George Austin looks back at the! 958 race riots in Notting Hill and the efforts of enterprising individuals to deal with the aftermath, and finds an encouraging message in the fact that community relations have been largely restored
Two centuries ago, Notting Hill was on the western edge of London. There was a racecourse whose northern tip is still marked by the curve of Blenheim Crescent and Elgin Crescent. Notting Hill dropped down on its western flank to Notting Dale, described in an article a century ago as the ‘Avernus of Kensington’, the gateway to the infernal regions. It was the place where the poor settled, coming into London hoping to find the streets paved, if not with gold, then at least with a better life than they had known. In the Fifties, it was said that you could still catch a West Country burr in some of the accents.
Gypsies settled there too, at first in caravans and then in the tiny cottages. One, Cinderella Smith, had come as a child and celebrated her hundredth birthday during my time as curate at St Clements Notting Dale. I mentioned this years later when two travellers came to the vicarage door in Bushey Heath and they said in hushed tones, ‘You knew Cinderella Smith?’
Poverty and immigration
It was a tough area with much poverty. One street, which ran from north to south through the parish, had a roof-high wall cutting it off from the more affluent Norland Gardens just by Holland Park Avenue. Coming from Lancashire, I could not at first take in the fact that the terraced cottages mostly were each home to two families. Nor that 86% of a street of large four-storied Victorian houses contained at least one person with a criminal record. There was crime and prostitution but rarely a mugging and never a drug problem. And if few came to Church, most people were friendly and good-hearted.
With the influx of immigrants from the West Indies in the late Forties, in the SS Windrush and later ships, these too settled in Notting Dale, energetic to work and not welcome to many already there. Political correctness demanded that they be described as ‘coloured’ rather than ‘black, and they provided fertile soil for the political far right.
On a Saturday night in late August 1958, it all came to a head. The next day the vicar, Fr Ronald Arthur, was saying the 8 o’clock Mass and I was alone in the
vicarage when the telephone rang. It was a journalist asking if I was preaching on racism that day. Why? Well, didn’t I hear the noise of last night’s rioting? I explained that in Notting Dale it was always noisy on a Saturday night (in fact we were often roused some time after midnight by Jimmy Mac pounding on the door to explain that he wouldn’t be at Mass the next morning because he was too drunk).
Nature of the disturbance
In fact it was the beginning of the Notting Hill race riots, the first major disturbance of its kind after the Second World War. There it was – not much more than a decade after the horrors of Nazi racism had been revealed in Dachau and Auschwitz and the rest. But by comparison with later riots in the UK it was a mild affair.
The police did not – and did not need to – wear protective armour and there were no petrol bombs. I was able to stand, in cassock, at the top of the steps of a Victorian house occupied by West Indian families with a baying mob at the foot and know I was unlikely to be attacked. Had it been in today’s climate, I dare not have done it. One evening I saw a young well-dressed West Indian with a briefcase attacked and kicked to the ground before the police could get to him. Yet a few minutes later I was by Ladbroke Grove station where outside at a bus-stop people of differing races waited peacefully together.
The Notting Hill riots were probably mainly spontaneous rather than planned, but they soon became the focus of groups like the National Party under Colin Jordan (who had a shop in the area) and Oswald Mosley’s British Union of Fascists, who used it as an opportunity to foment racial hatred.
Mosley had been imprisoned on the Isle of Man as a Nazi sympathizer during
the war and then, if my memory serves me right, he stood as a candidate in the 1959 General Election in North Kensington, losing to Labour.
The Church’s role
So where was the Church in this? In truth almost nowhere, for politics were not to be mixed with religion. The Bishop of Kensington, Cyril Easthaugh, did all he could to enliven the Church’s opposition, but with little success. A meeting called by him and attended by the local clergy produced some support. At one point he asked the group how many ‘coloured’ people were in the congregations. One prominent Anglo-Catholic of the day answered, ‘Not many at all – but you know, my Lord, most of them are dreadful people.’
After that the meeting ended fairly abruptly as the bishop realized it was not going to produce worthwhile results. The few of us opposing the riots were asked to stay behind and he was able to tell us of people who would be useful to contact for help and support. One of these was Fr Trevor Huddleston, at that time prior of the Mirfield house in Holland Park only ten minutes walk away from the riot area.
Another was Dr Richard Hauser, a prominent sociologist of the day, who gave much energy and advice both during and after the troubles. Yet another, perhaps surprisingly, was Nicholas Mosley, Oswald Mosley’s son but totally out of sympathy with his father’s politics (he later became a Liberal peer in the House of Lords).
When Mosley held a rally in support of the rioters in a street near our clergy house, I crouched with Nick in a shop doorway as he gave me a running commentary on his father’s technique. ‘Jeffrey Hamm (Mosley’s deputy) will speak first. He will stop suddenly and from that corner over there my father will emerge, walk across and climb on to the platform.’ And so it was, with Mosley, in black shirt, belted trousers and wearing a party armband, strutting across guarded by three or four thugs. It was a clever speech, encouraging violence without actually putting it into so many words.
Heavy rain a few days later brought the riots to an end; but the damage was done and there was little official support for what today would be called ‘post-conflict reconstruction.’
Repairing the damage
Richard Hauser was on hand to assist and musicians began to get in touch, offering to arrange gigs with mixed-race performers. Whether encouragement was given for this by Hauser s wife, pianist Hephzibah Menuhin, I never knew, but the rhythm and blues guitarist Alexis Korner was quick to contact me and brought in saxophonist and broadcaster Benny Green.
Both talked and performed in the very tough youth club sponsored by Rugby School where many of the rioters were members, as did singer Frankie Vaughan. Trevor Huddleston came and spoke there and I recall that he was challenged by one of the members: ‘I suppose you like Jews as well as niggers?’ ‘The God I worship was a Jew,’ was his quick reply. St Mark’s Church Hall, also in the riot area, hosted gigs including one by Johnny Dankworth who deliberately brought along four black musicians. In a curious way, these
were acceptable to the youths who had rioted – ‘but they’re not the same as those who live here, take our jobs, go after our women.’
Maybe it was a small start, but it seemed at the time that there was little hope of a change in attitudes, so entrenched was the bitterness and antagonism in racial attitudes. Save for the continuous firm support given by the Bishop of Kensington and Trevor Huddleston, there was apparently little interest or concern from the wider Church. But it was a different world of course.
Apart from immediate television news stories, it was a year before religious programmes took up the issue, with a Sunday discussion on Associated Television in August 1959 (shot on the stage of the
Hackney Empire, I think) with MP Tom Driberg in the chair. In June of that year, Rosamund Essex, the formidable editor of the Church Times, called one afternoon to ask – no, Rosamund didn’t ask, she instructed – me to write a piece for the paper. It was later mishandled by the local Kensington paper and that caused me my first grief with the Press.
Fifty years on
And the situation now? One positive force for good has been the Notting Hill Carnival, beginning in a small way a few years after the riots and growing over the years. The Fifties cottages near St Clement’s Church formerly occupied by two families each now, I’m told, go on the market for £750,000, so the affluence of Notting Hill itself has spread. Racial tensions took long to disappear and it is said that only in recent years has it all but disappeared. In one parish, some newcomers have moved there for the very fact of the diversity created by a healthy racial mix. So there is hope for the future – even if it has taken half a century for it to come to full fruition. There is hope even in the most dire of situations.