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The 1958 Notting Hill riots

The hostility - governmental, popular and far-right - towards the arrival of non-white immigrants was overwhelmingly manifest in the form of prejudice and discrimination. However, in 1958, as a balmy summer drew to a close, intolerance turned into violence as some of the worst racial violence Britain has ever seen exploded on the streets of Nottingham first and then Notting Hill in West London. This was not the first example of racial violence experienced by non-white immigrants. There had been anti-black rioting in Liverpool from 31 July to 2 August 1948 and further riots in Deptford, London, in July 1949. The homes of Indian workers near Birmingham were also attacked in August of 1949.82 Interracial violence broke out again in London in August 1954 with disturbances in Camden Town when a white mob attacked black people with bottles, axes and a petrol bomb that burned out the home of a black resident.83 However, these racially motivated attacks were all overshadowed by the major riots of 1958.

What became one of the largest examples of racial violence in British history had humble origins. On the evening of 23 August a shout of‘lay off that woman’84 from a white man to a Jamaican immigrant in the Chase Tavern, a pub in the St Ann’s area of Nottingham, resulted in eight people being hospitalised, two with stab wounds to the back. A scuffle between the two men engulfed the pub as others joined in, soon spilling out of the tavern and onto the streets. What began as a pub brawl evolved into a full on race riot as a crowd of white people that quickly swelled to 1,000 strong set upon West Indians. Simultaneously, just over a hundred miles south, in Notting Hill. London, a group of nine white men, crammed into a car and armed with table legs, chains and pointed iron railings, were out ‘nigger hunting’. The result of their racially motivated bloody rampage around West London that night was five seriously injured West Indians. The following weekend in Nottingham saw a crowd of 4,000 white men and women disappointed by a prepared police force and a West Indian community that had largely gone to ground. With very few West Indians around to target, the crowd turned on itself and internecine fighting broke out.8

In London, however, despite a week of newspaper coverage predicting where racial tensions might next manifest in displays of violence, Notting Hill’s police failed to put extra officers on the beat. As with the Nottingham riots a week previously, it is generally understood that what became known as the Notting Hill Race Riots were triggered by a single quarrel. The match that lit the tinderbox was struck on 29 August following an argument outside Latimer Road tube station between a ‘mixed race’ couple from Jamaica and Sweden. Majbritt and Raymond Morrison, him a pimp, her later to become a prostitute, drew a crowd of onlookers as they quarrelled. White men soon shouted at Raymond in defence of Majbritt; not dissimilar to the ‘lay off that woman’ that had sparked the violence in Nottingham the previous week. However, when Majbritt sided with her black partner rather than the white crowd, things began to get nasty.86 Events escalated quickly, and by the following evening mobs rampaged around the streets, many armed to the teeth, leaving a path of destruction in their wake. What followed was roughly a week of rioting and violence that shocked Britain.87 The newsreels declared that,

Something new and ugly raises its head in Britain. In Notting Hill Gate, only a mile or two from London’s West End - racial violence. . . . Opinions differ about Britain’s racial problems. But the mentality which tries to solve them with coshes and broken railings has no place in the British way of life. This violence is evil and the law and public opinion must stamp it out.““

One can find a litany of opinions on the role of the far right in starting and inflaming the Notting Hill riots. Some such as Clive Bloom believe that ‘the rioting that broke out in Notting Hill, West London, in 1958 was entirely manufactured by white racist groups and not a spontaneous reaction of disgruntled locals’.8’ He even goes on to argue that the various far-right groups ‘were coordinated’.90 At the time of the riots some journalists felt similarly, with the Daily Mirror stating: ‘The people to blame are the stupid stooges of Mosley’s Union Movement who have been distributing disgusting anti-coloured leaflets in the London riot area’.91 However, Bloom’s position is a wild exaggeration, and most historians have rightly been far more cautious, though many still place too much emphasis on the role of the far right. Pilkington argues: ‘By providing an organised forum and by urging white people to take action, the fascists helped to translate racial hatred from its passive to its active voice - from pub gossip to street violence’.92 Winder argues something similar, stating: ‘Extremists, not for the first or the last time, were setting the agenda’.93 The tendency of commentators, both academic and journalists, to overegg and exaggerate the role of the far right in the 1958 riots is perhaps understandable. Some no doubt draw comfort from characterising the riots as the work of extremists rather than a rupture born of a racist society as it fits more comfortably within the ‘tolerant country’ narrative.

Unsurprisingly - and rightly - historians of British fascism and racism have played down the role of the far right in the riots. Dorrill argues that ‘Mosley’s UM did not spark off the riots, nor was it responsible for them’.94 Thurlow states that

'the UM had not been responsible for the encouragement of antipathy’.9’ Macklin shows how it was ‘largely the work of white “Teddy Boys” rather than fascists’.96 Such a position is not one resulting from hindsight. The Times wrote at the time that ‘there is no evidence that the party [the UM| are the cause of them . . . and the movement could not organise a clash let alone find all the rioters’.97

Despite talk of impending crisis born of non-white immigration, few, if any, on the far right truly anticipated the riots. On the day before the argument outside Latimer Road tube station that was the touch paper for the London riots and one week after the violent rampage by white youths, the Daily Express ran a picture of Oswald Mosley asking ‘The face is familiar - but can you place it? An ageing star of the early cinema? A general enjoying his retirement? An oil tycoon? . . . Wrong every time! It’s Sir Oswald Mosley sunning himself at the Lido beach in Venice’.98 Clearly Mosley was not anticipating an outbreak of major racial violence. This is backed up by Trevor Grundy, a leading youth member of the UM, who was told about the outbreak of rioting by a UM member: ‘You won’t believe what’s happening, Trev! It’s like a dream come true and I don’t think even the Old Man [Mosley] knew anything about it’.99 Thus the question of whether the British far right was behind the start of the riots has, despite the relatively recent work by Bloom, been put to bed. That however, does not mean that the actions of the far right during the riots and in their aftermath do not require further scholarly exploration; in fact much can be garnered from doing so.

While the far right had not fostered or even predicted the riots, the Union Movement, along with the rest of the far right, were quick to see their potential. The UM, in the words of the T.U.C., were ‘fanning the flames of racial violence’1“ and sought to exploit the explosive situation. Jeffrey Hamm of the UM was aware that any activity in the riot areas from UM members would draw this charge but decided to target the area anyway. In his words, ‘who had a greater right than Union Movement to hold a meeting and make use of that unpopular expression: “We told you so”?’101 The UM’s official line during the riots was tinged with a conspiratorial edge as they argued that ‘the crooks’, ‘the jews’ and the government were complicit in forcing white people out of areas such as Notting Hill.102 Once the violence had begun the UM sprang into action with meetings in public houses, large outdoor gatherings and the widespread distribution of UM literature. A ‘rabble rousing’103 speech by Hamm drew as many as 2,000 people, after which the attentive audience ‘moved off'in an excited state’.104 The reaction of the UM to the outbreak of rioting was indeed swift, but the party was reacting to wider public racism rather than leading the agenda on the issue.

The explosion of popular racial violence gave great heart to the beleaguered UM activists who had spent many years languishing in the political doldrums. Some, perhaps carried away with events, felt their new target, the black immigrant, could relaunch their fortunes and that it ‘could be bigger than the East End before the war’.105 While not all were as overexcited as this, it had been decided that this was not an opportunity to be missed. On 8 September Hamm, secretary of the Union Movement, announced that Mosley would return to Britain ‘at thebeginning of next month to lead the movement’s largest campaign since the war’.106 They opened a ‘second headquarters’ in the area on Kensington Park Road and distributed their new newspaper, the North Kensington Leader, to every house in the area.107 So excited were they by the prospect of renewed success off the back of the riots that Oswald Mosley decided to stand in the General Election of 1959 as a candidate in North Kensington. However, in a frenetic campaign, marred by the racist murder of Kelso Cochrane, an Antiguan carpenter ambushed by a white gang, Mosley, for the first time in his political career, lost his deposit and received just 2,821 votes.108 It seems that despite the bubbling racial tension in the area, the postwar anti-fascist consensus held firm meaning Mosley and his men remained beyond the pale.

The UM were not alone in Notting Hill as The Times newspaper explained: ‘Two other organisations besides Oswald Mosley’s Union Movement are watering the ground in Notting Hill that has lately looked fruitful for their purposes’.109 The first, formed in 1958 by Colin Jordan, was the White Defence League. It was run out of the former house of Arnold Leese in the Notting Hill area just north of Holland Park. Having formed the Cambridge University Nationalist Club while still an undergraduate, Jordan came to the attention of Leese who began to view him as a possible heir and successor. After a spell being associated with the British People’s Party he joined the League of Empire Loyalists in 1954 only to leave three years later due to his intransigence over what he felt was the LEL’s overly lenient attitude towards Jews.

As such in 1956"° Jordan founded the White Defence League and began publishing Black and White News. The virulently racist paper sold between 700 and 800 copies in the Notting Hill area during the summer of troubles111 and “claimed Notting Hill was at the forefront of a new battle, and that white residents should stand firm and reject migration to the area’."2 It declared in bold type, ‘Blacks Invade Britain’ and played on all of the existing racist stereotypes: ‘One of the chief reasons for the blacks pouring into Britain is their desire to mate with the white women of our country’113 and that, ‘The white man took civilisation to Africa. The Black man has brought Indian hemp [marijuana] to Britain’.114 Jordan and the WDL also flooded the riot areas with leaflets that Walker perfectly summarised when he later wrote: ‘The leaflet is a classic, of its pernicious kind, embracing the key themes of racial nationalism . . . sex, spongers on the welfare state, racial interbreeding, Governmental encouragement, stress on British civilization - all the bases are covered in fifty words’."’ In addition to distributing extremist literature the WDL held street meetings in Notting Hill almost every night during the summer of 1958. However, their rampant, frothing racism and open antisemitism severely marginalised their appeal to the general public, meaning the organisation numbered never more than a few score, and their public meetings usually failed to gain any positive response."6 That said, it seems likely that their continual presence in the area stopped the existing tensions from dissipating and kept them bubbling along.

Not dissimilar in ideological outlook and also active in Notting Hill that summer was the National Labour Party, founded by John Edward Bean in 1957.117 A former member of Mosley’s UM, Bean was also a member of the League ofEmpire Loyalists, though he was expelled for using their offices to set up his own organisation. The NLP had a newspaper called Combat (‘The voice of Race and Nation’), which was preoccupied with the traditional target of the Judeo-Communist-Masonic plot. However, as with the rest of the far right it was all too willing to direct some fire towards the new ‘Coloured Peril’ by warning: ‘it will turn our nation into a race of mongrels’."8 They also produced and distributed the tract Look Out that touched on the familiar clarion calls of jobs, housing and the taking over of the nation by ‘triumphant aliens’.”9 However, as with the WDL, it was miscegenation that most preoccupied the prejudiced minds of the NLP supporters. John Steel of the NLP was quoted in the Kensington News as saying, ‘We will be a nation of half-castes. The result will be that the nation will possess neither the rhythm of the coloured man, nor the scientific genius of the European’.120 The NLP had dedicated its short existence to agitating in areas with visible black populations such as Brixton and Notting Hill. During the riots they held regular meetings in the riot affected areas and even had one forcibly cancelled by the London County Council, ‘because we have been advised by the police that it would be unwise to hold such a meeting at such a place at such a time’.121 At the time Bean claimed that the riots had swelled the number of members of the infant party to 250, but in reality the extremist nature of the NLP meant their fortunes mirrored those of the WDL as they achieved very little traction in the area. Many years later in his autobiography Bean would concede the point, explaining that ‘Audiences were nothing spectacular and I cannot recall us gaining more than two new members’.122 Once again, the NLP was an example of a far-right party attempting (and failing) to jump on the bandwagon of popular discontent rather than fostering it themselves.

Almost completely absent from the secondary literature concerned with the role of the far right in the riots are the activities of A.K. Chesterton’s League ofEmpire Loyalists. Their omission is peculiar considering they had been one of the most vocal anti-immigrant voices on the right - far more visceral than the public rhetoric of the UM. Several leading LEL activists, including Austen Brooks, did indeed visit Notting Hill during the troubles. Their analysis of what they saw placed no blame whatsoever at the feet of the white perpetrators but rather blamed the West Indians. They felt the local white population:

had become increasingly exasperated as a result of their experience of living surrounded by an ever-increasing swarm of Black and Brown interlopers, that the behaviour of a great many (though not all) of these interlopers had become increasingly provocative, and that. . . had stretched the patience of the white inhabitants to breaking point.123

At public meetings during the riots the LEL declared that ‘race-mixing’ was the cause of the violence. A report in Candour explained how: ‘Mr. Austen Brooks told a large crowd that the blame for the recent race riots in Nottingham and Notting Hill rested with no one race but with those who had failed to put a stop to the growing race-mixture in Britain’.124 However, despite their long-standing vocal opposition to immigration and the flurry of exploitative articles during and after the riots, the LEL seemed tentative when it came to taking action in the riot areas. Instead of Notting Hill, they trumpeted the ills of immigration and race mixing from loudspeaker vans in Brixton and Clapham.12’ Their public meetings, called to discuss the riots, were also in South London rather than West. Whether the LEL’s decision to target Brixton and Clapham rather than Notting Hill was designed to avoid being accused of provocation or conversely a plan to spread the riots to other areas with racial tensions is impossible to determine. However, the former seems much more likely as the LEL, with its faint whiff of respectability as a ginger group of the Tories, were also sure to condemn violence as a mechanism for change. At one outdoor meeting Austin Brooks ‘stressed that street rioting was not the answer to the situation’,126 and it was stated in Candour: ‘Bashing heads in street fights is not a satisfactory way of solving what has become a grave social problem’.127 Any violence that did occur was not the fault of the rioters themselves but rather Macmillan, the PM, who was at fault due to his failure to heed the warnings of the LEL.128 Chesterton and the LEL were perhaps the least affected by the riots and had the least impact upon them. They had long discussed the issue of race, race mixing and immigration, and while they revelled in the riots, they had no impact on events.

Thus, it is clear that those who have sought to place the blame for the riots at the feet of the numerous far-right organisations operating at the time have done so incorrectly. While it is true that they were ‘at least partially responsible for reinforcing and sustaining the palpable aura of tension’,129 the idea that the riots were ‘entirely manufactured by white racist groups’130 is unsubstantiated conjecture. This, however, is no defence of the far right who certainly sought to exploit the riots to the fullest. While convenient, scapegoating the far right covers up the far more worrying truth that the racial violence that exploded during that balmy summer in 1958 was born of a wider societal racism, not the actions of a lunatic fringe but rather those of an intolerant society. The real history of the riots is an inconvenient truth for those who, convinced by the myth of innate British tolerance, want to portray these islands as an oasis of civility, a world away from the racial barbarism of the American South. Yet for some commenting on events at the time, the riots caused cracks in the veneer of the tolerance myth as loud as thunder:

Every decent person in this country is ashamed of the outbreak of race rioting and hooliganism in British streets. It has come like a kick in the pants to all of us. We have lectured other countries but failed to prevent the stinking explosion in our own backyard. The Mirror is probably more guilty than any other British newspaper in assuming that it couldn’t happen here. It has. The events of the past few days have brought our smug satisfaction to an abrupt end.131

However, despite their minimal role in fostering the riots, the events in Nottingham and Notting Hill at the back end of the summer of 1958 were a tipping point for the far right’s ideological outlook as expressed to the wider world. The public and media reaction to the riots, usually blaming the West Indians, no doubt provided succour to the beleaguered and marginalised fascists. While antisemitism had still not been shaken from its position as the major concern for the hardcore activists, a realisation had occurred that race and immigration could be their ticket out of the post-Holocaust political ghetto in which they had been languishing since the war. The riots created an increasingly racially aware society, often infused with a sense of normative whiteness. Many on the far right saw the opportunities this provided: ‘For Jordan, the great advantage of the immigration issue was that it made people think in terms of race and thus be more sympathetic to his anti-Semitic propaganda’.132 So while the far right had a limited impact on the Notting Hill riots, the Notting Hill riots had a profound effect on the far right.

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