It’s easy to forget the carnival history, when surrounded with colourful feathers, all day dancing on soca music and steel pan orchestras.
Life was not easy in the Notting Hill area in the 1950s.
Nevertheless, workers from Trinidad, Jamaica, St Lucia and other Caribbean islands were encouraged to come to the UK, because the second World War had badly affected the economy.

The most notable event was the arrival of close to 500 workers from the Caribbean on the SS Empire Windrush, in 1948.

Windrush has remained a symbol.

SS Empire Windrush arrival in 1948 - Credit Thurrock Council
SS Empire Windrush arrival in 1948 – Credit Thurrock Council

Life conditions, where most of the Caribbean community ended up living (Brixton and Notting Hill) were far from ideal, and soon social and racial tensions started arising.

The tension culminated at the 1958 race riots were effectively, it was white against black.

It was the efforts to bridge the cultural gap between the communities that gave life to the Notting Hill carnival.
Claudia Jones, a Trinidadian political activist was central to organising the first event.
It took place on January 30, 1959, at St Pancras Town Hall, just 5 months after the riots

First edition carnival in 1959 - credit Empics/PA
First edition carnival in 1959 – credit Empics/PA
Claudia Jones
Claudia Jones

The carnival was then held annually and eventually taken outdoors, under the influence of another notable figure in the Notting Hill community: Rhaune Laslett.
Laslett’s vision was to bring all communities together. She invited renowned Caribbean jazz musician and steel pan player Russ Henderson, to perform with his group, the Henderson’s group (of which Vernon “Fellows” Williams was a member).

As years went by, the festival retained its Caribbean essence and became influenced by the Carnival of Trinidad.
Carnival costume makers such as notorious Peter Minshall, were early creators of masquerades in Notting Hill.

Russ Henderson
Russ Henderson

Today, Notting Hill Carnival is the largest street party in Europe, with 2 millions visitors each year and over 70 masquerade floats.
It has come a long way since the 1958 riots, it is at times a contentious street parade, but it is growing strong and widely recognised as a legitimate facet of the London identity.

Photo credit:
Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea archives

Notting Hill carnival – the untold story
Carnival: A Photographic and Testimonial History of the Notting Hill Carnival – Ishmahil Blagrove, Jr., Margaret Busby