A History of Notting Hill Carnival

Exploring the history and politics of the development of Notting Hill Carnival

By Black Cultural Archives

Drawing of Notting Hill Carnival (1980) by R SampsonBlack Cultural Archives

Notting Hill Carnival

The Notting Hill Carnival is a 3 day annual African-Caribbean event that takes place on the streets of Notting Hill, London every late August bank holiday weekend. Notting Hill Carnival has its origins in the carnival traditions of the Caribbean and the social and political conditions of the post-1948 migration of peoples from the Caribbean.

Decoration for a Masked Ball at Versailles, on the Occasion of the Marriage of Louis, Dauphin of France, and Maria Theresa, Infanta of Spain (Bal masqué donné par le roi, dans la grande galerie de Versailles, pour le mariage de Dauphin, 1745)The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Origins

The development of Carnival in the Caribbean, particularly on the island of Trinidad, can be traced to the period of enslavement and the pre-Lenten Mardi Gras masquerade balls held by the French plantation owners. The enslaved Africans were forbidden from participating in these balls and developed their own festival drawing on African dance traditions that satirised the slave owners through masquerade and song. Following the full emancipation of enslaved Africans in 1838 many free men and women took to the street and continued these traditions.

Ink Drawings No.2 (1978) by Ras Daniel Heartman & Everton GordonBlack Cultural Archives

Following the arrival of the SS Empire Windrush on 22nd June 1948, more than 300,000 people from the Caribbean settled in Britain. By the 1950s, Brixton and Notting Hill had the largest population of Caribbean people in Britain.

During this period, Notting Hill was also a stronghold for Oswald Mosley’s Union Movement, a far-right movement which galvanized the local white working-Class population to “Keep Britain White”. In 1958-59 under the banner of "Keep Britain White" attacks on the Black communities of Notting Hill, London and Nottingham began, culminating in the death of Antiguan-born carpenter Kelso Cochrane.

Claudia Jones by Claudia Jones Memorial CommitteeBlack Cultural Archives

In response to these attacks and increasing tensions, Trinidadian-born activist Claudia Jones and founder of the West Indian Gazette newspaper organised a Caribbean Carnival in St. Pancras Town Hall on 30th January 1959. Jones’ Carnival was envisioned as a way of showing solidarity and strength within the growing Caribbean communities and to soothe the ongoing tensions.

Inspired by Claudia Jones’ carnival, Trinidadian husband and wife Edric and Pearl Connor organised a series of similar indoor events in halls around London during the 1960s until 1964 and the premature death of Claudia Jones.

Masquerading: The Art of the Notting Hill Carnival 1986-1987Black Cultural Archives

On De Road

Later in 1966, community activists Rhaune Laslett and Andre Shervington organised a street festival with the aim of entertaining local children as well as attempting to ease ongoing tensions. To encourage the local Caribbean community to participate, the well-known Trinidadian musician Russell Henderson agreed to participate and transformed the festival into a carnival through the introduction of a procession and the use of the steel pan. 

Stirling Betancourt, Powis Square, Notting Hill, Kensington and Chelsea, Greater London (2016-07-20) by Chris Redgrave, Historic EnglandHistoric England

Although the event was not directly related to Claudia Jones’ indoor carnival, many of the elements featured in her event were used in the street festival – such as Stirling Betancourt and Russell Henderson’s steel band and other elements of Caribbean carnival.This event marked the beginning of the annual Notting Hill Carnival with the gradual addition of Caribbean elements including more bands and costumes. By 1974, 100,000 people and a dozen bands participated and in 1975 static sound systems were introduced adding Jamaican reggae, dub and ska music to the traditional calypso and soca.

The Black Liberator: theoretical and discussion journal for Black liberation (number 1)Black Cultural Archives

Under Pressure

The changing demographic of North London brought the Carnival into greater conflict with local, white residents with a growing police presence leading to clashes at the 1976 Carnival. There were greater calls to move Carnival from Notting Hill and media coverage of the Carnival increasingly linked the event to crime rates and disorder. 

West Indian People's News volume 1, number 2Black Cultural Archives

Article on Carnival, The State and Black Masses, Cecil Gutzmore by Cecil GutzmoreBlack Cultural Archives

Staunch magazine, volume 1, number 5Black Cultural Archives

The Future of Notting Hill Carnival

Today Notting Hill is a cultural institution, attracting up to two million attendees and 40,000 volunteers every year. However, its future is constantly under threat.  "This event is put on annually with very little government funding," says Ansel Wong, a Trinidadian cultural and political activist, former Chair of the Notting Hill Carnival Board, and founder of Elimu Mas Band.

The history of Notting Hill Carnival represents the resilience and cultural diversity of the communities of London. Despite the political pressures Notting Hill carnival has grown and thrived and represents a space for challenge and community cohesion.

Visit Black Cultural Archives

Learn more about the history of Notting Hill Carnival when you visit BCA in Brixton, London.

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