From Carnival to Civil Rights - London's Black History Trail

By Shruti Ganapathy | 24 June 2005
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Shows a black and white photograph of four children standing in a street with old fashioned cars in the background

Many West Indians migrated to the UK in the 1950s and 60s. Courtesy HISTORYtalk

Ancient monuments often leave remains for archaeologists to uncover. It is sometimes the more recent history that vanishes without a trace.

Carbon dating may help excavations and dating of articles from 5000-year old ancient civilisations, but it is often more difficult to exactly date events that have helped to shape local history, especially when there are few left to tell the story.

Such was the case when I decided to walk around London’s Notting Hill trying to discover local black history armed with nothing more than a trail map. Beginning at the Notting Hill Gate tube station, I walked aimlessly until I reached Bassett Road on Labroke Grove where the home of Amy Ashwood Garvey once stood.

Amy was the first wife of the black rights leader Marcus Garvey and an important figure in the struggle for racial equality in her own right, helping to start the Association for Advancement of Coloured People.

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Although many sites of historical interest have now vanished, several have escaped recent property developments. Courtesy HISTORYtalk

The trail map was one of the activities originally organised by HISTORYtalk as part of their 2004 Black History Month celebrations. Eagerness to discover the area and know more about its local history prompted me to explore it.

From my staring point, I proceeded towards Westbourne Park Road and identified addresses of places of historical significance many of which have been lost to urban development.

A conversation with Nick White, the manager of HISTORYtalk, explained that Notting Hill had been an extremely poor area and many migrants, especially from Trinidad, settled here because of cheap accommodation and living expenses. The gentrification of the borough from the 1980s has subsequently brought about the destruction of many of these old buildings.

The trail continued, taking me to sites that have not yet been lost, like 127 Westbourne Park Road, where an illegal club or shebeen called the Rio once operated. Illegal clubs were born of necessity, as West Indians had been extremely unwelcome in normal clubs and pubs.

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HISTORYtalk aims to inform local people of lesser-known aspects of the area's heritage. Courtesy HISTORYtalk

The Metro Youth Club that used to stand on Tavistock Crescent is another example of disappearing history. A popular venue for black youth it suffered repeated police raids leading to a series of trails and acquittals and has now been replaced by new housing.

The trail chronicles both dark days and those of celebration for the black community. Goldborne Grove marks the spot where an Antiguan carpenter was attacked and murdered by a group of unidentified white people. Horniman’s Pleasance on Kensal Road hosts the Panorama steel band competition, held on the Saturday night of the Notting Hill Carnival weekend every year since 1978.

London’s Carnival originally began in St Pancras in 1959 and over the years has moved to Notting Hill. The West Indian Carnival tradition originated as a celebration of the Abolition of Slavery Act in 1833 when the first carnival was held in Trinidad. Many black people living in Notting Hill in the 1950s were migrants from Trinidad and brought the tradition to their new home.

Although the walk does not have much to see in terms of historic sites, it is important in that it highlights the history of London’s black community. With fading memories and the ever-changing cityscape, it is things like these that help keep local history alive.

Shows a black and white photo of a steel band on a carnival float with two people carrying a banner in front of it

Carnival originated in Trinidad but was enthusiastically embraced by West Indians in London. Courtesy HISTORYtalk

During our conversation, Nick mentioned that a little bit of funding with a little bit of more time could really make their efforts at tracing local history more worthwhile.

Tracking local history around Notting Hill seems a rather difficult task as the number of people left who can recall how the area and its social conditions have changed is dwindling.

As the area has steadily grown more affluent the original struggle of immigrants paying rogue landlords like the notorious Peter Rachman for tiny bedsits now seem somewhat unimaginable.

And yet all of this did not happen more than a few decades ago. The aim of HISTORYtalk is to bring such instances and stories to the fore to keep people engaged with their history in spite of changing times and social environments.

Currently HISTORYtalk are involved with many activities centred round the black community in the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea. To find out more about their activities log onto www.historytalk.org or ring them on 020 7792 2282.

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Shruti Ganapathy is the 24 Hour Museum Untold London Student Journalist covering heritage and diversity stories in the capital.

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