‘A People’s Art is the Genesis of Their Freedom’

The Notting Hill Carnival was established by two radical women as a pageant of solidarity against a wave of racist violence.

Decades after it began, Notting Hill Carnival continues to be a hub for radical cultural expression in the capital. (Photo by Evening Standard / Getty Images.)

In 1958, in a rather wet and cloudy August, Notting Hill exploded into racist violence. One evening, a fight between a white Swedish woman, Majbritt Morrison, and her husband Raymond, who was Jamaican, had drawn the attention of onlookers outside Ladbroke Grove tube station. A fight broke out between some of Raymond’s friends and some passing white men; the next night, Majbritt was assaulted in the street as she walked home by a group of young white men who threw bottles at her, hit her with an iron bar, and shouted racist epithets. This wasn’t an isolated incident: there had been racist violence in London all summer, as well as in other cities like Nottingham. Britain in the 1950s had an increasingly large black and Asian population, as people moved from across the empire and former empire to settle in the ‘motherland’; the 1948 British Nationality Act had given all imperial subjects the right to live and work in the United Kingdom. Some white British citizens welcomed this and their new neighbours; many reacted with suspicion, intolerance, and anger.

The riots in Notting Hill raged for about a fortnight, as young white men from the area attacked predominately West Indian houses and businesses. On the first night of riots, three to four hundred teddy boys who wanted to ‘Keep Britain White’ raged around West London armed with butchers’ knives and iron bars, leaving five young black men unconscious in the street. The police arrested and charged over a hundred people, overwhelmingly white; nine white men were sentenced to four years each in prison, intended as an exemplar to others who might be tempted to take up the racist cause.

Notting Hill Carnival grew out of this context, in a coming together of two distinct strands. The first was the first British Caribbean carnival, held the year after the riots in St Pancras Town Hall and televised by the BBC. This was organised by Claudia Jones, the pioneering journalist and political activist, who had also co-founded the West Indian Gazette with Amy Ashwood Garvey the previous year. This paper gave a voice to the capital’s West Indian community and launched countless writing careers. Jones was a formidable woman: born in Trinidad Claudia Cumberbatch, she had emigrated to New York as a child with her family, becoming involved with the Communist Party USA and the wider black feminist communist movement. Imprisoned under the McCarran Act, which forbade non–US citizens from being involved in communist politics, she was threatened with deportation to Trinidad, which refused to readmit her; after suffering from a heart attack in prison, she was eventually allowed admission to Britain on humanitarian grounds and settled in London in 1955.

Her work to organise a Mardi Gras–inspired carnival to ‘wash the taste of Notting Hill and Nottingham out of our mouths’ needs to be understood in the context of this wider political activism. This was a politics of community lived experience and a joyful celebration of what it meant to be black in Britain in the 1950s, featuring a steel band, a dance troupe, singers including Cleo Laine and Fitzgerald Henry (the ‘Mighty Terror’), and a Caribbean Carnival Queen beauty contest. The slogan of the event was ‘A people’s art is the genesis of their freedom’: this was a brave and defiant act of solidarity. It continued to take place annually, moving between Seymour Hall and the Lyceum, until Claudia’s death in 1964.

By 1966, the Carnival had moved to Notting Hill itself. In this, it drew on the work of another formidable female activist: Rhaune Laslett, who was born to a Native American mother and a Russian father and had lived in London all of her life. She became president of the ‘London Free School’ in 1966, a hippy organisation that sought to build cooperation and understanding between the different ethnic and religious groups living in Notting Hill. She worked with local artists to organise a free week-long festival, the Notting Hill Fayre and Pageant, which drew on English fete traditions and ended with a parade of floats and musical groups including a Trinidadian steel band, the London Irish girl pipers, and a West Indian New Orleans–style marching band. Again, this was not just a celebratory event, although it was joyful and inclusive, but also an act of community politics. After the first carnival, Rhaune acted on this momentum to set up the Notting Hill Neighbourhood Service, which offered various welfare services including advice about drugs and legal services.

The Carnival gradually took on a life of its own: initially identified with the Notting Hill community, it became more and more identified with the London Caribbean community more widely. Laslett handed organisation of the event over to the community: Leslie Palmer, who organised it from 1973–5, is widely credited with creating the carnival as it is experienced today, extending the route, recruiting more bands and creating a more developed infrastructure. But Rhuane Laslett and Claudia Jones must not be forgotten, and neither should the radical political roots that sit behind Carnival as it exists today.