It starts with fascist graffiti, a West Indian cafe being trashed in Shepherd’s bush, a black man being beaten up by a gang at Ladbroke Grove tube station. Shop windows are smashed. A few days later a gang attack two houses owned by West Indians. They fight back. A white man is stabbed.
Trouble erupts in Nottingham at the same time – a thousand people gather many armed with razors, knives, bricks and bottles. A man’s throat is slit. Two others are stabbed.
This happened more than 50 years ago in the race riots of the Summer of 1958.
Politicians and the media wondered where trouble would flare next – they predicted Moss Side, Brixton and Handsworth.
But it was to be Notting Hill. On August 30th a white Swedish woman is beaten up by a mob because she is married to a black man. The next day a crowd of 400 gather at Latimer Road tube – again many are armed with iron bars and knives. A black woman is knifed, a man slashed across the neck. Most black people have sensed trouble and stayed inside, so the crowd attack the police – only 10 are on duty.
The worst day of the riots is to come on September 1st, when an African student arrives in Notting Dale to visit a friend and runs straight into a local gang near Latimer Road. He is beaten up but manages to escape to a nearby greengrocer’s where he is sheltered from the 200 strong mob until police arrive, some on horseback, to rescue him.
Later that day, Moseley’s Union Movement delivers a speech to 1000 people near Latimer Road who are fired up enough to go off on a window smashing rampage, shouting “kill the blacks”. It’s no longer just local people: gangs from all over London turn up . Soon a mob of 600 is torching cars, petrol bombing houses and attacking any blacks they come across. Gangs of Jamaicans from Brixton start to arrive to defend them. The police mount one of the largest co-ordinated operations of the 1950s and only just manage to restore order before all out war develops.
The next night the same thing happens, but the police are now prepared and 50 arrests are made. The night is described by the press as ” relatively quiet”
The following night a rainstorm finally brings the riot to a close and the politicians begin to debate the causes.
Fifty three years later things are relatively quiet again in Notting Hill after a tense few days. This time we have been spared what many other communities have suffered. And this time there is certainly none of the racial hatred here that sparked Notting Hill’s real riots.
Two nights ago, diners at The Ledbury were robbed of their wallets and jewellery after looters smashed the restaurant windows, which must have been terrifying. Nearby businesses were also damaged. There were reports of window smashing and a motorbike being set on fire
On Portobello Road, Office ( which sells shoes and trainers, go figure) had its shop front smashed.
Some windows are still boarded up tonight, but according to local police officers this is mainly a preventative measure, not the result of earlier attacks. Though it was slightly odd to see diners sitting outside E&O and other restaurants in Kensington Park Road, with boarded up shops in between them.
There is a greater police presence than ususal – though understandably nothing like in other areas. There were 10 or so plain clothes officers wearing Metropolitan Police stab vests on Ladbroke Grove at about 6pm. They were not expecting trouble. It was good to know they were there, but also unsettling – and very difficult to then convince small anxious children that there is nothing to be worried about. As my daughter has nightly bad dreams about people dying we decided not to make her think that was any more likely than usual. At 9pm, I counted five officers on Portobello – I don’t usually see any. There were two cycling up Ledbury Road. And another at the parade of shops near Latimer Road.
But at this time of year Notting Hill is pretty deserted anyway. If the “protestors” wanted to demonstrate their fury at the huge disparity between rich and poor in this area, they picked the wrong time of year. The rich are away for the Summer in their second homes, their cars are probably not here to have their windows smashed. And the people who were trapped at home too scared to go out were the vulnerable and elderly, and poorer families who can’t afford to take their kids away for a weekend let alone the whole Summer.
But Notting Hill got off very lightly this time round. Those roaming the streets of W11 this time round wanted trainers and jewellery – not blood. And I’m sure that was true in most areas. But when you smash things up and torch buildings and don’t think about the consequences people get hurt, whether you plan it or not, and the trouble escalates and hatred and revenge can then come into play.
I am haunted both by the image of that woman leaping from a burning building and the bravery of the Asian father whose son was knocked down and killed as he tried to defend the local community. The father who asked others to respect his son’s memory by not retaliating.
There are differences and in some ways we have come a long way in 50 years – but across the country there are some echoes of those riots in 58. This was the comment of Justice Salmon at the Old Bailey trial of 9 youths who attacked members of the black community in Sept 1958:
” 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.”
Post script: Thank you to Tom Vague and Pearl Jephcott for their insights into Notting Hill’s history