By the end of the Second World War, London was a city that had survived, but was in many ways a drab and wounded place. An associated labour shortage attracted Britain’s colonial Caribbean citizens to increase the volume of the much needed, if not appreciated, working classes, and the first large group to arrive were filmed disembarking from HMT Empire Windrush at Tilbury Docks in June 1948. Mostly young, they brought with them vibrant colour, energy and a distinctly Caribbean vibe (hear calypsonian Lord Kitchener singing London is the Place for Me as he steps onto British soil).
By the late 1950s, Brixton and Notting Hill had the densest populations of Caribbean people in Britain. Caribbean people had long been encouraged to think of themselves as bona-fide and deserving British citizens, yet anti-immigration feeling grew, alongside unofficial colour bars that made it difficult for new arrivals to find accommodation and employment. Simmering tensions boiled over into the Notting Hill Race Riots in 1958, and then tragically in 1959 a young Antiguan man, Kelso Cochrane, who lived in Notting Hill, was attacked and murdered by a group of white youths.
Using her persuasive oratory and her newspaper, the West Indian Gazette, Trinidadian activist Claudia Jones brought together seemingly disparate groups of immigrants. Crucially, Jones employed the weapons of art and culture, “in the face of the hate from the white racists”. With strong support from like-minded individuals, such as Edric and Pearl Connor, Sam King and actor and activist Paul Robeson, she organised arts and political events. On 30 January 1959, Jones organised an annual fundraising ‘Caribbean Carnival’, which was televised by the BBC and ran for six years until her death.
The outdoor celebration with which most people are familiar dates to late September 1966, when a week-long Notting Hill Fayre took place, organised by community worker Rhaune Laslett. Members of the local community with roots in Africa, the Caribbean, Cyprus and India helped to make the event a reality. Laslett co-opted as much local talent as she could for opening and closing processions, including Guyanese activist Andre Shervington and well-known Trinidadian jazz pianist and pannist Russell Henderson.
Henderson had played for Claudia Jones’ 1959 event, but in 1966 he, Sterling Betancourt and Ralph Cherrie took steelpan to the streets. Caribbean residents responded enthusiastically, pouring out of their homes to follow the “pan men on de road”; it was this that unquestionably brought the uniquely Caribbean flavour into the 1966 festival, and Caribbean music out onto the streets.
Leslie Palmer, a Trinidadian teacher, served as Director of Notting Hill Carnival from 1973 until 1975. He organised sponsorship for bands, encouraged more steelbands to become involved and brought reggae bands into the carnival, whilst still retaining the magic of traditional masquerade. Palmer is best known for having invited static sound systems into carnival for the first time.
This provoked some opposition, especially from the steelbands, but Palmer defended his decision, later explaining: “The sound systems were the voice of the youth and the people, and to have a carnival and to leave that out was to ignore the demands of the people, because the sound systems were really the most popular entertainment for the youths.”
Palmer’s organisational abilities laid a foundation for his successors at the helm of the rapidly growing carnival. One such was Claire Holder, a Trinidadian barrister and CEO of Notting Hill Carnival for 10 years. A legacy of the Holder era is the formal division of Carnival into five art forms: costumed masquerade, calypso, mobile sounds, static sound systems, and steelbands.
Notting Hill Carnival 2023 is scheduled to be held on Sunday 27 and Monday 28 August 2023.