In the 1950s, Caribbean promoters would commonly hire whatever halls would let them, book in a couple of bands, and put on dances. Porchester Hall in Bayswater was a favourite, as were Lambeth Town Hall, Battersea Town Hall, Archway Central Hall and so on. School halls too would be unofficially opened up on a Saturday by their West Indian caretakers. Putting on a function with a dance band, a steel band and, in later years, a sound system was the best way to celebrate a holiday back home, or just to dress up and get away from the tribulations of the working week – spiritually and culturally, to get back to the West Indies for an evening. Musically speaking, these affairs would be a mixture of Trinidadian and Jamaican, but pretty much everybody would fetch up. Occasionally they had a purpose beyond feast-day celebrations or commercial gain. One such dance was organised by the Trinidadian-born Claudia Jones at St Pancras Town Hall in January 1959.
Then 45-years-old, Jones was not a dance promoter but a seasoned political activist, black nationalist and multicultural advocate. Having moved to Harlem with her parents as a child, she grew up so incensed by the treatment of black people and poor white people by the US establishment that she joined the American Communist Party, and swiftly rose to become National Director of the Young Communist League. Following four jail terms resulting from politically motivated charges, Jones was deported to London in 1955, where she settled in Notting Hill.
There she continued to fight what she saw as essentially the same system, and joined the British Communist Party to become active in its struggle for justice and fight against racism. A distinguished writer and journalist throughout her adult life, Jones co-founded the West Indian Students Association in 1958, and also launched and became editor of the country's first black newspaper, The West Indian Gazette. As well as London West Indian news and stories from back home, the paper campaigned for an end to colonialism, a united West Indies, world peace and, above all, fair treatment for Britain's black communities.
Winter in London offered far-from-ideal carnival conditions. That didn’t worry the indefatigable Jones.
At the end of that year, after intensifying racist attacks in the Notting Hill area had culminated in a summer of street violence, Jones called a meeting of local people to ask what could be done to raise spirits, demonstrate resilience and celebrate Caribbean culture. The answer came, "A carnival, just like back home."
Timing-wise that raised a few eyebrows; winter in London offered far-from-ideal carnival conditions. That didn't worry the indefatigable Jones. She booked St Pancras Town Hall for 30 January, and took on Edric Connor as overall director and Trinidadian dancer Stanley Jack as choreographer. After eight hours spent transforming the chilly North London civic building into a West Indian paradise, the event featured Boscoe Holder, Fitzroy Coleman, Mighty Terror and Edric Connor, as well as a black beauty contest – another London first – and the crowning of the Carnival Queen. The BBC televised part of the proceedings to an enthusiastic, across-the-board audience.
Around a thousand people jammed themselves into the venue; almost as many were shut outside, but still grooving on the clearly audible music. It speaks volumes as to how much London's West Indians wanted to be part of an event like this that they stayed outside in sub-zero temperatures, with a bemused contingent of police looking on — while it's often stated that this first Carnival took place in response to the racist murder of the young black man Kelso Cochrane, that’s not the case. That tragedy didn't happen until a few months later.
It speaks volumes as to how much London's West Indians wanted to be part of an event like this that they stayed outside in sub-zero temperatures.
The success of the Carnival, which was sponsored by The West Indian Gazette under the slogan, "A people's art is the genesis of their freedom," dictated that it become an annual affair. Clearly bigger premises were required. The following year's Carnival took place at the 2,000-capacity Seymour Hall, just behind Marble Arch, but once again vast crowds were unable to get in. The 1961 event transferred to the even larger Lyceum Ballroom just off the Strand, and within three years Claudia Jones' Carnival had become engraved on black London's calendar.
It would probably have continued to be so, but in December 1964 Claudia Jones passed away, due to a heart condition and tuberculosis brought on by a lung condition that dated back to her impoverished childhood and American jail terms. Paul Robeson read the eulogy at her massively attended funeral, and she was buried in Highgate Cemetery, next to Karl Marx, one of her heroes. She was later commemorated on a Royal Mail postage stamp. Without Jones' energy and direction, there was no Carnival the following year, and The West Indian Gazette folded.
The Russell Henderson Steel Band had been part of Jones' Carnivals since 1960. While acknowledging the events as a vital contribution to Caribbean culture in London, the band were involved in an equally significant occasion during the year Jones passed away. On the August bank holiday in 1964 – then at the start, not the end, of the month – a Ladbroke Grove social worker and community activist named Rhaune Laslett organised a street party for local children whose parents couldn't afford to take them on holiday. Although Laslett and Claudia Jones knew each other, Jones had nothing to do with this event. Far from being any sort of Caribbean celebration, it was simply about the area itself.
Laslett was of mixed Native American and Russian descent, and the children who attended were a junior United Nations of English, Polish, Irish, African, Russian, Portuguese and West Indian. The entertainment laid on for them was equally varied, including a donkey cart donated by traders from Portobello Market, an African drummer with an elephant's-foot drum – he might well have been Ginger Johnson, but nobody seems able to confirm that for sure – a clown, a box of false moustaches and the Russell Henderson Steel Band.
We made it up as we went along – if we saw a bus coming then we'd take another street. The police didn’t know what to do, so they just let us get on with it.
The group took part at the suggestion of Laslett's partner Jim O'Brien, who knew them from Sunday lunchtimes at the Colherne pub, where they played and he enjoyed a pint. He figured they'd be a good representative of the local Caribbean community, and would make proceedings go with a swing. They went along as a strolling pan-round-the-neck trio of Russ, Sterling and a third player named Ralph Cherrie. The local council had given Laslett permission to cordon off a section near the top end of Portobello Road. Tables for food and drink were set up, the steel band wandered around playing music, and the children enjoyed themselves. Pretty much all anybody could have asked for, until Russ and the boys had a better idea.
As Russ recalls, "We never had stands for our instruments, so we are completely mobile. Although this is really only a children's fete, it still had quite a carnival flavour, so I'm thinking that, like when we have carnival in Trinidad, we should go on a bit of a road march. Give the children a little taste of it, I knew they would follow. So I told the organisers 'Let's move the barriers from the street and make a block of it.' They agreed, I moved the barrier, got the children and everybody else to follow. This block was the biggest block that ever happened!"
"When we got to the corner of Ladbroke Grove, instead of turning back we turned left, and from there we went straight down to Holland Park. Then we turned left and continued to Notting Hill Gate. We made it up as we went along – if we saw a bus coming then we'd take another street. The police didn't know what to do, so they just let us get on with it and I kept telling them 'Oh it's all right, we're just going to the next corner then we'll go back.' After a while, we’d attracted such a big crowd they started clearing traffic for us! It was real exciting and people were swept up with it, so we just kept on going. We went along the Bayswater Road and turned up Queensway, from there we could go along Westbourne Grove and back up Ladbroke Grove. That was actually the biggest carnival route ever, because when it became organised they cut it down to make a little short route. But the one we went on was impromptu, we was walking, walking, walking. People followed for a bit then dropped out, but I remember the ones that had been with it all the way asking us 'How do we get home from here? We're lost!'"
Sterling remembers how the parade grew as it went on its way, but not everybody was one hundred percent supportive. "The West Indians knew what was going on and they join in immediately, some really participate just like at home. At first it was just the three of us with the drums round our neck, but people were joining in with all sort of percussion instruments, even if they were just banging a bottle with a spoon. It was like we were the Pied Pipers; the police did nothing because they thought if they stopped us there might be trouble."
"A lot of English people joined in too, most of them were happy to see it, but some didn't know what it was – they saw so many West Indians on a parade like this and they thought it was a demonstration. They were shouting at us 'What have you got to demonstrate about? If you want to complain go back to your own country!' The thing was, in those days we did go on demonstrations, we used to go on the Ban The Bomb marches, and when they come up from Aldermaston we used to join in at Kensington and go up to Hyde Park with them. So some people thought this was the steel band doing a demonstration again. But they did not know this was the carnival thing, that we were just going along the street enjoying ourselves."
It really did evolve, because that's how these things need to be. You can’t just sit down and say, “I’m going to start a carnival,” it has to develop naturally because it’s a people’s thing.
In spite of all that, the procession was such an overwhelming success that it was repeated the following year, and then became an annual event. The Russell Henderson Steel Band were, of course, invited back to lead the road march, and Russ remembers how it grew: "That is the one that started it, then after that they wanted to do it again and I started to get friends to come along. West Indians from all over London started to hear about it and turned up, and it just started to develop, getting bigger and bigger. It really did evolve, because that's how these things need to be – you can't just sit down and say 'I'm going to start a carnival,' it has to develop naturally because it's a people's thing."
Within three or four years, it was being called the Notting Hill Carnival. Over that time, the Caribbean content started to dominate, as entertainers and organisers who had been part of Claudia Jones’s events got involved. It was fast becoming the London West Indian event, and by the 1970s had swelled into something recognisable as what it is today. Claudia Jones is quite rightly remembered as the Mother of the Carnival, as she recreated a Trinidadian carnival in London, but the Notting Hill Carnival probably wouldn't have happened if it hadn't been for Rhaune Laslett and the Russell Henderson Steel Band.