Notting Hill Carnival first marched the streets of London in 1966 and every year since on the August Bank holiday, this year Sunday the 25th and Monday 26th of August. The carnival celebrates Black culture and is known as a lively and colourful event aimed at an all-inclusive crowd of all ages. So where and why did this vivid explosion of culture originate? As with many significant festivals in our annual calendar it is said to have risen from the ashes of a tragic incident, in this case a reaction to an emergence of racial conflict surrounding race riots in London in the late 1950s with white gangs attacking migrants in the streets of London.
At the end of the Second World War Britain saw an influx of migrants and tension began to increase in some white communities and far right political groups. The breaking point was reportedly when a white Swedish woman, Majbritt Morrison, and her Jamaican husband, Raymond Morrison, had a public argument at the Latimer Road Underground Station on 19th August 1958. A group of white people intervened and a fight broke out between them and some of Raymond’s friends who had also gathered at the scene. The following day a gang of white youths, who had reportedly seen the incident, physically assaulted Majbritt and racially abused her, calling her a “Black man’s trollop”. With an already unsettled population this was the spark that lit the fire and, later that night, a mob of 300-400 white people marched up Bramley Road attacking the houses of West Indian residents. This quickly turned into mass rioting across the whole Notting Hill area and the attacks, disorder and hostility continued until 5th of September. During the two weeks of ethnic conflict 140 arrests were made by the Metropolitan Police, mostly white youths but also some black people found carrying weapons. In total 108 people were charged with a variety of violent crimes ranging from grievous bodily harm to affray, of the 108 people charged 72 were white and 36 were black.
In response to the hostility in the area, on 30th of January 1959 Claudia Jones, editor of The West Indian Gazette, saw a call for a positive display of ethnic culture to boost morale in the diverse community and bring all the ethnicities of London together in a celebration. Jones organised a Caribbean Carnival held in St Pancras Town Hall, four and a half miles from where the conflict began at Latimer Road Station. The event showcased elements of a Caribbean style carnival such as calypso signing, steel bands, traditional games and a beauty queen contest.
So how did the Caribbean Carnival in St Pancreas Town Hall journey to the streets of Notting Hill? In August 1966 community activist and co-founder of the London Free School in Notting Hill, Rhaune Laslette-O’Brien (who is credited as the founder of Notting Hill Carnival), unaware of the indoor event down the road, organised a celebration, in conjunction with the school, to support diversity in the area. Laslette-O’Brien was born in London in 1919 to a Native American mother and Russian father. She was an humanitarian activist who ran a 24-hour legal advice service for immigrants and the homeless, set up a playground for children in the local area and created the progressive London Free School as a non racial, all-inclusive education centre for children of all backgrounds and ethnicities. The original carnival was intended to promote cultural unity and modelled on American street parties for children in the neighbourhood. It featured local residents from India, Ghana, Czechoslovakia, Ukraine and Cyprus and performances included Afro-Cuban, Nigerian and Irish music, a New Orleans-style marching band and Russell Henderson’s steel pan group who led the first ever procession up Portobello Road.
Over the years the two celebrations supposedly combined and took on a more definite Caribbean flavour, the carnival has become the biggest street party in Europe and the second largest carnival in the world after The Carnival in Rio. The costumes, food, performers and array of highly acclaimed and diverse music is a fantastic display of Black culture and has certainly achieved the multicultural unity in the area that its visionaries intended.