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History

Welcome to Carnival!

23.08.2023

Words by Hermione Russell

How Notting Hill came to host the biggest street party in Europe

Back to the beginning

The Notting Hill Carnival is the second largest carnival in the world, attracting more than one million visitors each year. On the final weekend of August, the neighbourhood fills with crowds of people celebrating West Indian culture. Meanwhile, floats, bands, and troupes of dancers in colourful costumes parade along the streets of W11. But how did this festival of Caribbean culture find its home in Notting Hill?

To answer that question, we have look back at the neighbourhood’s history. The tall terrace houses of Notting Hill were built midway through the Victorian era as London expanded west. They were intended for upper-middle-class and professional families who could afford plenty of children and servants, but could not afford the more central neighbourhoods of Mayfair, Westminster and Belgravia.

Over the course of the twentieth century, the cost of labour increased, while the cost of labour-saving devices decreased. As a result, people employed fewer servants and there was less demand for big properties. Bombing during the Blitz also damaged the area, so that developers began dividing the terrace houses into flats.

© istockphoto

A Caribbean carnival

By the post-war period, Notting Hill was a shabby neighbourhood, while parts of North Kensington were considered slums. It was an easy place to find cheap lodgings, and in the 1950s Caribbean immigrants belonging to the Windrush Generation moved into the area. They were met with hostility from local communities, including teenage gangs known as ‘Teddy Boys’. Between 29th August and 5th September 1958, several mobs of local men attacked the houses of West Indian residents. These attacks were soon known as the Notting Hill Race Riots.

The following January, in response to the riots, a ‘Caribbean Carnival’ was held in St Pancras Town Hall. The event was organised by a Trinidadian journalist and activist called Claudia Jones to celebrate her community’s culture and traditions. Over the course of the 1960s, several more West Indian events were held at town halls across London, and in 1966 the first outdoor festival took place in Notting Hill.

This festival was organised for local children by the social worker Rhaune Laslett. He was of Russian and American descent, but invited the neighbourhood’s Caribbean communities to take part as well. The steel band of well-known pan player Russell Henderson marched down Portobello Road, while a few people began dancing behind them. The Notting Hill carnival was born.

© istockphoto

© istockphoto

© istockphoto

© istockphoto

Almost the end

Carnivals are traditionally held in spring to mark the start of Lent. They remain popular in Catholic countries and regions – famous examples include Rio de Janeiro, New Orleans and Venice – and also occur throughout the Caribbean. In Trinidad and Tobago, locals wear colourful costumes and dance to calypso music, providing the model for Notting Hill. However, London’s weather is too unreliable for a spring carnival, and instead it takes place during the August bank holiday.

By 1976 the carnival included stages for live performers – primarily reggae and punk bands – and attracted some 150,000 people. However, that year more riots took place, with further riots occurred over the following years, leading to calls for the carnival to be banned. But, several establishment figures intervened to save the event – including the current King Charles – arguing that it was an important recognition of the West Indian contribution to Britain.

© istockphoto

© Glodi Miessi

© istockphoto

© Glodi Miessi

The carnival today

Since then, the number of attendees has grown, while the carnival has added samba dancers, soca music and calypso floats. By the 1990s, the live stages were hosting hip-hop legends like Jay Z, Lil’ Kim and Busta Rhymes; more recently, Stormzy, Wiley and Craig David have also appeared. What’s more, the violence associated with the early carnivals has been replaced by a vibrant celebration of London’s multicultural character.

Of course, many locals leave the neighbourhood during the carnival weekend, given how busy it becomes. But hundreds of thousands more people arrive in West London to join in with the processions. Though the event had to be paused during the pandemic, last year it returned to the streets of Notting Hill, and 2023 promises to be as colourful and crowded as ever. Click here to find out everything you need to know about carnival this year.

© Richard MC

© Glodi Miessi

© istockphoto

© Richard MC

© Glodi Miessi

© istockphoto

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