Search (Features)

Saturday, 24 August 2013 00:00

A shameful episode in history

by Peter Frost

As London gets ready for this weekend's Notting Hill Carnival Peter Frost remembers the race riots 55 years ago which led to the event's founding

Today Notting Hill Gate is one of the poshest places to live in London.

Properties sell for multimillion-pound prices to Hollywood stars, Russian oligarchs and anyone else with a spare five million-plus looking for a nice address in London.

But 55 years ago, in 1958, it was much less desirable. Poor working-class housing and many slum streets made it a place where some of London's new black citizens were forced into substandard housing.

It was exactly 10 years before, in the summer of 1948, that the steamship the Empire Windrush had docked in Tilbury from the West Indies.

On board were Caribbean workers who had been lured to Britain by the promise of well-paid jobs, good homes and a better life.

The reality in north-west London, where I lived, was a bit different.

Oswald Mosley had briefly returned to Britain and was doing what he could to stir up racial hatred.

Mosley would fight the 1959 general election in Kensington North which covered Notting Hill. His son Max - yes, that Max Mosley - was election agent for his father's Union Movement campaign.

"No blacks or Irish need apply" was a common site on factory gates and in multiple occupation house windows.

I grew up just a few miles down the Harrow Road in Harlesden, just a little less than four miles from Notting Hill itself.

I was just 12 in the summer of 1958 and late one night I was awakened from my sleep by an incredible noise.

A gang of people were attacking a house just two doors away from mine. They had flaming torches and they were intent in burning down the only house in our street occupied by a West Indian family. Their racist taunts and abuse made their motives very clear.

This horrendous gang was made up of some local teddy boys, some members of Mosley's Union Movement and some White Defence League people who were active in the area and who held street meetings in Harlesden.

Their clear inspiration was the Klu Klux Klan actions they had seen reported from the US. We'd all seen the burning crosses on the cinema newsreels.

The black family were driven out and their house gutted and I never saw my first black mate Winston again, although I still remember his demon bowling in our cricket matches against the chalked-up wicket on a bombsite wall.

Just up the road, in Notting Hill itself, the violence and riots were making the headlines.

The main riot started on Friday August 29 when a gang of white youths attacked a Swedish woman.

The woman Majbritt Morrison had a Jamaican husband Raymond. Majbritt and her husband were attacked by a gang of white teddy boys at Latimer Road Tube station.

They had shouted racial insults at the couple but rather than be intimidated, Majbritt had given as good as she got.

The next night, the same youths came across her again. This time they pelted her with bottles and stones. One hit her with an iron bar.At last the police arrived and she was escorted home.

That same night a mob of 300 to 400 white people, including Mosley's bully boys, some still in black shirts, teddy boys and other racists attacked the houses of West Indian residents in a local street, Bramley Road.

The disturbances, rioting and attacks continued every night for some days spreading across the area.

The police arrested over 140 people during the two weeks of the disturbances. Some were white youths but a third were black people defending their homes and communities.

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.

Predictably both the police and the government declared the violence had no racial content.

In fact it was one of the most shameful times in Britain's history of race relations.

One good thing came out of the riots - the Notting Hill Carnival.

Claudia Jones, a Trinidad-born US communist, had been expelled from the US and come to London to live.

Jones brought together members of the black British community, as well as various international leaders, including Cheddi Jagan of British Guiana, Norman Manley of Jamaica and Eric Williams of Trinidad and Tobago.

As a result, Jones identified the need to "wash the taste of Notting Hill ... out of our mouths."

She suggested that the British black community should have its own Caribbean carnival.

The first was held in St Pancras town hall in January 1959. Jazz guitarist Fitzroy Coleman and singer Cleo Laine performed and the event was televised nationally by the BBC.

Funds raised from the event were used to pay the court fees and fines of young black men convicted in the riots.

Today Notting Hill is far more famous for its huge street carnival than for those obscene racist riots in that hot summer of 1958.

Search (Features)

Search (Features)