1958 Notting Hill race riots

1958 Notting Hill race riots.
1958 Notting Hill race riots.

Ron Ramdin's history on the 1958 Notting Hill 'race riots', which saw mass racial violence last for several days over a wide area of West London as groups of white people, often Teddy Boys or individuals linked to far-right organisations, would attack black individuals as they walked through the streets or sometimes even at their homes.

Submitted by Ed on March 1, 2019

More serious than the 'riots' in Nottingham was the simultaneous violence in London. Unlike the Nottingham troubles, the riots in London continued uninterruptedly for several days and were also spread over a wider area. The trouble started in Shepherds Bush and adjacent Notting Dale and spread to several areas in Notting Hill, Kensal New Town, Paddington and Maida Vale.

The London riots also differed from the Nottingham experience in that it did not occur in the centre of a district with a dense black population. Indeed, the main explosions occurred outside the black settlements, and the worst offenders were from white housing estates and districts.

While, as in Nottingham, the large-scale London disturbances were preceded by a number of 'sporadic assaults' on black people, in London there was no retaliation by black men which started the crowd outbursts, nor was there a definite chain of incidents during the turbulent days. There was no set pattern. As 'nigger hunting' spread, a growing number of people, 'active forces and passive spectators', became involved in several districts. Overall, an atmosphere of 'menace and fear' pervaded the area. Between July and early August 1958, apart from fights between individuals, there were many attacks by gangs of white youths on black people.

Shortly after the disturbances in Nottingham, on 23 August, the heightened tension had brought about aggression in several places in West London. Black people had had the ugly experience of 'one weekend of sport' attempts by drivers of taxi cabs to run them down after nightfall. Fear of this among black people was real. White attitudes were, at the time, reflected in such fascist slogans as 'Keep Britain White' and 'People of Kensington Act Now'.

Furthermore, fascist agitators stirred up the racists in and around Notting Hill, where the White Defence League and the Union Movement held meetings and distributed leaflets. In these circumstances, the racists were poised for violent attacks on black people.

On Saturday evening (23 August) the homes of several black people were attacked and in the small hours of Sunday morning, nine white youths from Shepherds Bush cruised along their and the adjacent districts in a car, intent on 'nigger hunting'. Their armoury consisted of iron bars, starting handles, table legs, pieces of wood and a knife. Their strategy was to attack black persons walking alone, or at most two. After their attacks, five black men (three of them seriously injured) were admitted to hospital. One of them with a chest wound, was taken into the Magistrate's Court on a stretcher to give evidence, but was not allowed to do so. The magistrate said, 'I have never before seen a man in that state brought into a court. I don't think he is fit to give evidence.’

The case became notorious for its ‘nigger-hunting' youths. Later, they were tried at the Old Bailey and sentenced to four years' imprisonment each.

Although the Manchester Guardian noted, 'Other Cities Not Perturbed About Nottingham It Could Happen Here Feeling', a few days later, violence did break out, this time on a much larger scale. As previously, the trouble occurred on Bramley Road and the vicinity of Notting Dale, where few black people lived. In the attack on several houses, one was set on fire. An aggressive crowd of some 200 milled about the streets. As fighting broke out, a variety of weapons including iron bars were used.

The next day in Bramley Road between 400 and 700 people had gathered. Feelings ran high. The furious fighting was punctuated with the shouts 'We will kill the blacks . and 'We will get the blacks'. This 'lynch mob' exchanged blows with black people and the police. In the affray several people were admitted to hospital with injuries and two police cars were damaged. The disturbances had spread to several other places. Under the railway arches near Latimer Road Underground Station a gang of 100 youths with sticks, iron bars and knives, had gathered. There were fights also on the Harrow Road and in Kensal Rise. The rioting continued day and night. Most black people stayed at home. They fought back as the attack on their homes intensified. By Monday and Tuesday, 1 and 2 September the riot had reached its peak; it had become continuous and widespread.

Thereafter, it ran its course for several days, with 'sporadic outbursts' until mid-September in Notting Hill, Notting Dale and Paddington. By September then, the public was reading sensational headlines in the press. At the height of the riots the dramatic impact of individual experiences were reported. There were also reports of incidents throughout the affected areas. According to The Times 'a crowd of youths went through Oxford Gardens smashing windows in houses where coloured people live. "They didn't miss a house", said one white resident … A police official said earlier: "There are thousands of people milling around the Notting Hill area … a black couple took to their heels pursued by the crowd crying 'Let's get the blacks’”.

The British public was now fully informed on the drama of Notting Hill. Some initiative had to be taken. George Rogers, MP for North Kensington, appealed for common sense, decency and tolerance in race relations and asked the people to 'remain calm, to stay indoors in your homes tonight, and to obey the police'. Rogers carried this message on his tour of the area. There was also a 'nigger-hunting’ tour undertaken by five white men in a car who drove around shouting, 'Stir them up'. And later that day, the Union Movement maintained its presence outside the Latimer Road Underground Station. The Movement was active in the district. In fact, on 4 September, one of their members was arrested for insulting behaviour in Ladbroke Grove, while distributing pamphlets.

Although some black people were militant during this period, most of them obeyed the police and stayed indoors. But, this could not last, for some had to face the public at their peril. Black bus conductors who lived in the troubled area were given police escort at the end of their journeys. Moreover, black people were subjected to vicious taunts from the racists who hawked Action (the Union Movement paper) and youths chanting 'Down with the niggers', 'Deport all niggers'. Others adopted the motto: 'Keep Britain White'.

On 2 September, when Scotland 'Yard announced that the Metropolitan police 'will continue to carry out their duty to preserve the Queen's peace without fear, favour or discrimination', at least 55 people were arrested. In spite of the hope that a change in the hot weather would 'damp the trouble', when rain did fall on 3 September, 'after four of the most turbulent days that London had seen for a long time', its effect was to disperse the crowds. It did not 'damp the trouble' which became 'more localised'. The next day, hot and tense again, saw the continuation (though on a restricted scale) of petrol bombs being flung into the homes of black people in Notting Hill and Paddington. The anti-nigger shouts and bottle-throwing had by then become commonplace.

News of the riots travelled fast. On 5 September, two West Indian political leaders, Norman Manley, Chief Minister of Jamaica, and Dr Carl LaCorbiniere, the Deputy Prime Minister in the Federal Government of the West Indies, arrived in London. Dr Hugh Cummins, the Prime Minister of Barbados, followed them. They had talks with the British government, addressed meetings of their fellow countrymen in London and visited the troubled areas in London and Nottingham. As fear decreased, black people ventured on the streets again. Unfortunately, occasional attacks on black people and their properties in the affected districts and elsewhere in Greater London continued.

On 15 September, when the riots died down, Justice Salmon gave judgement on the nine 'nigger-hunting' youths; this 'severe' sentence was controversial.

Fenner Brockway, having asked the Home Secretary to recommend the exercise of the Royal Prerogative to reduce the sentences said: ‘These youths were as much the victims of the hysteria which swept over Notting Hill as the West Indians.' The whole concept of punishment came under review with strong comments from all quarters. The fascist papers referred to Justice Salmon as that 'Jewish Judge' who, according to one report, received a threatening

The youths appealed unsuccessfully. Their local MP raised the question in the House of Commons in February 1960. He asked that 'further consideration be given to a reduction in these sentences if it is not possible to quash them altogether'. Although he received support from both sides of the House, the government spokesman replied that he was 'unable to indicate a prospect that the Home Secretary will find it possible to recommend any revision of the sentences which the Court considered right and which were upheld on appeal'.

It was hoped the sentence would have a deterrent-effect, which it did for a time. However, in the uneasy truce that ensued, Justice Salmon's words to the charged youths were appropriate:

It was you then who started the whole of this violence in Notting Hill. You are a minute and insignificant section of the population who have brought shame upon the district in which you lived, and have filled the whole nation with horror, indignation and disgust. I am determined that you and anyone anywhere who may be tempted to follow your example shall clearly understand that crimes such as this will not be tolerated in this country, but will inevitably meet in these courts with the stern punishment which they so justly deserve.

In the aftermath of the disorders, the process of identifying the causes began, and blame was allocated accordingly. While there was general agreement that a small group of Teddy Boys were responsible for the troubles in Nottingham and Notting Hill, some sections of the press were blamed for 'sensational treatment' of the news which had a snowball effect. There was also the influence of fascist agitators, particularly in Notting Hill. And according to an American columnist in the New York Herald Tribune, the disturbances in Nottingham and London were the result of a Communist conspiracy of the same kind that had accentuated racial conflict in Little Rock and fomented riots in the southern United States. In response, the Manchester Guardian reported that this theory had not occurred even to the most 'Right minded commentators in Fleet Street'.

But while all these explanations had relevance, at the heart of the matter was 'the colour problem'. The number of black migrants, it was argued, determined the 'quantity of friction', since there would be no friction if there were no Blacks in Britain. As the debate gathered momentum, and comparison was made with the American experience, it became clear that there was no one simple or single explanation as to the causes of the disorders. It was clear, however, that, 'The trouble makers of Notting Hill acted out tendencies which were latent in all social strata. They were shouting what others were whispering.'

That was the lesson of the 1958 race riots which revealed not two but several nations which were separated from each other. Furthermore, both the riots and the comments on them clearly revealed the British ambivalence on the question of colour. The riots also proved that in such a situation the aggressive fringe groups were not insignificant.

Originally from Ron Ramdin's excellent book, 'The Making of the Black Working Class in Britain'.