White riot: The week Notting Hill exploded

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Today, Notting Hill is one of the nation's most exclusive enclaves, home to the rich, famous and fashionable. But it hasn't always been an oasis of affluence. Fifty years ago this week, it was gripped by the worst racial violence ever seen in Britain. Mark Olden hears the inside story of the riots and their aftermath

As darkness fell and the Notting Hill Carnival drew to a close last Monday, Europe's largest street party descended into mayhem. For more than two hours a mob of around 40 young men fought running battles with police on the streets of west London. The roots of the violence may have been different, but the images of flying bricks and bottles, of broken glass and other debris, evoked memories of 50 years ago.

Back in August 1958, Notting Hill had been seething with violence all summer.

Then, the west London neighbourhood was a place of grimy streets and decrepit, overcrowded tenements, a far cry from the chi-chi neighbourhood it is today. The Saturday before the area finally exploded, nine white youths had embarked on what one of them called a "nigger hunting expedition" around Notting Hill. They were armed with iron bars, blocks of wood, an air pistol and a knife. By the time they'd finished, five black men were in hospital, three in a grave condition.

But it was the following Friday – 29 August 1958 – when the touchpaper was really lit, igniting the worst racial violence Britain had ever seen.

It started with a minor domestic dispute between a black man and his white wife. Majbritt Morrison, a young Swedish woman, was arguing outside Latimer Road Tube station with her Jamaican husband, Raymond, who happened to be a pimp, and also happened to have had his windows smashed recently.

A white crowd soon materialised to defend Majbritt (who didn't want to be defended), and a scuffle broke out between them and some of Raymond's West Indian friends. By the following evening, a 200-strong mob were rampaging through the streets of Notting Hill armed with weapons, including sticks and butcher's knives, shouting "Down with the niggers" and "Go home you black bastards".

Johnny Edgecombe was one of those who just managed to escape. Edgecombe had arrived in Britain from Antigua in 1949, encountering the widespread casual racism which saw landlords turn him away from properties, and pubs refuse him drinks. In 1963 he became embroiled in the Profumo Affair (Edgecombe lived with Christine Keeler), one of the heaviest political sex scandals of the last century. But before then he ran a shebeen in Notting Hill, an illicit club where people would come for a smoke of weed and a drink, in a property belonging to Peter Rachman, the notorious slum landlord.

He was getting his car fixed in Oxford Gardens when he heard the crowd drawing nearer. "There's this mob of white folks, and they're calling for blood," he recalls now. "I thought 'Shit, it's time to get out of here.' I tried to drive out of the area but I hit a red light on Ladbroke Grove. I drove straight through."

PC Geoffrey Golding, in a statement preserved in the National Archives, caught the "extremely hostile mood" of the mob: "They were shouting abusive remarks at us, such as, 'Why are you helping the black bastards, you are a lot of nigger lovers.' A group of white youths shouted 'Come on you fucking coppers if you want to fight.' A shower of bottles were thrown and smashed in the road in front of me...."

Soon the newspapers were carrying graphic accounts of the unrest. "In one street where some of the ugliest fighting has taken place," said The Times, "your correspondent found a group of men in a public house singing 'Ol' Man River' and 'Bye Bye Blackbird' and punctuating the songs with vicious anti-Negro slogans. The men said that their motto was Keep Britain White." In the same report, however, black and white children are described playing together "just after a violent incident in which a coloured man was chased down a street by white youths."

As outsiders poured into the neighbourhood by Tube and bus to watch and encourage white locals violently drive out the recently settled West Indian immigrants, the Daily Mail ran an incendiary piece headlined 'Should We Let Them Keep Coming In?', calling for tighter immigration controls.

After three days of constant rioting, though, the tide finally turned. A group of mostly Jamaicans retaliated by throwing home-made Molotov cocktails on to the baying mob outside their base, the Totobags Café at 9 Blenheim Crescent. As the white crowd backed away, a few of the West Indians gave chase waving machetes and meat cleavers.

Before the West Indian fightback, the police, despite mounting one of the biggest operations of the decade, had struggled to contain the crowds. But now the white gangs had effectively been broken, and within 48 hours an uneasy calm at last settled on Notting Hill. In total, 108 people were arrested, and despite numerous injuries, almost miraculously, nobody was killed.

In their immediate aftermath, the Notting Hill riots sparked worldwide debate. Along with the Suez crisis, they were – according to Colin MacInnes, who fictionalised them in his classic novel Absolute Beginners – a defining event in post-war Britain: the moment when any British claims to moral leadership in the world evaporated.

Ivan Weekes, who'd arrived from Barbados in 1955 and was living in Notting Hill during the riots, believes their impact was more profound than Toxteth, Brixton or any of the major civil disturbances that followed, because: "They shattered the whole concept of [Britain as] the 'mother country'. Those of us who were on the front-line were in psychological no man's land, thinking 'What's next?'"

Exactly half a century on, much of Notting Hill is an exotic playground for bankers, media professionals and celebrities, and a place MacInnes might barely recognise. Estate agents trumpet its cosmopolitan vibe, and the number of residents earning more than £50,000 a year is double the national average. The carnival, founded in a spirit of resistance from the embers of the riots by the black activist Claudia Jones, is a symbol of multicultural Britain.

But what remains of the old Notting Hill and its original inhabitants? How do they see the world 50 years after some of them jeered and attacked their new black neighbours in a forlorn attempt to keep Britain – and Notting Hill – white?

In truth, there have always been two Notting Hills: the affluent south with its gleaming Victorian town houses, and the more deprived north. But when one talks of Notting Hill's original inhabitants, one's really talking about the white working class of Notting Dale.

Its unofficial borders west of Ladbroke Grove's busy main artery, and north of the grandeur of Holland Park, the Dale was first populated by brick makers and pig farmers. By the middle of the 18th century the pigs outnumbered the humans and the infant mortality rate was more than 50 per cent. "In a neighbourhood studded thickly with elegant villas and mansions," reads an article in Charles Dickens's Household Words journal, "[Notting Dale] is a plague spot, scarcely equalled for its insalubrity by any other in London." By the 1950s, it was a place of deep tribal loyalties, where everyone seemed to be bound by blood or marriage, and whole families sometimes lived in one or two rooms in crumbling tenements with no bathrooms and outside toilets.

"They talk about the poor of Africa today," says Carol Meehan, 68, who's lived here all her life, "but we had poor like that." So tightly knit was the Dale, that Carol's friend Jean Maggs, also 68, was deemed the product of a mixed marriage: "My dad was from Shepherd's Bush, my mum from Notting Hill."

The Dale of 50 years ago, they recall, was a world of bookies' runners working the street corners, milkmen collecting bets as a sideline, and rag and bone men in horse-drawn carts. It was the weekly wash at Silchester Baths, sugar sandwiches for tea, gas lit streets and smog so thick you could barely see where you were going. You could just tie a piece of string to your door to keep it shut and nothing would get nicked. The fiddles, though, were endlessly inventive. "You'd rob your own gas meter, or cut off pieces of lino to shove in the meter until there was nothing left covering the floor," says Meehan. Illegal gambling and drinking dens, known as spiels and afters, appeared faster than the law could close them down.

When West Indian people arrived into the area, Maggs says, some men saw them as a threat: to their jobs, their housing and their women. To go out with a black man would have been seen as a sacrilege.

Both women were teenagers during the riots. Meehan's dad got arrested (but was cleared after a black man gave evidence for him), while Maggs remembers one of her friends going to the aid of a black man lying bleeding on the street. "She helped bandage him. Her brother went mad and wouldn't talk to her for six months."

To understand one event, locals are fond of saying, you have to understand the 10 events preceding it. And though the argument outside Latimer Road tube is commonly seen as starting the riots, 80-year-old June Grey – who's lived in the Dale 78 years and raised six children there – believes the origins are also rooted in an incident she saw from her window on Bramley Road while waiting for her husband to come home late one night.

"Right opposite my house were two knocking shops [brothels] and people didn't like it," she says. "One day three boys from nearby White City thought they'd do something and threw milk bottles at the windows." It's believed one of the houses belonged to Raymond Morrison. The riots only really then escalated, she says, after the papers started covering them.

But there were also other, more sinister elements at work. As the West Indians had arrived in greater numbers in Notting Hill throughout the Fifties, so the far right had followed. Oswald Mosley's Union Movement leased an office at 47 Kensington Park Road, and Britain's war-time fascist leader held regular, well-attended meetings in the area in 1958. Meanwhile, the White Defence League, in the form of the Nazi Cambridge graduate and former schoolteacher Colin Jordan, also ran its operations from nearby 74 Princedale Road.

Despite attracting enthusiastic crowds, Mosley was ultimately humiliated in Notting Hill: losing his deposit when he stood as a candidate for North Kensington in the 1959 general election. Jordan, whose pamphlet entitled Black and White News sold for sixpence (Typical headlines: 'Negroes Lead in VD'; 'Black Gets White Girl'; 'Kings of the Drug Trade''), was an even more marginal figure. A Special Branch report in the National Archives from 1959 states that "in spite of wide publicity", only eight people attended a typical meeting – at which it was contended "that the Jews are the cause of the influx of coloured immigrants".

But some locals, nevertheless, were receptive. "Mosley never got big because of Hitler," said one of his former Notting Dale supporters, in an interview with The Independent shortly before he died. "There wasn't much difference between him and Hitler. He fucking hated everyone. He hated foreigners. Wanted Britain for the British." He paused. "I supported him. We used to hang around them [Mosley's people] because they'd give us money. "

On the third day of the riots, he was arrested on Elgin Crescent shouting abuse at passing blacks. "The riots started off with a false rumour that a black man had raped a white girl. It was just fighting which grew bigger and everyone joined in. We were bored," he said, matter-of-factly.

While much of the old Notting Dale was bulldozed into oblivion in a wave of 1960s slum clearances, shadows of the past remain.

Though the likes of Elle Macpherson, David Cameron and Stella McCartney now live in the area, not everyone in Notting Hill has money. And while it might seem that way, not every traditional boozer has been transformed into a gastro pub, nor has every working men's café been supplanted by a Starbucks or Caffe Nero. In the tatty Kensington Park, formerly known as the KPH, black and white old-timers drink together, whiling away their days in a manner unimaginable 50 years ago. A couple of streets away, on Walmer Road, is the Rugby Club. Founded in 1884 to "benefit the poor of Notting Dale" by a former Rugby School pupil who came here in the spirit of a wide-eyed missionary going to Africa, it's where successive generations of local youths have been kept off the streets, and characters who've been members since their childhoods 50 or 60 years ago still come to play bingo, reminisce and eat their Sunday roasts.

The sociologist Colin Prescod was only 13 when the riots erupted around him. He's lived in the same house in Notting Hill all his life, and his mother, the Trinidadian actress Pearl Prescod, was at the forefront of the anti-racist struggles of the late 1950s alongside the carnival's founder, Claudia Jones. The events of half a century ago, he argues, should not be divorced from their wider context.

"To think that Britain's history is one of only white working class racism towards black people is a nonsense. Race has been one of the key things in the whole of the history that makes Britain 'great'. Racism was at the heart of empire. It was institutionalised by the ruling class," he says.

For the black community, the riots were a watershed. "We lifted after the storm from victimhood to resistance. What happened was that a humiliated community became more militant and said, 'We're here, and we're here in a big way.'" Organisations such as the Coloured People's Progressive Association and the Racial Action Adjustment Society were founded in wake of the riots, and Prescod says, played a significant part in black British history in the 20th century.

This history, he says, is what the new residents and property dealers are buying into when they come to "sophisticated" Notting Hill. "I sometimes feel like some Masai village elder sitting outside my hut watching the new arrivals, wondering if they know anything about what made this area what it is."

"Black and white didn't mix back then," June Grey says. "Now they're our strongest allies. I've got a black son-in-law and he's everything a husband and father should be."

But in many ways, she is exiled from the world she grew up in. "I went to a funeral the other day and they said: 'You're always here.' I said it's because I'm a Notting Hill lady and I show my respects. There aren't many of us left." Her friend Jean Maggs echoes her: "Our betting shops are gone. They've closed most of our cafés and pubs. Someone got very rich on Notting Hill."

Mark Olden is a documentary maker and journalist

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