It was a thrill and a privilege for me to be invited to talk briefly on the Robert Elms Show today, broadcast live from the Carnival. Robert, more than anyone else on BBC Radio London, is the one who promotes our history and I listen to his show whenever I’m indoors.
I hadn’t been to Carnival for nearly twenty years. As I approached Ladbroke Grove, the boom boxes got louder and louder and I have to say I got a tingle of excitement remembering the fun times I enjoyed there as a much younger chap. Turning the corner I came by the floats and the dancers in all their finery. Joyous. The mayor, the organisers and the police have been determined that Carnival should not be impaired or cancelled as a result of the recent riots. This is definitely right, I do hope they are all vindicated by the end of this evening, but so far so good.
As is usual when I’m fortunate to be invited on air, I do a lot of preparation. Inevitably, only a fraction of what I discover or rediscover ends up used, so in order not to waste them, here is my notes dump for Notting Hill.
What is Notting Hill?
Notting Hill is a rather amorphous entity. Some might argue that the southern more gentrified bit is really part of Kensington and the northern, traditionally poorer part is Ladbroke Grove. Indeed, the area in the past has been referred to as North Kensington or Kensington Park (the Notting Hill telephone STD code – 727 – originates from PAR as in Kensington PARk). It is covered by two post codes – W10 and W11. But generally speaking, Notting Hill can be said to be the area north of Holland Park Avenue and south of the Harrow Road, west of Scrubs Lane and to Westbourne Grove in the east.
The etymology of “Notting” in unclear but most agree that it is a Saxon name. Notting Barns was first mentioned in the 14C. Before urbanisation, the area comprised gravel pits, pig farms, potteries and brick kilns. There is a lot of clay in the area. Much of the area was owned by the Ladbroke family who also had holdings in Kensington. In 1821, a nephew of the family, James Weller inherited the estate, changed his name to James Weller Ladbroke and put in train the project to build up the area with Victorian town houses for the gentry. To do this he needed an Act of Parliament to allow him to change leases from 21 to 99 years. The architect Thomas Allason was responsible for the entire project, Ladbroke himself taking very much a back seat.
The first station in the area was Ladbroke Grove, opened by the Metropolitan company in 1864 on the extension to Hammersmith built just a year after the Underground was founded. It was called Notting Hill and Ladbroke Grove but generally referred to as Notting Hill. Its name was changed in 1919 to prevent confusion with the nearby Notting Hill Gate, which was fully developed by 1900 with the addition of the Central Railway (today’s Central Line). Notting Hill Gate is so-called because this was once the site of a turnpike run by the Kensington Turnpike Trust. More on turnpikes here.
Did you know that for a very short time, Notting Hill had a racecourse called the Hippodrome? It was built by John Whyte around the apex of the hill itself in 1837. Whyte obtained a lease for the purpose from James Ladbroke. His idea was for it to rival Ascot and Epsom and attract swanky punters from the new Ladbroke estate and also nearby Mayfair, Bayswater, Maida Vale and Belgravia. Unfortunately it attracted the “wrong sort of people” from the nearby poorer parts of locality, was heavily criticised in the Times and elsewhere and constantly had difficulties with the soft waterlogged clay in the area. It lost money heavily and in 1841, Whyte closed it down along with his lease. The site was turned over to more housing and the old racetrack explains the crescents in the vicinity, eg Blenheim, Landsdowne and Elgin.
Scene of the world famous Saturday market, Portobello Road runs from near Notting Hill Gate to just behind where we were broadcasting today, the Eagle pub in Ladbroke Grove. This area was formerly Portobello farm, named after Puerto Bello, a town in Panama captured from Spain by Admiral Vernon in the War of Jenkins’ Ear (my favourite war name). Portobello Lane (as it then was) was nothing more than a muddy track running to the farm. It is thought that gypsies in the general vicinity use to congregate along the lane every week to sell their wares and hence the origins of the market.
Race Riots and Carnival
The Empire Windrush influx of Caribbean immigrants into the area from 1948 onward led to racial tension in the area culminating in the race riots of 1958 and the murder of an Antiguan immigrant Kelso Cochrane the following year. Local activists such as Claudia Jones* and others, to show the positive side of the immigrant population in the area, initiated a festival to celebrate Caribbean culture, firstly at Bayswater town hall. After five years, this developed into the Notting Hill Carnival as we know it. For over a decade it has attracted over a million visitors over August bank holiday weekend, making it easily Europe’s biggest street festival. It hasn’t been without its problems with occasional clashes with the police, notably in 1976, 1987 and there was some trouble as recently as 2008.
*Claudia Jones is buried in Highgate Cemetery very near Karl Marx
Breaking News: The Travel Bookshop – made famous in the movie Notting Hill (Hugh Grant being the owner in the film) – is set to close. Founded in 1979, it has been up for sale since May. But with no takers, the owner has announced its closure in about a week from now and selling off all the stock at knock down prices. There is a campaign – supported by actor Alex Baldwin but not at time of writing Hugh Grant or Julia Roberts – to form some sort of cooperative to keep it going. It is led by, among others, the poet Olivia Cole (@oliviacole1 on Twitter).