teddy Boys’ who physically assaulted her and went on to spark the riot. Later that night, around 200-400 rioters were seen on the streets, attacking the houses of West Indians. This continued every night until the 5th of September, when the police arrested 108 people, 72 of whom were white5.
The aftermath of Notting Hill resulted in legal action to prevent further racist attacks. Nine white youths involved in the race riots were sentenced by Justice Salmon to five years in prison, and a £500 fine6. This was seen at its time as an example of ”exemplary sentencing”, aiming to be harsh enough so that it would deter any similar crimes. However, what was more important following the rioting, was the increased attempts made to integrate the West Indian community into English society. Claudia Jones, already having attempted this with the West Indian Gazette, was determined to create a safe and secure environment for both West Indians and British Nationals, to celebrate Caribbean culture, and recognised that the carnival format was the best way to do so.
Therefore, on the 30th of January, 1959 (coinciding with the Trinidadian carnival season), Claudia Jones hosted a ‘Caribbean carnival’ within St Pancras Town Hall. The event hosted a variety of different aspects of Caribbean culture, such as food, fashion, calypso music and colourful costumes. The event was seen as a huge success, and allowed British Nationals to become more aware of West Indian culture, and ultimately realise that there was much to learn about7. The carnival marked a huge stepping stone towards a more multicultural society, and paved the way for further activism and protest, for the British government to protect the status of its immigrants. The first official ‘Race Relations Act’, was passed in 1965, which made it unlawful for the service industry to reject serving anyone on the basis of their racial prejudice. Importantly, the act also made ‘incitement’ or the act of ‘stirring up racial hatred’, a crime in the UK, suggesting that they had learned from the tragedy in Notting Hill.
A test for the residents of Notting Hill came in October 1959, when a new General Election took place. Oswald Mosley, who had now left London, decided to return to Britain temporarily, and stand for election in the borough of North Kensington, where Notting Hill located. His manifesto demanded the forceful repatriation of West Indian immigrants, as well as the racial prohibition of mixed marriages, which he would lobby for in Parliament. However, the residents of the area stood strong against these suggestions, proving that they had learned from the past, and Mosley only received 8.1% of all the votes8. Tensions in Notting Hill were beginning to decrease, and the outcome of this election only helped to unify them further.
In 2006, Notting Hill Carnival was selected as a ‘icon’ of Britain9, and this is testament to the successful integration of ethnicities that it helped to bring about. While it may be a part of British culture, and an accepted celebration of people from all across the world, it once held the daunting task of creating a more harmonious society in London. It carries on that task today, and while we have come a long way from the racially motivated rioting of 1958, there is still a long way to go to ensure there are equal opportunities for everyone within the UK.
- Cindi John, ”Four Decades of UK Race Law”, BBC News, Dec. 13, 2005
- Marika Sherwood, ”Murder in Notting Hill”, Our Migration Story, 2006
- Ever Living Roots, ”Black British History – Rising Racial Tensions in 1950s Britain and the Birth of Notting Hill Carnival”, Ever Living Roots, Aug. 14, 2015
- University of Warwick Modern Records Centre, ”The Notting Hill Riots of 1958”, Warwick University Archives, Mar. 11, 2020
- Mark Olden, ”White Riot: the Week Notting Hill Exploded”, The Independent, Aug. 29, 2008
- Ashworth, Andrew, ”Sentencing and Criminal Justice.”, Cambridge University Press, 2000
- Josy Forsdike, ”Notting Hill Carnival: The Early Years”, The Guardian, Aug. 24, 2014
- Barberis, Peter; McHugh, John; Tyldesley, Mike, Encyclopedia of British and Irish Political Organisations, 2005
- BBC News, ”New Icons of Englishness unveiled”, BBC News, Apr. 27, 2006