Thursday, August 21, 2008
Notting Hill riots - 50 years on
By Alice Bhandhukravi
BBC News, London
As Notting Hill prepares for this weekend's carnival, the memory of what happened on those streets exactly 50 years ago remains etched on the memory of the community.
August 1958 saw some of the worst rioting in British history in what is now one of London's most trendy and sought-after neighbourhoods.
But 50 years ago the working-class area in west London, known as 'Notting Dale', was little more than a slum.
Newly arrived migrants from the Caribbean had settled in the Colville area alongside the white working-class, and it was an uncomfortable existence.
'Colour bars' saw black people turned away from pubs and consequently 'shebeens' or illegal bars sprung up providing social places for black people.
Landlords refused to rent to black families, advertising for rooms to rent specifying 'no coloureds' while other crammed several people into one room and charged over the odds.
Velma Davis remembers arriving in the area as a young woman from Trinidad in 1957.
"Accommodation was the big problem. In those days they had big signs.
"Signs were up at the windows - no blacks, no Irish, no dogs, no children. So that was difficult."
She said Teddy boys hung out on street corners, and at night they took to 'hunting' black men who they perceived to be 'taking their women'.
Ms Davis said racist insults were regularly thrown at her in the street.
"I didn't know they were talking to me because where I came from I didn't know about black and white."
There were isolated beatings in the months preceding the August Bank Holiday but it was riots in Nottingham that prompted an eruption of violence in the already tense Notting Hill.
Local historian Tom Vague said it began with an "innocuous domestic dispute" between a Jamaican guy, Ray Morrison, and his Swedish wife Majbritt outside Latimer Road Tube station.
"It was a really poor area at that time. A group of white men were heckling Ray and then she shouted back at them.
"Some West Indian men turned up. It was just a scuffle between the black and white men but that was the incident which set off the riot weekend."
It was the catalyst for widespread attacks on black homes by white mobs, wielding sticks, bottles and iron bars.
The black community responded with the height of the fighting raging outside Totobags Café in Blenheim Crescent - a black hang-out now famous for the travel bookshop which featured in the film Notting Hill.
Mr Vague said: "At the climax of the riots the mob surged out of Notting Dale to the east across Ladbroke Grove to attack the Colville area".
Race relations Act
Hundreds of people were arrested, the majority of which were white.
While racism was overt, slum housing and poor living conditions have previously been blamed for the tensions between socially excluded groups.
The riots led to a strong desire to heal the social wounds inflicted by the fighting which eventually gave rise to the Notting Hill Carnival.
But the fighting in 1958 also paved the way for the first Race Relations Act of 1965 which outlawed racial discrimination.
Mary Gardiner who has worked in the voluntary sector in the area since the 1970s said the riots were a "watershed for community development".
"They showed us we had to work in partnership to make things better for all people.
"We shouldn't be ashamed. It's much better to look at what we learned and see how we grew from it than forget about it and pretend it didn't happen."
Know your history people, Carnival is not all jump and wine, its roots always lead to the soil of resistance and struggle, against oppression and subjugation.