What is Notting Hill Carnival?
Notting Hill Carnival is a 3-day annual event that takes place on the streets of Notting Hill during late August bank holiday weekend. It’s a huge tourist attraction and an opportunity for everyone to come together and enjoy music, parades, food and other aspects of black culture.
The carnival follows the carnival traditions of the Caribbean, particularly Trinidad where the celebration’s roots can be traced to slavery and the pre-Lenten Mardi Gras masquerade balls held by the French plantation owners. The enslaved Africans weren’t allowed to participate in these balls so developed their own festival drawing on African dance traditions that ridiculed the slave owners through masquerade and song. Following the emancipation of enslaved Africans, many free men and women took to the street and continued these traditions.
The Windrush generation
Following World War Two, there was a serious shortage of labour in Britain. To help rebuild the economy, an estimated 1.3 million workers were needed. The British Government invited people from Commonwealth countries to come to the UK to take up the job vacancies that weren’t being filled.
The Empire Windrush was one of the first ships to bring people from the Commonwealth to the UK in search of jobs. These people became known as the Windrush Generation. Many took up the invitation to work as nurses, midwives, cleaners, cooks, and porters, as well as factory labourers or employed in the bus, underground, and rail services.
Notting Hill Race riots
By the 1950s, Brixton and Notting Hill had the largest population of Caribbean people in Britain. Over time racial tensions grew as housing became a problem and white families feared being displaced by Blacks. Their resentment was further fuelled by right-wing political groups who sought power on a platform of racial intolerance.
At this time Notting Hill was also a stronghold for fascist politician Oswald Mosley’s Union Movement, a far-right movement that urged the local white working-class population to “Keep Britain White”.
The London Caribbean Carnival
The very first version of Notting Hill Carnival was the London Caribbean Carnival. It was held indoors at St Pancras Town Hall in January 1959 in response to the racial attacks and increased tensions. The event was organised by Trinidadian, Claudia Jones, and televised by the BBC.
Claudia founded Britain’s first major Black newspaper, West Indian Gazette, in 1958 and has gone down in history as the Mother of Notting Hill Carnival which is not actually correct. She is certainly the Mother of Caribbean Carnival in Britain.
Jones’ Carnival was designed as a way of showing solidarity and strength within the growing Caribbean communities and an opportunity to celebrate their heritage in defiance of the race riots the year before. From then on, the carnival concept was born, and indoor events in halls were put on across London in the 1960s.
Prior to Claudia Jones’ launch of the London Caribbean Carnival, Caribbean carnival-themed events had taken place at other London venues – for example, in 1950, Trinidadian Boscoe Holder’s Bal Creole extravaganza was held at Alexandra Palace and screened on TV; Holder and his wife Sheila Clarke also had a BBC radio series called Caribbean Carnival. Other such events took place in the 1950s, including at the Connaught Rooms in 1952 and the Albert Hall in 1955, where a “Caribbean Carnival” included dancer Beryl Karikari, drummer/vocalist/bandleader Ray Ellington and calypsonian George Browne.
Claudia Jones’ indoor carnival ran for six years until her death in 1964 when another carnival began on the streets of west London.
Notting Hill Fayre
Whilst Claudia Jones is hailed as the Mother of the Caribbean carnival, social worker and activist Rhaune Laslett is without a doubt the actual Mother of the Notting Hill Carnival. Laslett, born in the East End to a Native American mother and Russian father, was a notable figure in the community of Notting Hill.
She said the idea for the festival came to her in a vision — a “hamblecha”, as it is known among Native Americans — in which she saw people of all races dancing together in the streets. In a 1989 interview with The Caribbean Times, she recalled her dream: “I could see the streets thronged with people in brightly coloured costumes, they were dancing and following bands and they were happy. Some faces I recognised, but most were crowds, men, women, children, black, white, brown, but all laughing.”
In collaboration with the London Free School, an adult education project she co-founded with photographer and political activist John “Hoppy” Hopkins, and various key members of the local community, Rhaune Laslett was instrumental in bringing about Notting Hill’s first multicultural street festival in 1966.
Outlining her aims for the event, Laslett explained that she wanted it to bring together the many cultural groups who lived in the area at the time. In the London Free School’s newsletter, The Grove, she reportedly wrote:
“We felt that although West Indians, Africans, Irish and many other nationalities all live in a very congested area, there is very little communication between us. If we can infect them with a desire to participate, then this can only have good results.”
The festival featured local residents from India, Ghana, Czechoslovakia, Ukraine and Cyprus. Performers included Nigerian musician Ginger Johnson and his Afro-Cuban band, Agnes O’Connell and her Irish Girl Pipers and a New Orleans-style marching band.
Trinidadian, Russell Henderson, who had also played for Claudia Jones at St Pancras Town Hall in 1959, readily accepted Laslett’s invitation to perform, and he led a steelpan procession that wove up Portobello Road and back, followed by a growing crowd. And that was the beginning.
With the help of Guyanese activist, Andre Shervington and his wife Barbara, Laslett was to continue to run the Notting Hill Carnival for the next five years.
The festival began to take on more militant connotations in response to the pressures that black people and the counter-culture scene were experiencing at the hands of the police and the Establishment. The Black Power movement had spread across the Atlantic and gripped the imagination of the black masses. For some, it became increasingly uncomfortable to have a woman identified as white sitting at the helm of what was by now seen as a distinctly black Caribbean cultural affair.
As her influence and control over the event gradually diminished, Rhaune Laslett decided to end her involvement in 1970 due to ill health.
A Trinidadian named Leslie Palmer took over the running and announced plans to turn Carnival into “an urban festival of black music incorporating all elements of Trinidad’s carnival“.
In the last few decades, many people have taken responsibility for organising the annual event, putting their own stamp on it and over time, the reasons we have a carnival and the original founders are unknown to many.
I remember my dad bundling us up in the car each year to attend the carnival, telling us about the part he played in the 1958 riots and stories from past carnivals. The year I got lost in a crowd and separated from my family was the last year I attended carnival (crowds, I hate them), but I still remember its importance: a celebration of Caribbean culture and unity.