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Woman in costume at Notting Hill Carnival

The untold story of Notting Hill Carnival

For many Londoners, it is difficult now to imagine August bank holiday weekend without Notting Hill Carnival. The bang of steel drums, the vibrant costumes and the whiff of jerk chicken is what defines this day to a lot of people living in the capital.

But the feeling of camaraderie in the air, as revellers - men, women, young, old, many tipsy, most hammered - all dance and eat together, regardless of race, creed or colour, wasn't always present on the streets of west London. In fact, on Friday August 29 1958, the overall feeling was rather one of unadulterated hate as five nights of violence began and five men embarked on what they called a "n****r hunting expedition".

The crowd at Notting Hill Carnival Credit: Reuters

According to reports, the Notting Hill race riots all started with a minor domestic dispute between a black man and his white wife. Majbritt Morrison was arguing with her Jamaican husband Raymond Morrison at Latimer Road tube station when a white crowd emerged to defend her and a fight broke out between them and Morrison's Jamaican friends.

That first night left five black men lying unconscious on the pavements of Notting Hill and by the next evening, a 200-strong mob were storming through the streets of Notting Hill with butcher's knives and iron bars screaming "Down with the n****rs" and "Go home you black bastards".

Over the next five nights, a mob of 300 to 400 people attacked the homes of West Indian residents and ultimately, the Metropolitan Police Commissioner stated that 108 people were charged with crimes including grievous bodily harm, affray, rioting and possessing offensive weapons. Of those charged, 72 were white and 36 were people the police report referred to as "coloured".

It was something that had arguably been waiting to happen. The labour shortage at the end of World War II had invited mass immigration to London and the rest of the United Kingdom, meaning that West Indians, Jews, Greeks, Spaniards and the Irish arrived in their thousands, much to the disgust of certain factions of the working-class white people who lived in the poverty-stricken Notting Hill area. Soon enough, residents were accusing foreigners of taking their jobs, their homes, their women, and of playing loud music until the early hours. Racial tension could be found at every turn.

Woman in costume at Notting Hill Carnival Credit: Reuters

The Notting Hill race riots seemed like the inevitable consequence of a neighbourhood ravaged by blind prejudice and racism. But one woman refused to accept the bad taste the riots left in people's mouths. Claudia Jones was a Trinidad-born journalist and activist who had moved to the US with her parents aged nine. Possessing a talent for public speaking and a fierce belief that she should fight for what she believed in, she became a political activist who argued endlessly for the rights of black women.

But after being jailed four times for her politics and membership of the Communist Party, she was eventually expelled from America in 1955 and made her way to Britain to continue her activism, helping to mobilise black political action and resistance to racism.

Her Caribbean Carnival took place on January 30, 1959, at St Pancras Town Hall and featured calypso music, steel bands and a grand finale jump-up, as well as several other indoor Caribbean cabarets. Although the indoor event was a far cry from the carefree, electrifying carnivals that were held in Trinidad, it was a start and Jones, named by some as "the mother of Notting Hill Carnival", had struck a chord in the community.

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The first incarnation of Notting Hill as we know it now happened in 1966 and was the idea of British social worker Rhaune Laslett, who was born in east London to a Native American mother from North Carolina and a Russian father, and who proposed a more diverse event to promote cultural unity.

According to a 1989 interview with The Caribbean Times, the idea for the festival came to her in a vision where she dreamed of people of all races dancing and having fun together in the streets. She told them: “I could see the streets thronged with people in brightly coloured costumes, they were dancing and following bands and they were happy. Some faces I recognised, but most were crowds, men, women, children, black, white, brown, but all laughing.”

But how could Laslett ensure that all of these people would come to her event and feel welcome enough to stay? According to Ishmahil Blagrove's "A Photographic and Testimonial History of the Notting Hill Carnival", she consulted several people in the community, including Guyanese activist Andre Shervington and Trinidadian musician Russell Henderson, to find out how exactly to get the West Indian community involved.

After organising music, decorating house-drawn carts borrowed from traders and inviting an array of local residents coming from places like India, Ghana, Czechoslovakia and elsewhere, Laslett was ready to throw the first carnival. Blagrove wrote of how when Henderson's band began playing “pan”, West Indians flocked onto the street and "the group led a procession that wove up Portobello Road towards Notting Hill Gate and back again, gathering new revellers along the way". The carnival reminded West Indians of the home they had left behind and was a great success.

Women sell flags at Notting Hill Carnival Credit: Reuters

Over the coming years, the carnival pulled in many more guests: musicians, dancers and other performers. It remained diverse, but slowly became more West Indian, and Trinidadian. These days it is a fantastic spectacle which represents both London's multicultural past and present and welcomes two million people into its helms - a far cry from the estimated 500 who attended the first few.

Walk down the streets of west London this August bank holiday and they are guaranteed to be jam-packed with technicolour costumed partygoers, all bopping to reggae, dub and salsa. What is now the world's second biggest carnival after Rio is a much-needed bridge between many communities in the area and nowadays welcomes both locals and tourists who travel from all parts of the world to party.

That's not to say Notting Hill is without its problems - racial tensions, gang violence and overcrowding are a few of the multitude of issues that have resulted in government threats of ending the carnival or limiting it by ticketing.

However, every year when people come together to celebrate, for a few moments Rhaune Laslett's vision of men, women, children, black, white, brown laughing and dancing together becomes a reality. And a rather fabulous one at that.

If you can't get enough of summer celebrations, you most definitely need to hit up the annual West Indian Day Parade in New York soon. I'm telling you, you won't regret it.

  • Aug
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  • Emma Brazell