Author: Marika Sherwood | Date: October 2003
Riots and lynchings, fascists and immigrants: what’s changed?
Though Black peoples have lived in Britain since they arrived here with the Roman armies, mass immigration did not take place until after the Second World War. While it could be argued that before the mid-nineteenth century the relationship of Blacks and Whites was generally relatively easy, the racial climate then changed. By 1919 there were riots against Black people and a Black man was lynched in Liverpool. A Liverpool paper had described Blacks as “idle and insolent, many of them living on unemployment doles … a black menace …”. The paper quoted a police official recommending that all Blacks should be rounded up and shipped home, and that “white women who carry on with negroes” should be arrested. The retired Administrator of Bechuanaland in a letter to The Times (14 June 1919) explained why “an intimate association between a black or coloured man and white women is a thing of horror”. Another letter, in the Sunday Chronicle (15 June 1919), spoke of the “negro’s inborn and ineradicable savagery, and … unspeakable bestiality where women are concerned … There can never be any question of equality between blacks and whites.”
The service of “coloured” troops to fight for Britain in either of the two world wars did not change attitudes. These troops returned to their homes to find that the economic situation had deteriorated. The only solution was emigration. Moreover, Britain needed labour. By the late 1950s, postwar immigration, invigorated if not begun by business and government recruitment, was about to reach its height. Rumours of imminent restrictions reached the Caribbean and the Indian sub-continent and people hastened to beat the ban. They arrived to a climate of ubiquitous negative racial stereotyping. (The Black children I taught in London schools in the 1960s were not expected to achieve, but White working-class children weren’t either. Just keep them quiet, I was told. I remember as late as the 1970s, while running an in-service course for teachers, showing slides of West Indian housing to demonstrate that Blacks did not live in trees.) The notion of inherent inferiority to Europeans was common. Mixed marriages were regarded with horror.
In the summer of 1958 anti-Black rioting erupted in Nottingham. Homes and people were attacked. The Black community, according to Dominican reporter Edward Scobie, felt that “the police were biased and not fair in their dealings with coloured people”. In August, the racist flames having been fanned by Mosley’s Union Movement and other fascist groups, sporadic attacks on the streets of London escalated into riots. These were worst in the North Kensington area, home to many West Indian settlers. As in Nottingham, individual Blacks were pursued in the streets by mobs screaming “Lynch him”, “Lynch him”. The riots were blamed by the police and the press alike on “hooligans”, and on the Black settlers who were deemed to be a “problem”. That the local fascists had been stirring up trouble was ignored.
At about 1am on Sunday 17 May 1959, a young Antiguan carpenter, bespectacled Kelso Cochrane, was walking home from the hospital which had just plastered his broken thumb. Six White youths attacked him, leaving him on the pavement dying of a knife wound. There were some witnesses to the crime; the police were sent lists of names; some youths were held overnight, but there were no charges and no arrests. This was clearly a forerunner to the murder of Stephen Lawrence.
Black people were horrified – and organised to take action. The Notting Hill-based Inter-Racial Friendship Co-ordinating Council (IRFCC) held a meeting and decided to send an open letter to the Prime Minster, stating that “coloured citizens of the UK have lost confidence in the ability of the law enforcing agencies to protect them”. The meeting demanded that the government close “racial centres” and pass a law making incitement to racial violence illegal. It also decided to seek a meeting with the Home Secretary to discuss the situation and the demands.
A delegation of the Council, led by vice-chair Claudia Jones, received a Home Office audience. It spent one and a half hours with three Home Office officials and demanded speedy action against racist propaganda, a trebling of the police force in the Notting Hill area and new legislation to prevent incitement to race hatred. This was necessary because of “inactivity by the authorities in the face of organised attempts to stir up racial hatred by fascist groups”. Failing this, it would form its own defence organisation.
The deputation also proposed the appointment of a Select Committee “with both white and coloured members, to go into the whole question of the special problems of districts such as Notting Hill where there are large numbers of coloured residents”. According to other reports the deputation also asked for the removal of policemen “with known racial bias”, and that the proposed legislation should deem racial discrimination illegal. The senior Home Office official who received the delegates assured them that the “government was satisfied that the police were taking necessary action … It was unlikely that West Indians would be allowed to form their own defence organisations.”
However, R A Butler, the Home Secretary, only promised to “watch the situation” and encourage “effective integration and consider recruiting coloured policemen … and slum clearance”. When pressed in Parliament, Butler condemned the fomentation of racial discrimination, but denied the need for a special enquiry. “Every effort will be made to encourage effective integration”, he promised. “The police discharge their duties impartially,” Butler assured the Commons. “Any activities being undertaken calculated to lead to a breach of the peace the police have the powers to deal with … To take action against [racial discrimination] might not be effective. That is why I do not want to step into that without a great deal more consideration.” His contacts with the press “indicate that it is willing to take a responsible view of this matter”. After meeting with police chiefs Butler announced that he was satisfied with their “handling of the situation in Notting Hill and elsewhere”. The “root of racial tension”, according to the police chiefs, lay in “restlessness among young people and social malaise”.
Butler clearly did not feel that stirring up racial hatred would lead to “a breach of the peace”, as he gave permission for the White Defence League to hold a rally in Trafalgar Square. The government also refused a month later to ratify the International Labour Office’s Convention on Racial Discrimination.
Jones and the IRFCC did what they could. In a massive public funeral for Kelso Cochrane, about 1,000 people attended the church service and “many more accompanied the casket to Kensal Green Cemetery”. Telegrams were sent to his mother in Antigua, and to friendly governments and sympathetic contacts in Cairo and Paris soliciting support. The High Commissioner for Ghana, the Mayor of Kensington and, despite their reservation about the IRFCC, the Premier of the West Indies Federation and Commissioner Garnet Gordon were among the mourners. The total cost was £257, a vast sum in those days, which excluded the actual cost of the burial. A fund was started for Kelso’s mother.
It was all to no avail. A few years later, in 1962, Parliament passed the Immigration Act. The message was clear and resulted in further anti-Black riots in Dudley, Smethwick, Wolverhampton, Accrington and Leeds. “Paki-bashing” and “nigger-hunting” became popular British pastimes. After a number of far-right organisations merged to form the National Front in 1967 and NF candidates stood in local and national elections, anti-Black attacks were further legitimised. Anti-Black attitudes were reinforced by the 1968 Immigration Act. Anti-racist resolutions passed by the TUC and the Labour Party remained words in the air.
This article contains excerpts from two of Marika Sherwood’s previous works: Claudia Jones: a life in exile, Lawrence & Wishart, 2000 and “Lynching in Britain”, History Today, March 1999. For the argument on the change in attitudes, see “Race, Empire and Education: teaching racism”, Race & Class 42/3 2001. The information on the1919 letters appears in Black & Asian Studies Association Newsletter, no 18, 1997.
The Black & Asian Studies Association (BASA) was formed in 1991 in order to encourage research and disseminate information on the history of Black peoples in Britain. It also lobbies government and its quangos on a variety of issues and engages with other organisations such as English Heritage and the National Archives (PRO). BASA publishes a newsletter three times each academic year, which contains original articles, research news, book reviews, historical documents and figures, and an update on its activities. Subscriptions are £10 for institutions, £8 for individuals, £5 concessions. Please send cheques to BASA, c/o 28 Russell Square, London WC1B 5DS.
© Searchlight Magazine 2003