Senior officers tried to play down reports of race riots but
police on street witnessed attacks by white mobs
Alan Travis, home affairs editor
Senior Metropolitan police officers tried to dismiss the Notting
Hill race riots which raged for five nights over the August
bank holiday in 1958 as the work of "ruffians, both coloured
and white" hellbent on hooliganism, according to newly
released official files. But police eyewitness reports in the
secret papers confirm that they were overwhelmingly the work
of a white working class mob out to get the "niggers".
The ferocity of Notting Hill "racial riots" as the
press called them at the time, shocked Britain into realising
for the first time that it was not above the kind of racial
conflict then being played out in the American deep south. The
carnival, which will fill the streets of west London with more
than 1.5 million people this weekend, was started in 1959 as
a direct response to the riots.
While senior officers tried to play down the racial aspects
to the riots the internal Metropolitan police files released
this month at the public record office confirm that the disturbances
were overwhelmingly triggered by 300-to 400-strong "Keep
Britain White" mobs, many of them Teddy boys armed with
iron bars, butcher's knives and weighted leather belts, who
went "nigger-hunting" among the West Indian residents
of Notting Hill and Notting Dale. The first night left five
black men lying unconscious on the pavements of Notting Hill.
The battles raged over the bank holiday weekend as the black
community responded in kind with counterattacks by large groups
of "men of colour" similarly armed. Thomas Williams
was stopped by the police as he came out of Bluey's Club on
Talbot Road, Notting Hill. He was found to have a piece of iron
down his left trouser leg, a petrol bomb in his right pocket
and a open razor blade in his inside breast pocket: "I
have to protect myself," he told the arresting officer.
The confidential files, which were closed under the 75-year
rule but have been released early, show that senior officers
tried to convince the then home secretary, "Rab" Butler,
that there had not really been a racial element to the rioting.
In his official report Detective Sergeant M Walters of the
Notting Hill police said the national press had been wrong to
portray the "widespread series of street disturbances"
as "racial" riots: "Whereas there certainly was
some ill feeling between white and coloured residents in this
area, 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."
But the police witness statements and private statistics told
a different story.
The Met commissioner was told that of the 108 people who were
charged with offences ranging from grievous bodily harm to affray
and riot and possessing offensive weapons, 72 were white and
36 were "coloured".
It is popularly believed that the riot began on the night of
Saturday August 20 when a 400-strong crowd of white men, many
of them "Teds", attacked houses occupied by West Indians.
Among the victims was Majbritt Morrison, a young white Swedish
bride of a Jamaican. She was pelted with stones, glass and wood,
and struck in the back with an iron bar as she tried to get
The internal police witness statements provide graphic evidence
of the motives of the mobs - at one point crowds several thousand
strong roamed the streets of Notting Hill, breaking into homes
and attacking any West Indian they could find.
PC Richard Bedford said he had seen a mob of 300 to 400 white
people in Bramley Road shouting: "We will kill all black
bastards. Why don't you send them home?" PC Ian McQueen
on the same night said he was told: "Mind your own business,
coppers. Keep out of it. We will settle these niggers our way.
We'll murder the bastards."
One officer, PC Anthony Saunders, was to find out exactly what
that meant when he intervened to stop a black man being beaten
by whites, one of whom had a piece of iron tubing raised above
his head: "There were milk bottles raining down on us.
I felt blood running down my face, the side of my nose and cheek,"
The police witness statements show that the mobs were openly
defiant of the police. PC Victor Coe said he had seen a man
called David Slater in Artesian Road "sitting astride a
motorcycle in company with a crowd of about 50 youths dressed
in Edwardian-type clothing. I told him to move and he said:
'Why the hell should I?"
PC Roy Fuller said that on the Monday night he was with other
plainclothes officers when he saw Brian Greenham in company
with five or six other youths in Latimer Road where a large
crowd had gathered: "Greenham had a leather belt about
3ft in length hanging from his neck. It was weighted with nuts
and bolts projecting through the belt." "I came up
here to look for a bloke who had done one of my mates up,"
he told the officer.
The police also arrested a group of four white men, including
Patrick Short, a private from the Royal Irish Fusiliers, who
were driving around Notting Hill during the riots. "The
occupants of this van were seen by the police to be shouting
offensive remarks at groups of coloured people standing in Talbot
Road and Portobello Road."
When it was searched a large wooden drum stick, a "pointed
loaded stick" and a shillelagh were found in the van. "I
know it sounds silly, but we were looking for fun," Short
told the police.
But it was not all white on black violence. As Detective Sergeant
Walters reported on the third night there was a "large
group of coloured men" walking along Ladbroke Grove: "What
can only be described as a mob were shouting threats and abuse,
and openly displaying various most offensive weapons, ranging
from iron bars to choppers and open razors. Denton Boyd [who
was later sentenced to 12 months' imprisonment] in particular
had a chopper in his hand and was shouting: 'Come and fight,'
and, 'What about it now?"'
One of the most famous confrontations took place in the Notting
Dale area where a black student, Seymour Manning, was attacked
by three men and fled towards Latimer Road tube station. He
was nearly overtaken and turned into a greengrocer's shop and
slammed the door behind him. "A moment later the shopkeeper's
wife ... appeared in the doorway, locked the door behind her,
and turned to face the trio of toughs." She faced down
what quickly grew to an angry crowd until the police arrived.
The disturbances continued night after night until they finally
petered out on September 5. At the Old Bailey Judge Salmon later
handed down exemplary sentences of four years each on nine white
youths who had gone "nigger hunting". While those
dealt with by the courts were overwhelmingly white, the large
number of black people also arrested and the official insistence
there had not been a racial motive ensured a legacy of black
mistrust of the Metropolitan police that has never really been