The life of Kelso Cochrane, his experience of Britishness and abhorrent murder would become symbolic of a tumultuous period in British history. The support for perpetrators of hatred, such as Oswald Mosley, was vociferous from some.
The Notting Hill race riots that began in 1958 were a result of the bile spouted by Mosley’s fascists. ‘Teddy Boys’ terrorised Black families, destroying cars, damaging the facades of homes and threatening people with violence. The hostility persisted; Mosley’s Union Movement were anti-immigration, calling for repatriation of Carribean immigrants as well as a ban on mixed marriages. His popularity waned into the 1960s, and opponents would frequently spoil meetings of the Union Movement.
Tensions within the community were not alleviated by the Metropolitan Police. Complaints of racial discrimination in the post-war period received improper handling. It was not until 2002 that the Police released files documenting the extent of their prejudiced handling of cases in Notting Hill. Senior police officers at the time had declared that there was ‘little to no racial motivation behind the disturbances’. Their behaviour would explain the deep mistrust between the metropolitan police and Caribbean community; a relationship that would be characterised by resentment, leading to violent clashes in the future.
In 1959, the murder of Kelso Cochrane stymied the popularity of the White Defence League and Oswald Mosley’s Union Movement. An Antiguan migrant, Kelso had come to the UK after a period of work in the USA. He worked as a carpenter, but sought to study law. A workplace injury to his hand required emergency treatment at Paddington Hospital. Upon leaving later that evening, a group of white men approached Kelso and stabbed him to death in a racially motivated attack. As they fled, three people who had witnessed the attack on Kelso took him to hospital. The witnesses were not forthcoming in identifying the offender. Kelso died from his injuries shortly after.
The murderer was never brought to justice; the prime suspect was Pat Digby, whose guilt was confirmed as ‘the worst kept secret in the grove’. It was rumoured that the murder weapon was hidden under Digby’s floorboards. The police chose not to investigate this lead. Early evidence of the gross misconduct that would define decades of policing towards Black people in London.
Footage of Kelso Cochrane’s funeral shows the significance and tragedy of his passing. Over 1,200 people descended upon Ladbroke Grove, before proceeding to Kensal Green Cemetery. Striking is the diversity of the crowds, at a time when white nationalists were physically violent opponents of migration. Consumed with fear, petrified to show their face or celebrate their culture, many people would have struggled to deal with the consequences of his death. The funeral proceedings had been led by Claudia Jones, a political activist and Black nationalist, who was a vocal opponent of racism in housing, education and employment.
Jones was a communist, ousted from the United States and given the right to remain in the United Kingdom on humanitarian grounds. Her arrival in England coincided with a period in which the British African-Caribbean population was expanding. In 1958, she established the West Indian Gazette above a barber shop in Brixton, for which she edited until her death in 1964. The anti-imperialist and anti-racist sentiments within the pages ‘were a catalyst, quickening the awareness, socially and politically, of West Indians, Afro-Asians and their friends’.
The Notting Hill Race Riots were one event amongst many, that formed a dangerous landscape for Black British people. Leaders of Caribbean nations, expressing concern for the British Caribbean diaspora, contacted Jones in the hope of resolving tensions. To champion the vast and vibrant cultures of the Caribbean, the first carnival was to be held in Britain. In January 1959, in St Pancras Town Hall, the BBC televised the festival; the programme bore the slogan, ‘A people's art is the genesis of their freedom’. The indoor Caribbean Carnival cabarets were held around London, and acted as a precursor to the vast celebrations we see today. For over 50 years, the Notting Hill Carnival has been a celebration, a commemoration and vital community gathering.