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Mon 6 July 2020
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Three years after the Grenfell Tower tragedy, Chris Sullivan excavates the hidden history of one of London’s most polarised neighbourhoods

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When ‘gentrification’ or ‘social cleansing’ is mentioned, one could immediately think of London’s Notting Hill — an area with a long history of rapacious landlords, avaricious developers and obscene displays of both privilege and penury. 

Nothing illustrated this more than when Grenfell Tower went up in flames killing 72 people on 14 June 2017.

Sitting in the middle of an area with some of the highest property prices in Britain, Grenfell Tower was an indelible blot on the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea’s Conservative Council and its vision for the area. It had tried to rehouse its working-class and ethnic minority residents for years with tempting offers of flats outside London in places such as Reading. It had ignored the residents’ complaints about the lack of fire extinguishers, sprinklers as well as faulty lifts and lack of accessible exits. In response, the Grenfell Action Group was formed. In 2013, the council threatened legal action, saying that the group’s online posts demanding action amounted to defamation and harassment.

In January 2016, the group warned that, in the event of a fire in the tower block, they would “do everything in our power to ensure that those in authority know how long and how appallingly our landlord has ignored their responsibility to ensure the heath and safety of their tenants and leaseholders”.

Following the disaster, Channel 4 News’ Jon Snow asked the area’s Conservative Council Leader Nicholas Paget-Brown: “Now that the tower has gone, will you be building housing for rich people?’” Paget-Brown resigned a month later.


Notting Dale

The neighbourhood has always been the subject of huge controversy. In the 19th Century, the area including Grenfell was labelled the ‘West End Avernus’, which, in Virgil’s Aeneid, is the name of the entrance to the underworld and its inferno full of charred cadavers.

Once known as the ‘Potteries and Piggeries’ or Notting Dale, this area was described by Charles Dickens in 1850 as “a plague spot scarcely equalled for its insalubrity by any other in London”. It had a high death and infant mortality rate. Due to social cleansing, many poor people were moved to the area. Tough street-fighting brick makers worked huge kilns, next to pig keepers. There were also pariahs, gamblers, prostitutes scoundrels and staves who availed themselves of cock, dog and bare knuckle prize fights.

At the centre was Pottery Lane, which soon became known as ‘Cut-Throat Lane’ as gangs robbed any stranger of everything they owned. Few Londoners dared to set foot in here, with its sweet and sour stench from the massive empty clay pits filled with foul-smelling water laced with pig and human waste detritus.

Pottery Lane Today which was at the heart of Notting Dale

In 1837, entrepreneur John Whyte made the mistake of building The Kensington Hippodrome racecourse around Notting Dale, in a bid to rival Ascot. Naturally, local rookery-dwellers went about their trademark skulduggery cackling with glee as hundreds of wallets bulging with cash appeared with rich punters. There were only ever 13 race meetings and the track closed in 1842. Crescents with grand five-storey stuccoed townhouses were built on the circular racetrack.


Slums and Grand Townhouses

While the rest of London grumbled about the state of Notting Dale, Notting Hill proper (Notting derived from the Anglo Saxon first name Cnotta while the ‘ing’ denotes a Saxon settlement) became an unswerving example of class privilege and elitism. Architect Thomas Allason created grand townhouses with private communal gardens at back looking like an extension of Kensington.

These new townhouses attracted wannabe middle classes who, like today’s Conservative voters, dreamed of joining la beau monde but couldn’t afford it. It wasn’t a great place for the arts. Although Thomas Hardy lived on Portobello Road, Notting Hill was just too consciously bourgeois and Notting Dale just too darned rough, even for the hardiest artist.

Portobello Road, originally a farm on Golborne Road named in 1740 after a Panamanian town, sprang up as food market for the well to-do. Rag and bone men moved in from Notting Dale selling their wares, as still happens on Fridays in Golborne Road, while at the Notting Hill end they called themselves ‘antique traders’. 

By the time of the 1929 Census, Notting Dale and, even Portland Road, were described in as ‘degraded and semi-criminal’.  Consequently, the rancid dwellings were demolished to be replaced by the area’s first social housing, Notting Wood House on Clarendon Road and Winterbourne House on Portland Road.

Notting Wood House the first social housing in Notting Hill

During the Second World War, Notting Hill and Dale were savagely bombed by the Luftwaffe leaving great big gaps between houses, some of which remained until the Nineties. Post-War Notting Hill with its crumbling stonework, broken windows covered with rusty corrugated iron, rubbish everywhere and every second house deserted, was a slum by anyone’s measure.


Rackman and Teddy Boys

In the mid Fifties, Notting Hill was a favourite haunt for cosh and razor wielding  Teddy Boys. Not known for their racial equanimity, the Teds were really not very happy to see West Indians moving into the area, after the 1948 Nationality Act. These new arrivals occupied decaying bedsits, carved out of expansive four storey Victorian terraced homes, owned by landholders such as Perick Rachman and a whole slew of landlords who by all accounts were far worse.

Rachman‘ is now a term that the Oxford English Dictionary describes as “the exploitation and intimidation of tenants by unscrupulous landlords.”

Rachman began by renting to prostitutes in Bayswater and then fell in with a group of Old Etonian. He bought more than forty properties, including Hedgegate Court and six houses in Powys Square at bargain-basement prices from the dissolute mortgage broker and property investor Lieutenant Colonel George Sinclair, who also arranged Rachman’s loan and took a hefty commission.   

Rachman rented mainly to the new arrivals from the West Indies. He brought in from Cardiff Trinidadian born Michael X (AKA Michael de Freitas) who was later hanged for murder in Trinidad in 1973. Freitas’ job was to collect rent and force out the current tenants and then move in the new arrivals at hugely inflated rents.  

“My great auntie who was 76 then was bullied out of her house by these thugs”, remembered Mr. Albert Price, born in Notting Dale in 1940,  “Next door they put in an all night illegal drinking club with the loud music and a brothel where, according to these older blokes who bought us  drinks in the pub, they pimped out white girls and got them hooked on drugs!”  

These ‘older blokes’ were  agent provocateurs and supporters of Oswald Moseley, sent  in to cause racial enmity. 

 Easily riled, the tough local Teddy Boys formed gangs with the sole aim of physically attacking the West Indian community. 


White Riot

On Saturday 23 August nine local Teddy Boys met in Notting Hill armed with cudgels, iron bars, razors and knives determined to fight the West Indian community. By the end of their mission, three men were lying critical in the hospital while another two were badly hurt.   

The following Friday 29th an altercation occurred outside Latimer Road Tube Station. In response the night after, a 3-400 plus pack of  armed and fuming Teds stormed through Notting Hill screaming, “Keep Britain White”, while  attacking every West Indian dwelling they could find.

The riot, depicted in the Colin MacInnes book Absolute Beginners, raged for five days over the Bank Holiday. West Indians led by Denton Boyd and his friends congregated at their stronghold, Totobags Cafe and fought back. They lobbed Molotov cocktails at the Teds and chased them back to Notting Dale with with meat cleavers, axes and machetes. After another two days, calm was restored. Meanwhile, although nobody was killed, many were injured, and 108 were arrested. Notting Hill, with its burning cars and smashed windows, resembled more of a war zone than a London neighbourhood.

The controversy did not die down. Sergeant M Walters of the Notting Hill police emphatically declared that the riots were not racially motivated.  “Whereas there certainly was some ill feeling between white and coloured residents in this area,’ he said. “it is abundantly clear much of the trouble was caused by ruffians, both coloured and white, who seized on this opportunity to indulge in hooliganism.”


Denial

 In 2002, withheld reports by rank-and-file Police eyewitness came to light that confirm that the riots were overwhelmingly the work of a white working class mob. The documents also divulge that the Government’s Colonial Office requests to address the racial bigotry in Notting Hill were rejected by the Home Office while the West Indian commissioner to London, Garnett Gordon, wrote to the Colonial Office to complain but the Home Office ignored him.

On 30 January 1959 in an effort to heal the area’s racial rift, an American left-wing activist, Trinidadian born Claudia Jones née Claudia Vera Cumberbatch, organised a Caribbean Carnival in St. Pancras Town Hall. All the money raised would “assist the payments of fines of coloured and white youths involved in the Notting Hill events.” This was the beginning of the Notting Hill Carnival, now one of the biggest in the world.

But tempers still ran red.

In May 1959 Kelso Cochrane, a young Black man, was stabbed to death in Golborne Road by white youths who were never caught. In the following months, the British fascist leader Oswald Mosley was allowed to actively campaign to become the area’s MP. He ran on a platform that called for forced repatriation of anyone originally from the Caribbean and a total ban on of all mixed marriages.  Mosley’s share of the vote was 7.6%.

This stoked the fires of mistrust and discontent with the West Indian community with the UK police and Government. They felt that if the reality of the riots were not acknowledged by the Police, the threat of further attacks would never go away as nobody can fix something if it supposedly doesn’t exit.

This sense of injustice and mistrust continues today as witnessed by the tragedy of Grenfell and will not be remedied until the Government and all of us acknowledge that racism is still rife in the UK today


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