Black History Month: Notting Hill Riots (1958)
February is Black History Month and this year marks the 400th anniversary that blacks were brought to Bermuda as indentured servants. Throughout this month, The Royal Gazette will feature people, events, places and institutions that have contributed to the shaping of African history.
Amid racial intolerance and competition over resources, the white working class of the Notting Hill area in West London launched an attack against members of the black community on August 30, 1958.With the blacks forced to arm themselves in defence, the confrontation lasted a week.
The roots of the Notting Hill Riots are found in the migration of people from the Caribbean to London right after the Second World War. With the population influx, Notting Hill became a more international district. The Caribbean population across London grew to be well over 100,000 by 1961, with most in the Notting Hill area.
The North Kensington area where Notting Hill is situated had high rates of poverty, crime and violence. There was also competition for housing between poor black and white families — tensions that were exploited by ruthless landlords.
While the governments of Britain, France and the Netherlands encouraged this immigration to meet labour shortages at home, many local residents feared being displaced in housing by the newcomers. Moreover, many African and Caribbean colonies were pushing for independence, which also contributed to racial tension.
A group of white working-class youth known as the “Teddy Boys” were openly hostile to the black newcomers in Notting Hill. Their resentment was further stoked by right-wing political groups who sought power on a platform of racial intolerance.
The “Union for British Freedom” established a presence in Notting Hill and the founder of the “British Union of Fascists”, Sir Oswald Mosely, rallied the local population with the cry of “Keep Britain White” at meetings in West London. Repeatedly concerns were raised by Caribbean community leaders about this flourishing prejudice and the potential that it had to develop into conflict, yet government officials took no action.
Violence broke out on August 20 when property owned by Caribbean immigrants was vandalised and the owners were subject to physical harassment. The violence quickly escalated on August 24 when nine “Teddy Boys” attacked five black men in Shepherd's Bush, West London, and Notting Hill, leaving three seriously injured. The wave of unrest spread up to the East Midlands city of Nottingham, where there was rioting for two weeks.
These events in turn acted as the catalyst for the Notting Hill Riots, which began on August 30. Crowds of white youth, reportedly numbering 400, chased the Caribbean population in the area. Petrol bombs and milk bottles were launched as missiles, and some rioters armed themselves with iron bars and butcher's knives.
There were counter-attacks by black youths similarly armed in self-defence. The rioting stopped after a week; by that point, approximately 140 people, mainly white, had been arrested. The riots sparked a still continuing debate about race discrimination and the levels of immigration to urban areas.
In 2002, it was discovered that contemporary government commentary on the events dismissed assertions that the attacks were racially motivated, preferring instead to frame the disturbance as hooliganism from both sides.
The Notting Hill carnival, an annual celebration lead by the area's Caribbean population, which draws huge crowds, was initiated as a direct response to the riots.
• Sources: “Notting Hill Riots 1958” taken from “Exploring C20th London”: http://www.20thcenturylondon.org.uk/server.php?show=conInformationRecord. 161; “The Home Office cover-up of Notting Hill's race riots” by Ian Burrell, published in The Independent, August 2003: http://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/home-news/the-home-office-coverup-of-notting-hills-race-riots-101549.html; “After 44 years secret papers reveal truth about five nights of violence in Notting Hill” by Alan Travis, published in The Guardian, August 2002: http://www.guardian.co.uk/uk/2002/aug/24/artsandhumanities.nottinghill carnival2002