The history of Notting Hill Carnival is a lot harder to pin down than you’d imagine for an event that’s only in its 51st year. We’ll try to shed a little light on its mysterious past!
Many of people who left the Caribbean to work on London’s buses, trains and hospitals after the Second World War settled in Notting Hill and North Kensington. In the 50s and 60s it was a slum area the flats were cold, damp and draughty and the landlords rapacious. Local white youths accused the incomers of stealing ‘their’ women and attacked them, which in late August 1958 led to days of rioting.
In response, activist and journalist Claudia Jones promoted an indoor ‘carnival’ in St Pancras Town Hall in January 1959 as a showcase for Caribbean talent. It was a huge success that was repeated in different venues each year until Jones’s untimely death in 1964.
The baton was picked up by a social worker named Rhaune Laslett, who wanted a way of bringing the area’s diverse communities together. She hit on the idea of a week-long ‘Notting Hill Fayre’. Luckily, she came across the Russ Henderson trio playing in the Coleherne pub in Earl’s Court. Henderson was a steelpan player who had come over with TASPO, the first steelband ever to visit England, in 1951.
The first outing for his pan-round-the-neck side was in 1964 for a small children’s event, but the panmen made a bigger impact playing at the opening parade of Laslett’s ‘Fayre’. Homesick West Indians streamed out of their houses as they heard the distinctive strains of a steelband. The parade began to turn into a carnival.
After Laslett pulled out in 1970, it became more overtly Caribbean in style. Leslie Palmer introduced Jamaican static sound systems and the number of mas bands (costume groups) and steelbands grew. So did he crowds grew and controversy after the riot of 1976. But despite the tensions, this was an exciting and creative time for Notting Hill Carnival, as competitions for steelbands, mas and calypso began and steelpan was introduced into London schools.
After a period of mismanagement, barrister Claire Holder took over leadership of the carnival in 1989. She professionalised the organisation and brought in title sponsors, which helped finance the pre-carnival costume gala and prizes for competition winners. Since her departure in 2002 (another controversy!), some people feel Notting Hill may have lost its way, with too many powder and T-shirt bands and not enough ‘real mas’.
But fashion is fickle and Carnival is resilient, so all that may change again. Like Japanese knotweed, the more you try to beat it down, the stronger Carnival grows up again!
So let’s add a little more to Notting Hill’s history this year. In the words of Brother Marvin, “We havin fun, sun or rain why? It’s Carnival time again!”