Darcus Howe said he took part in the first Notting Hill Carnival – and then claimed that was in 1964, 1965 and 1966! So let’s dig deep to find the roots of London’s great carnival.
Last year we celebrated the 70th anniversary of the arrival of Empire Windrush, the ship that brought over the first big group of Caribbean migrants. Many found work in London’s health and transport systems. They settled where accommodation was cheap – including cold, damp rooms in bomb-battered Notting Hill and North Kensington.
No warm welcome awaited them; white youths accused the incomers of stealing ‘their’ women and jobs, and attacked them. In late August 1958, rioting broke out and lasted for days.
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 community worker Rhaune Laslett. Seeking local talent, she found the Russ Henderson trio playing in the Coleherne pub in Earl’s Court. Henderson was a multi-talented musician who had teamed up with Ralph Cherrie and Sterling Betancourt to create the capital’s first resident steelband. In 1964 Laslett organised a children’s event at which Henderson’s pan-round-the-neck side made an impromptu appearance, repeated the following year.
Laslett then hit on the idea of a week-long arts festival dubbed the ‘Notting Hill Fayre’. She invited the panmen to play at a parade to open the festival. On 18 September 1966, history was made as homesick West Indians streamed out of their houses in response to the sweet sound of steelpan. The parade turned into a carnival.
After Laslett pulled out in 1970, the style became more overtly Caribbean. Leslie Palmer introduced Jamaican static sound systems in 1973, and the number of mas bands (costume groups) and steelbands grew. So did the crowds and the controversy, after Carnival 1976 ended in pitched battles between local youngsters and police. Despite the tensions, this was an exciting and creative period for Notting Hill Carnival, as competitions for steelbands, mas and calypso began and steelpan was introduced into London schools.
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, some people say Notting Hill has lost its way, with too many powder and T-shirt bands and not enough ‘real mas’. Last year, controversy continued after an enforced change of carnival management.
In November last year, Notting Hill Carnival Limited (NHCL) were awarded £300,000 in grants from the Royal Borough of Kensington & Chelsea (RBKC) towards running the next three years of the carnival.
But Carnival is resilient: like Japanese knotweed, the more you try to beat it down, the stronger it grows up again!
So let’s add 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!”