Britain has long been a haven for immigrants. This enriches the nation, though not without difficulties along the way. Echoes of Sir Oswald Moseley’s pre-war British Union of Fascists attacking the Jewish population of London’s East End could still be heard in the 1950s, not least because the right-wing baronet had founded the Union Movement in 1948. It soon had a new target.
A wave of immigration from the Caribbean after World War II contributed to economic recovery but created social tension – particularly in areas where newcomers settled in large numbers, causing the local working-class population to feel that its hegemony was threatened. Meanwhile, rebellious youngsters were breaking free from traditional constraints and roaming the streets in gangs. They disliked immigrants, parroting the slogan ‘Keep Britain White’, and by 1958 were becoming increasingly bold. A series of racially motivated incidents took place in Notting Hill, West London, but ironically the one that had disastrous consequences involved an attack by white youths on a white woman.
On August 29 she was with her Jamaican husband, rounding on the gang when they shouted racial taunts. Seeing her again the next evening, they pelted her with bottles and stones before hitting her with an iron bar. This sparked an explosion. White mobs attacked West Indian homes, occupants fought back and the infamous Notting Hill race riots began. The police proved unable to prevent violent disturbances and rioting, which continued for several nights until it petered out.
Over 100 people were charged with offences ranging from grievous bodily harm to affray (72 were white, 36 black), but the real significance of the Notting Hill riots was their role in bringing simmering racial tensions to national prominence, beginning a debate on the pros and cons of mass immigration that continues in Britain to this day.
When: August 30 to September 5 1958
Where: London, UK
Toll: With good reason, London’s black population acquired lasting suspicion that the Metropolitan Police was biased against their community, a problem that still exists 50 years on despite strenuous efforts to eradicate institutionalized racism within the force and to build bridges with ethnic minorities.
You should know: The famous Notting Hill Carnival was started by Claudia Jones in 1959 in an attempt to ease the tensions caused by the previous year’s riots and make a positive contribution to the state of race relations in Britain.