BBC Radio 4 Archive Hour - Fortress Totobag - The Story of the Notting Hill Riots
Henry Bonsu recalls the Notting Hill riots of August 1958. At 9 Blenheim Crescent, known as
Fortress Totobag, fighting between West Indians and teddy boys reached a peak on Monday
September 1. The cafe acted as a community centre and information bureau for newcomers
to the area, but also served as a gambling den and Caribbean music venue. As white hostility
to the growing black presence grew, tensions erupted into violence.
Contributors include Velma Davis, Clarence Thompson, Marika Sherwood and Alex Pascall.
Broadcast on: BBC Radio 4, Saturday 16th August 2008 at 8:00pm
Duration: 57 minutes
Recorded from BBC Listen Again with Audio Hijack Pro.
The Notting Hill race riots were a series of racially-motivated riots which took place in the
Notting Hill area of London, England over several nights in late August and early September 1958.
The end of World War II had seen a marked increase in Caribbean migrants to Britain.
By the 1950s, white working-class "Teddy Boys" were beginning to display hostility towards
the black families in the area – a situation exploited and inflamed by groups such as
Sir Oswald Mosley's Union Movement and other fascist groups who urged disaffected
white residents to "Keep Britain White".
There was an increase in violent attacks on black people through the summer. For instance,
between 2.00am and 5.00am on 24 August, a group of ten white youths committed a series
of serious assaults on six inoffensive West Indian men during four separate incidents.
At 5.40am, their car was spotted by two police officers who pursued them into the White City
estate, where the gang abandoned the car. Using the car as a lead, investigating detectives
arrested nine of the gang the next day after working non-stop for 20 hours.
Just prior to the Notting Hill riots, there was also racial unrest in Nottingham, which began
on Saturday 23 August and went on intermittently for two weeks.
The riot is thought to have started on Saturday 30 August when a gang of white youths attacked
a white Swedish woman, Majbritt Morrison. The youths had seen her the previous night arguing
with her Jamaican husband Raymond at Latimer Road tube station. They had shouted racial insults
at him and were incensed when she turned on them. Seeing her the next night, the same youths
pelted her with bottles, stones, wood and struck her in the back with an iron bar until the police
intervened and she was escorted home. Morrison later wrote an autobiographical book, Jungle West 11,
which included details of her ordeal.
Later that night a mob of 300 to 400 white people, many of them "Teddy Boys", were seen on
Bramley Road attacking the houses of West Indian residents.
The disturbances, rioting and attacks continued every night until they finally petered out by
5 September. The Metropolitan Police arrested over 140 people during the two weeks of the
disturbance; mostly white youths, but also many black people found carrying weapons.
Of the 108 people eventually charged (for crimes such as grievous bodily harm, affray and riot
and possessing offensive weapons) 72 were white and 36 were "coloured".
The sentencing of the nine white youths arrested during the riots has passed into judicial lore
as an example of "exemplary sentencing"; the ruling of an inordinately harsh punishment to act
as a deterrent to others. Each of the youths received a sentence of four years in prison.
The Notting Hill Carnival was started by Claudia Jones in January 1959 as a response to the riots
and the state of race relations in Britain at the time.
The riots caused tension between the Metropolitan Police and the British African-Caribbean
community, which claimed that the police had not taken their reports of racial attacks seriously.
In 2002, files were released which revealed that senior police officers at the time had assured the
Home Secretary, Rab Butler, that there was little or no racial motivation behind the disturbance,
despite testimony from individual police officers to the contrary.
Another riot occurred in the area in 1976 at the conclusion of the Notting Hill Carnival after police
arrested a pickpocket, and a group of black youths came to his defence. The disturbance escalated
and over 100 police officers were injured. Two notable participants in this riot were Joe Strummer
and Paul Simonon, who later formed the seminal London punk band The Clash. Their song
"White Riot" was inspired by their participation in this event.