The Home Office cover-up of Notting Hill's race riots

Ian Burrell,Media,Culture Correspondent
Saturday 23 August 2003 00:00 BST

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The Home Office and Scotland Yard tried to cover up the Notting Hill race riots of the 1950s by portraying them as a clash between "ruffians, both coloured and white", newly revealed official documents have disclosed.

Senior officials and police chiefs tried to present the riots in 1958 as a regular "law and order" issue to protect the Government from international political embarrassment.

The riots happened when the Conservative government of the time was pursuing a policy of open immigration to Britain from the Commonwealth to fill job shortages. Negotiations were also under way to give independence to several former colonies in Africa and the Caribbean.

The revelations, contained in documents released by the Public Record Office at Kew, south-west London, coincide with the 45th anniversary of the riots this weekend. About two million people are expected to gather for the Notting Hill Carnival, Europe's biggest annual multicultural party.

The documents show that rank-and-file police officers warned in statements that "racial prejudices were leading to serious disturbances", but were ignored by their superiors. The documents also disclose that the Government's Colonial Office wanted to address the racial prejudice in Notting Hill because of concerns being voiced by Commonwealth governments, but was rebuffed by the Home Office.

In the ensuing months, the British fascist leader Sir Oswald Mosley campaigned in the neighbourhood to become the area's MP. In May 1959 Kelso Cochrane, a young black man, was stabbed to death in Golborne Road by white youths who were never caught.

The contents of the documents are revealed in a BBC Radio 4 programme to be broadcast on Monday, giving a fresh insight into the riot that took place in what was then a depressed neighbourhood where 6,000 West Indian immigrants were trying to settle.

"Notting Hill in the late 1950s was a world away from the cosmopolitan designer elegance that attracts tourists and American film-makers today," said Zareer Masani, who presents the programme. "In the months that followed the Notting Hill riots the failure to get to grips with racial violence in the area allowed fascist groups to carry on unhindered with their virulent anti-black rhetoric."

According to a statement made at the time of the riots by Police Constable Michael Leach, based in Notting Hill, crowds would gather to "shout slogans such as 'Let's find another nigger'." He wrote: "There were several hundred people, all white, congregated about the footway and ... shouting obscene remarks like, 'We will get the black bastards'."

But writing an internal police memo in September 1958, the divisional commander for the area rejected the notion of a race riot. "Much of the trouble was caused by ruffians, both coloured and white, who seized the opportunity to engage in hooliganism," he said.

The West Indian commissioner to London, Garnett Gordon, was unhappy at the way fascist groups were able to flourish in the area after the riots and wrote to the Colonial Office to complain but the Home Office resisted the office's attempts to intervene.

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