Notting Hill Carnival; The ultimate display of Caribbean culture in London

By Rianna

It is impossible to call yourself a true Londoner and not have at least heard of Notting Hill Carnival. Every August bank holiday, North-West London comes grinding to a halt. You’ll be sure to see people in bright costumes or covered in paint (depending on the day), smell the sweet flavours of jerked meat and hear the bassline of a soca song blasting through the air. But do you know the history of Notting Hill Carnival (NHC)? 

Let’s travel back to the 1950s. People from the West Indies were migrating to the UK to aid the post-war effort. They had been invited over by the British Government with the promise of employment and housing. However, when they arrived they also received a lot of racism and discrimination. Upon arrival to London, many West Indians moved to an area in West London called Notting Hill. At that time the area was notoriously white working-class, which led to tensions running high between residents and their new neighbours. These tensions resulted in multiple racist attacks on the area’s new Black residents*. 

One summer’s evening in 1958, a group of white working class men, known as ‘Teddy Boys’ decided to brutally attack multiple West Indian men on separate occasions. Was there a reason for these attacks? Of course not, racism is never logical. No sense, just (bad) vibes. On this very rare occasion, the police moved swiftly and arrested the men involved. However, this upset other white residents who decided to take their upset to the streets. This led to what we know as the Notting Hill Riots of 1958. It was a very violent time period. The West Indian residents of the area decided to take a stand and defend themselves using the same violence they were being subjected to. Police eventually swarmed the area and many arrests were made; unsurprisingly, Black people were disproportionately more likely to be arrested despite the trouble having been started by the Teddy Boys. 

*It is important to note that whilst Black people were the main targets of the racist attacks, Indo-Caribbean people and other ethnic minorities were subject to racism too.

So, how did we go from riots to Carnival?

Meet Claudia Jones. 

Born in Trinidad in 1915, Claudia moved to the US as a child where she lived for most of her adult life. Whilst living in America, Claudia became heavily involved in political campaigning, becoming a Black Nationalist, a Black communist and fighting for women’s rights. However, it was her membership of the Communist Party which ultimately led to her being exiled to the UK in 1955. Once arriving on British shores, her campaigning for civil rights continued. Upon her arrival here, her activism continued and she of course joined the Communist Party GB. She is also known for starting the West Indian Gazette (later expanded to West Indian Gazette And Afro-Asian Caribbean News), which is thought to have been Britain’s first major Black newspaper. 

In the aftermath of the Notting Hill Riots, Claudia believed that Black Londoners needed something to boost their spirits. She took inspiration from her homeland, Trinidad, and in January 1959, Claudia organised a carnival. An indoor carnival, but carnival all the same.  It was held in St Pancras Town Hall and featured steel pan bands, dance troupes, musicians and even a pageant. Overall, it was the first major display of Black joy anyone had seen in a while. This indoor carnival ran right up until Claudia’s death in 1964 and although she didn’t live to see the full evolution of Notting Hill Carnival, she is still considered to be the Mother of Carnival. In 1966, Rhaune Laslett organised an outdoor event for children which later developed into Notting Hill Carnival as we know it today. With the help of Duke Vin and other West Indian pioneers, Rhaune brought mas to London. 

By the 1970s people had started to travel from all over the country to attend the Carnival, to celebrate a part of their culture that they thought they’d left behind. In 1973 a new feature was added, something that was unique to this London Carnival only – the static sound system. Sound system culture was a huge part of British Jamaican culture. Notting Hill Carnival was a celebration of West Indian culture and history, however, carnival wasn’t an inherently Jamaican activity in those days and so they wanted to represent their island in the best way they knew. 

These sound systems were found on side roads blasting reggae music and more whilst the main Carnival parade continued to play Calypso (and later Soca too). 

Despite the message of positivity and celebration, Carnival attendees still faced harassment from the heavy police presence. This sometimes unfortunately led to clashes and violence, and for those who still attend today you’ll know that the police presence is still just as heavy. Despite this however, the British West Indian community refused to let their spirits be dampened. They now had another way to stay connected to their homelands.

A band of percussionists performing on Ladbroke Grove surrounded by a crowd of festival goers at the Notting Hill Carnival, London, UK, 25th August 1980. (Photo by Stuart Nicol/Evening Standard/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

NHC Today

Today Notting Hill Carnival is attended by millions of people from all over the world. It is the largest street ‘festival’ in Europe and second in the world to Brazil. It has come a long way since Claudia’s event in King’s Cross, but is still just as culturally rich. Split into three days, NHC is a weekend full of enjoyment and culture. The main route still mostly features soca and calypso, and there are still sound systems on the back roads. British West Indians are still working hard to maintain the true authenticity of Notting Hill Carnival

To conclude, Notting Hill Carnival is a celebration of Caribbean culture with a rich and beautiful history. Although it is a great time and open to all, it is imperative to remember that it was born out of oppression and rebellion, the true meaning must never be forgotten! If you plan to attend Notting Hill Carnival we hope you have a great time and use what you have learned in this blog to fuel your enjoyment. 

Here are a few quick tips to have a great Carnival experience;

  • Stay hydrated!
  • Signal in the area is poor so plan emergency meeting points with your friends and make sure you know how to get home from any point on the route
  • Carry only the essentials.
  • Wear comfy shoes
  • Revise 2022 soca. Here’s a mix
  • Stay safe and have fun!
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