The Notting Hill Carnival is an annual event that has taken place in London since 1966 on the streets of the Notting Hill area of Kensington, each August over two days.
Notting Hill Carnival history
The streets of the west London borough of Kensington and Chelsea have been hosting an annual street festival since 1966 when it was known as The Notting Hill Street Festival, founded by local activist Rhuane Laslett-O’Brien, to promote cultural diversity in the area. The event evolved into Notting Hill Carnival and has been led by the British West Indian community since 1976. It’s always on during the August bank holiday weekend, with a massive parade, live music including reggae, dub and salsa, as well as 37 static sound systems and steel bands. Plus lots of Caribbean food, hot and cold drinks, rum and beer.
Notting Hill Carnival is the biggest street party in Europe, attracting over two million visitors every year.
The London Caribbean Carnival
The very first London Caribbean Carnival, a precursor to the Notting Hill Carnival, was held indoors at St Pancras Town Hall in January 1959. The event, televised by the BBC, was organised by Claudia Jones, who has gone down in history as the Mother of Caribbean Carnival in Britain.
Jones, born in Trinidad, moved to the USA as a child, from where she was later exiled for her Communist beliefs. Jones moved to the UK in 1955 and was a part of a larger movement of black writers and artists who aimed to empower black diaspora through cultural education and representation.
In 1958, Jones started the UK’s first weekly black newspaper, the West Indian Gazette, later the West Indian Gazette and Afro-Asian Caribbean News, which gave the community a chance to connect in their new home. Jones used the network she created through newspaper subscriptions to rally the victims together after the violence. One of her writers, Donald Hinds, remembers that Jones sought to “wash the taste of Notting Hill out of our mouths” following the riots. Carnival, as a vibrant celebration of black freedom in the Caribbean, was a perfect way to heal.
Jones’s Carnival was mainly celebrated by West Indians and became a yearly festivity until her death in 1964.
The Notting Hill Carnival
Though undoubtedly influenced by Jones’s event, Notting Hill Carnival really began as a traditional British fete going by the moniker Notting Hill Fayre and launched in 1966. The event was put on by community activist and one of the founders of the London Free School, Rhaune Laslett, who aimed to highlight the cultural richness of the area.
Laslett, born to a Native American mother and a Russian father, saw Notting Hill’s diversity as something to be celebrated. The week-long festival included pageants, food stalls and music, and the celebrations ended with a parade.
Notably, Laslett invited the musician Russell Henderson and his Trinidadian Steel Band to perform for the crowd. Henderson also performed at Jones’s Carnival and was well loved in the West Indian community. In conjunction with the London Free School, the Notting Hill Fayre intended to give Londoners exposure to the cultures around them in the hopes that they would find common ground.
Henderson initially played on a stage, but the atmosphere didn’t feel dynamic enough. As Henderson recalled to The Guardian before his death in 2015, “I said, ‘We got to do something to make this thing come alive.’” That meant an impromptu procession through the streets, led by the distinctive beat of his band’s calypso music.
“There was no route, really – if you saw a bus coming, you just went another way,” said Henderson. The spectacle was captivating and revolutionary. It became a symbol of the endurance of West Indian culture and identity in North Kensington.
As the area’s West Indian population established itself, their presence became more dominant. Most came to the event after hearing of Henderson’s march through Notting Hill, and after Laslett relinquished control of the festivities to the residents of the city, the Fayre was transformed into Notting Hill Carnival.