Every year on August 27 and 28, London’s Notting Hill neighborhood is transformed into a festival of color and sound, but how does Europe’s largest street parade come about?
Feathers, vibrant costumes, and wild dancing mix with loud music from improvised Sound Systems. This is the Notting Hill Carnival, an event that fills the skies of the British capital with joy and lightheartedness. Its impact is palpable as soon as you step off Holland Park station. The overwhelming rhythms of soca waft in from afar, and the echoes of singing and cheering rip through the usual silence of the neighborhood, creating a kaleidoscope of people winding through the streets of Ladbroke Grove until they fade into the horizon.
The Notting Hill Carnival has become a mainstay of the London agenda, but it is not just a local celebration. It is, in fact, the largest street celebration in Europe, attracting participants of all ages and walks of life from all over the world. However, its beginning was anything but joyous, rooted in a history of contrasts far removed from the festive atmosphere that characterizes the days of late August.
When walking through the neighborhood today, it is hard to imagine that in the 1950s Notting Hill was an area marked by poverty, inhabited mainly by a community of West Indians who had come to London aboard the SS ship Empire Windrush in 1948. In addition, groups of young white men belonging to extremism had taken hold, with teddy boys regularly staining themselves with violence against immigrants.
The trigger point occurred on August 29, 1958, when Majbritt Morrison, a white Swedish woman, was arguing with her Jamaican husband Raymond outside the Latimer Road subway station. A group of teddy boys tried to intervene, which led to a small fight between them and some of Raymond Morrison’s friends. The next day, Majbritt was verbally and physically assaulted by a group of right-wing extremists, who pelted her with milk bottles and racist slurs, accusing her of having relations with a black man.
This spark was the trigger for one of the ugliest series of racial violence ever seen in the United Kingdom. Hundreds of white youths invaded the streets and threw homemade firebombs at the homes of black residents: Indians, Jamaicans, Africans. The first night of clashes left a tragic toll: five black men lay unconscious on the ground.
Violence raged for five days in the neighborhood streets during that holiday weekend. Meanwhile, the black community responded with counterattacks, but the true extent of the clashes remained obscure. The police downplayed the events, trying to paint the violence as the work of “thugs, both black and white,” but many members of the black community knew that this was not the truth. Much of the unrest had been caused by groups of 300-400 people belonging to the “Keep Britain White” movement, many of them teddy boys. Armed with iron bars, butcher knives and studded leather belts, they unleashed their fury against immigrants living in Notting Hill.
In an attempt to mitigate tensions, Claudia Jones, a Trinidadian-born activist, organized a Caribbean Carnival at St Pancras Town Hall in January 1959. In many ways, this event anticipated the current Carnival: a steel band played along with dancers and performers from Calypso, and the iconic Carnival Queen contest was also held.
Only a few months later, in May 1959, despite efforts to quell social tensions, Kelso Cochrane, a carpenter and aspiring lawyer of Antiguan descent, was killed in a racially motivated attack. This event marked the need to do more to protect the black community.
Thus, the Notting Hill Carnival took hold further, moving from the town halls to the main streets. In 1966, activist Rhaune Laslett and Andre Shervington organized a street party for neighborhood children, an event that evolved into a carnival procession. Famed jazz musician Russell Henderson joined the initiative, resulting in what we now know as the Notting Hill Carnival: a kaleidoscope of music, dancing, and processions through the streets of West London.
The violence of the 1950s in Notting Hill shook the United Kingdom profoundly, bringing to light a hidden racial conflict that was also reflected in the states of the American South during those years.
Today, the Notting Hill Carnival is a celebration of joy and a melting pot of ethnicities and generations. It has preserved the important sense of community of the early editions.
Over the years, the music component has also evolved, with performances by the likes of Jay Z, Stormzy, Wiley and Busta Rhymes. The event has established itself as one of the highlights of London’s annual agenda. One might be tempted to think that the racial tensions that characterized the area seventy years ago have been overcome, but the reality is that underlying problems still persist and infiltrate social dynamics.
Today’s Notting Hill is almost unrecognizable from the past, representing one of the most affluent areas of the city, with homes worth millions of pounds lining the streets. This is a tangible example of gentrification, a phenomenon that has affected many former immigration neighborhoods in London, pushing out residents because of unaffordable rents.