Europe’s First West Indian Carnival: London or Leeds?

There is some debate among carnival historians as to where and when the first West Indian Carnival was held in Europe. Before tackling this question, we must first understand what makes a West Indian Carnival. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, a carnival involves “processions, music, dancing, and the use of masquerade”. These four elements of carnival all need to be in play and need to be West Indian in nature for the carnival to be considered a West Indian Carnival. It is also important that a majority, if not all, of the carnival is West Indian in nature. The inclusion of European elements or elements from other cultures alongside the West Indian elements makes the carnival a multicultural event.

Programme for Caribbean Carnival, 1955.

An indoor carnival was held at the Albert Hall in London in July 1955. Claudia Jones held similar events in London and Manchester between 1959 and 1964. These events were carnival in a cabaret style and while they had a strong West Indian presence, Jazz bands and Pop singers were often included on the bill. One thing these indoor carnivals lacked was a procession. The first West Indian masquerade procession in England took place in Nottingham in 1958 but this event lacked music. The Children’s Play Group Street Party organised by Rhaune Laslett in 1965 included a procession of children in fancy dress costumes lead by The Russell Henderson Trio. While the steel band added a West Indian element to the procession, it was never intended to be anything but a multicultural event and other entertainment included a clown and donkey rides. The London Free School Fair held in 1966 was also a multicultural event. Carnivals were held in Notting Hill, under various names, between 1966 and 1972. These events were always multicultural in nature and were never called ‘Notting Hill Carnival’. The People’s Free Carnival held at the end of August 1971 included street theatre and a rock and roll band among the steel bands. It wasn’t until Leslie Palmer’s takeover of the event in 1973 that it became a West Indian Carnival involving steel bands, Jamaican sound systems, and a Trinidadian-style masquerade. While its roots cannot be denied, the 1973 carnival was the first true West Indian Carnival held in Notting Hill.

Peoples free Carnival
Advert for People’s Free Carnival, 1971.

The West Indian Carnival held in Leeds in 1967 included all four elements of carnival. As well as a Calypso King contest, a Carnival Queen show, a last lap dance and a steel band contest, Leeds Carnival included steel bands and Trinidadian –style masquerade in a procession through the streets of Leeds. Organised by British Caribbeans, Leeds West Indian Carnival was the first true West Indian Carnival held in Europe. It led the way for other West Indian Carnivals in the UK including Bristol, Birmingham, Manchester and Notting Hill.


How Carnival Came To Britain – A Timeline

Lignum Vitae.

Sam Manning, Slim Henderson and Cyril Monrose’s String Band become the first Calypso artists to have records released in Britain. Among the first releases is ‘Lignum Vitae’, a song about ‘tea’.

Musician Leslie Hutchinson arrives in the UK from  Grenada. He performs cabaret in London. He begins recording in England in the 1930s.

Records by Wilmoth Houdini are first released in Britain. Born in Trinidad in 1895, Wilmoth Houdini moved to New York in 1927 and achieved international fame in the 1930s. He became the best-loved Calypso singer of his era.

Sam Manning.

Sam Manning arrives in England. He stays in England until 1941. He signs to Parlophone in 1935 and becomes one of the first Caribbean artist to record in the UK. During his time in Britain he stars in the musical Brown Sugar and, along with Amy Ashwood Garvey, opens  the Florence Mills Social Club in London.

George Browne arrives in Scotland. He moves to London in 1943 and is signed to Parlophone. Born Edric Browne in Trinidad in 1920, George Browne becomes the first Calypso singer to record in the UK.

George Browne.

George Browne releases the single ‘Christmas Calypso’. It becomes a popular hit in the UK. George Browne later records Calypso music using the name Young Tiger. 

Edric Connor arrives in England and makes his debut on the BBC Radio programme ‘Calling The West Indies’. The programme began in 1939 as a service for West Indian troops to read letters to their families.

The Andrews Sisters release their single ‘Rum And Coca-Cola’. The record is banned by the BBC for it’s use of ‘Coca-Cola’. Despite its ban the song becomes a hit in Britain. 

Lord Kitchener.

Three Calypso singers from Trinidad; Lord Kitchener, Lord Woodbine, and Lord Beginner arrive in England on the SS Windrush. Lord Kitchener performs ‘London is the Place for Me’ for Pathe News.

Lord Woodbine moves from London to Liverpool. He forms the group Lord Woodbine And His Trinidadians and they become one of the first Calypso performers to tour the UK.

Lord Kitchener and Lord Beginner are signed to Melodisc. They begin to record Calypso songs with British themes including ‘ Kitch’s Cricket Calypso’, ‘The Underground Train’, ‘London Is The Place For Me’, and ‘Festival Of Britain’.

Lord Kitchener’s field invasion.

Lord Kitchener leads a field invasion at Lord’s Cricket Ground. The field invasion then turns into an improvisational Carnival march that heads towards Piccadilly.

Boscoe Holder introduces steel pan drums on the BBC television show Bal Creole.

TASPO at the Festival of Britain.

The Trinidad All Steel Percussion Orchestra (TASPO)perform at the Festival of Britain, the first steel pan band to perform in the UK. Among its members were Sterling Betancourt and Winston ‘Spree’ Simon. TASPO later tour Britain and France before returning to Trinidad. Sterling Betancourt remains in England.

The BBC air the programme ‘Caribbean Cabaret’ starring TASPO and Lord Kitchener.

Lord Kitchener moves from London to Manchester where he becomes involved with the Pan African movement. That same year he releases the single ‘Africa My Home’.

The Russ Henderson Steel Band is formed in London. It is the first steel pan band formed in the UK. The band’s members are Russ Henderson, Sterling Betancourt, and Mervyn Constantine.

Boscoe Holder And His Caribbean Dancers and The Russ Henderson Steel Band take part in the Royal River Pageant to celebrate the Queen’s Coronation.

Music From Trinidad EP.

Vitadisc release a set of EPs entitled ‘Music From Trinidad’, the first steel pan recordings released in the UK. The EPs include music by The Trinidad Panharmonic Orchestra, Lord Melody and others.

The Mighty Terror releases ‘No Carnival In Britain’ on the Melodisc label. It is just one of many Calypso songs written about life in Britain.

Ian Charles arrives in the UK from Trinidad and settles in Leeds.

The Russell Henderson Calypso Band take part in the Lord Mayor’s Show in London.

Poster for “The First Caribbean Carnival”.

A concert held at the Royal Albert Hall billed as “The First Caribbean Carnival In London” features Lord Kitchener, Young Tiger, The Russell Henderson Steel Pan Band, Edric Connor and Boscoe Holder.

Claudia Jones arrives in England from Trinidad and settles in London. She founds The West Indian Gazette newspaper in 1958.

The BBC air the TV movie A Man From The Sun starring Cy Grant. The movie features Calypso music performed by Cy Grant.


 1956 – 1957
The Calypso Craze takes Britain by storm with music, movies and even lipstick.

Advert for Calypso Beat lipstick.

Winston ‘Spree’ Simon arrives in Liverpool to teach steel pans to the West Indian community. Born in Trinidad in 1930, Winston ‘Spree’ Simon was a pioneer in steel pan. 

In Liverpool, John Lennon, inspired by The Calypso Craze, writes his first song, ‘Calypso Rock’.

Local West Indian musicians hold a Skiffle-Carnival in St Stephen’s Gardens to celebrate the birthday anniversary of Marcus Garvey.

Arthur France arrives in England from Nevis and settles in Leeds.

1957 – 1962
Cy Grant appears on the Tonight show, performing Calypso music, becoming the first black person to appear regularly on British television.

The Caribbeans, lead by Sonny Marks, are formed in Leeds, becoming one of Leeds’ first steel pan bands.

James ‘Woody’ Heyliger organises a West Indian Carnival parade in Nottingham. The parade includes a troupe of Fancy Indians.

Newspaper report on riots in Notting Hill.

Race riots take place in Notting Hill, London, after years of racial unrest. Claudia Jones organises a ‘Caribbean Carnival’ in response to the riots.

Claudia Jones holds a “Caribbean Carnival” in St Pancras Town Hall in Camden, London. This indoor carnival includes steel pan music, limbo dancing and Calypso music performed by The Mighty Terror. 


Caribbean Carnival in St Pancras Town Hall, 1959.

Claudia Jones holds an indoor Carnival at Seymour Hall in London. A second indoor show is held at Kensington Town Hall.  The indoor events include steel pan music and a beauty contest.

In London Emil E. Shalit founds Blue Beat Records, a sublabel of Melodisc. Blue Beat Records releases music from Jamaica and later becomes known for releasing Ska music.

Lord Woodbine travels to Hamburg with The Beatles and performs as their opening act at The Indra Club.

An indoor Carnival cabaret is held at Lyceum theatre in London. This year’s entertainment is provided by Elaine Delmar and the Ray Ellington Orchestra.
Another indoor carnival event is held at Seymour Hall. The event features Mighty Sparrow performing in the UK for the first time.
An indoor carnival event is held at the Free Trade Hall in Manchester.
Lord Kitchener returns to Trinidad to reclaim the title of ‘Calypso King’. He had lived in the UK for 14 years.

Dr. No movie poster.

The James Bond movie Dr.No is released, featuring Byron Lee And The Dragonaires on the soundtrack.

Bernard Cribbins releases ‘Gossip Calypso’. It reaches number 25 in the UK charts.
The Limbo dance craze takes place in Britain and America.
An indoor carnival event is held at Seymour Hall in London. This year’s event includes a Carnival masquerade costume competition.
United Caribbean Association is formed at Arthur France’s bedsit at 15 Grange Avenue in Leeds. During a meeting Arthur France first puts forward the idea of bringing a West Indian Carnival to Leeds.
The last indoor Caribbean Carnival takes place at Seymour Hall, London.
Claudia Jones passes away at her flat in London on Christmas Eve aged 49. In her place, Rhaune Laslett continues to hold Caribbean carnival events in London.
The Caribbean All Steel Band on Opportunity Knocks.

The Steel Pan Band, The Caribbean All Steel Band from Leeds appear on the TV show Opportunity Knocks.

Rhaune Laslett hold street party in Notting Hill, London. During the party, Russell Henderson’s steel band began an improvisational Carnival march.

Muhammad Ali visits the home of Rhaune Laslett in London.
The London Free School hold the London Free School Festival in Notting Hill. The festival includes elements of a West Indian carnival.
The Adventures Steel Band are founded by Selwyn Baptiste in Notting Hill, London. The band later become the Metronomes Steel Orchestra. 
Frankie Davis and Tony Lewis  organise Leeds Caribbean Carnival Fete held at Kitson College. Jimmy James and the Vagabonds perform at the Fete.
The Hollies released their single ‘Carrie Anne’ which features steel pans, the first pop song to feature the instrument. 
Ska legend Prince Buster tours the UK. A live recording, ‘Prince Buster Live On Tour’, is released on the Blue Beat label later that year.
Arthur France and Courtland Carter found The Gay Carnival Steel Band in Leeds. They later become The Boscoe Steel Band.
Vicky Cielto, Britain’s first Carnival Queen.

The first Leeds West Indian Carnival is held. It is the first true West Indian Carnival held in the UK. Among the founding committee members are Arthur France, Calvin Beach, Tony Lewis and Ian Charles. The Carnival includes a Carnival Queen contest won by Vicky Cielto, a steel band contest won by St Christopher Steel Band and a Calypso King contest won by Lord Silkie. TV presenter Clyde Alleyne is Master of Ceremonies at The Carnival Queen Show. 

The first Notting Hill Festival is held in London. The festival features elements of a West Indian Carnival and steel bands including The Adventures Steel Band and The Russ Henderson Trio.
A Carnival parade is held in Bristol as part of the St. Pauls Festival. It includes two floats and a steel band.
A second West Indian Carnival is held in Leeds. Gloria Simpson is the Carnival Queen.
Leeds troupes take part in Notting Hill Festival in London.
The Bedrocks.

Leeds group The Bedrocks are signed to  Columbia. They released their debut single, a cover of  ‘Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da’ which reaches number 20 in the UK. 

Trojan Records release Volume 1 and 2 of the Reggae compilation LP series ‘Tighten Up’.Volume 3 follows in 1970.
Janet France is the Carnival Queen at the third Leeds West Indian Carnival.

Iola Merchant organises the first West Indian style carnival in Birmingham, the second oldest of it’s kind in the UK. Notting Hill Festival is not yet a specifically Caribbean event.

Birmingham Carnival, 1969.
The fourth Leeds West Indian Carnival is held in Leeds. That years Carnival Queen is Jean Jeffers. Trevor McDonald, radio presenter of the BBC Caribbean Service, is Master of Ceremonies at The Carnival Queen Show at Mecca Ballroom, Leeds.
Notting Hill Festival becomes the People’s Free Carnival.  This year’s Carnival includes steel pan bands and Ginger Johnson’s African drummers.
Leeds West Indian Carnival celebrates it’s fifth year.

A week-long event, The People’s Free Carnival, is held in Notting Hill, London. The event includes Rock and Roll, Steel Bands and Street Theater.

Moss Side Caribbean Carnival, 1972.

West Indian students in Manchester organise the first Moss Side Caribbean Carnival.

Leeds West Indian Carnival is filmed by BBC Television for the first time.
Bob Marley and the Wailers perform at Leeds Polytechnic. The show is recorded and later released on CD in 2004. 
Backstage, Bob Marley meets with Arthur France.
Leslie Palmer takes over Notting Hill Carnival in London. He runs the Carnival until 1975. During that time he introduces more steel bands, other live acts and sound systems to Notting Hill Carnival, making it a more specifically Caribbean event.
1972 – 1977
Caribbean Carnivals are founded across the UK. Carnivals begin appearing in Manchester (1972), Preston (1974), Derby (1975), Luton (1976), and Reading (1977).
Notting Hill Carnival ends in a riot. The riot begins after years of racial tensions between police and residents of Notting Hill. Over 160 people, police officers and residents, are injured.
Leeds West Indian Carnival celebrates it’s 10th year. That year’s Carnival Queen is Patricia Wilkes.

Leeds West Indian Carnival is featured on the BBC television programme Countdown to the Festival.

Bob Marley attends the Notting Hill Carnival in London.

The first Panorama steel pan contest is held in the UK. It is held at Emslie Horniman’s Pleasance park in Notting Hill, London. A Panorama contest had been held in Trinidad since 1963.