The history of: Notting Hill Carnival

Around 2 million people come to carnival each year, making it the biggest street party in Europe. Approximately 16,000 records are played, 300 food stalls are set up and 30 million sequins go into handmade costumes. Yet it’s funny to think that it only took 3 people to turn the carnival into what it is today. 

To trace its origins, we must go back to Britain in the swinging 60’s. It’s surprising to think that the scale that we now see from Carnival can be boiled down to one woman – Claudia Jones, who was a well-known political activist and Editor of the West Indian Gazette. As the editor, she spread the word of a carnival that wanted to celebrate the culture of the Caribbean immigrants who had arrived in the UK in the post-war years through the West Indian Gazette and subsequently the BBC televised the 1959 event.

This acted almost as a prelude of sorts for what was to come.


early carnival
The first carnival was held indoors as it was deemed too cold to properly celebrate Caribbean culture.


Fast forward to 1966 and there was another celebration of Caribbean culture starting to gain traction that was also spearheaded by a similarly inspiring woman,  Rhaune Laslett, who set up an identical event, unaware that a similar idea to hers had already happened. The difference was that she wanted people from all nationalities to wear colourful costumes and celebrate in the streets. The social worker organised a neighbourhood party held in collaboration with the London Free School for children where people from not just from the Caribbean, but also from Spain, Portugal and Irish communities came together.

During this event, the celebration took a spontaneous turn that shaped it into how we know it today when Jazz musician Russell Henderson, who was invited to perform with his steel band, led the crowd on a march through the street while playing. This synergy between the carnival and music became stronger with the introduction of a speaker system, which was brought in by then-organiser Leslie Palmer who wanted to appeal the fiesta to a younger generation.  He also invited reggae bands to perform in front of the now tens of thousands of regular attendees.

carnival soundsysyetm
Sound systems were introduced in the 70’s to attract younger crowds. credit: Guardian newspaper

Not only that, but he gave a hand in getting in generating sponsorship deals as well as encouraging the masquerade outfits we now know and love.  The carnival continued to gain exposure by the live radio broadcasts on BBC Radio London’s ‘Black Londoners’ programme.

Since the event was beginning to grow in scale, management would need to grow beyond just this talented individuals as such the Mangrove restaurant in Notting Hill, run by Frank Crichlow, became the organisational hub for the carnival. This has only grown in scale since, with the Notting Hill Carnival limited company now organising the annual event, the launch of the official app in 2011 and £93 million that the event brings to the economy. All this speaks volumes for how important the fiesta has become for so many people.


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