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.
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 rock and roll 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.
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.
Rhuane Laslett was a community leader and former Social Worker living in the Notting Hill area of London. She was born in London in 1919 to a Native American mother and Russian father. She founded the Children’s Play Group at her home at 34 Tavistock Crescent. During the summer of 1965 she organised a street party for local children. The aim of the street party was to bring together children from different races and backgrounds and was never intended to have Caribbean culture at the centre of it. The street party took place on Tavistock Crescent, tables with food were set up in the street with bunting, some of the children wore fancy dress and a clown and donkey had been hired to entertain the guests. Rhuane Laslett also invited the steel pan band The Russell Henderson Trio to perform at the party. The trio at the time was made up of Russell Henderson, Sterling Betancourt and Ralph Sherry. During the street party, The Russell Henderson Trio began an improvised Carnival march around the streets of Notting Hill taking the donkey with them. The march left Tavistock Crescent and headed towards Bayswater Road via Queensway before returning to Tavistock Crescent. During the march they were joined by local people which eventually became a large crowd, dancing to the sounds of steel pan music in the streets of Notting Hill.
Caribbean Carnival Fete, 1966
In 1966, Students at the University of Leeds organised a Caribbean Carnival Fete at Kitson College on Woodhouse Lane (Now Leeds College of Technology).The Caribbean Carnival Fete was organised by Frankie Davis from Trinidad and Tony Lewis from Jamaica. The Fete included a troupe of dancers dressed as Native Americans, a traditional Trinidadian Mas costume. The troupe was organised by Trinidadian Marlene Samlal Singh. The troupe included Frankie Davis who wore his costume on the bus from his home in the Chapeltown area of Leeds to Kitson College in the City Centre. The entertainment was provided by Soul group Jimmy James And The Vagabonds lead by Jamaican singer Jimmy James. The band had formed in 1960 and had relocated to the UK in 1964. They released the single ‘Shoo Be Doo (You’re Mine)’ in 1965 followed by ‘I Feel Alright’ in February 1966. Among the guests was Ian Charles from Trinidad. He had arrived in England in 1954 and would later be a key player in Leeds West Indian Carnival. A small procession took place between Kitson College and the British Council’s International House, off North Street, where the party came to an end.
London Free School Fair, 18 – 25 September 1966
In March 1966 Rhaune Laslett was made the president of the London Free School, organised by local activists including John ‘Hoppy’ Hopkins, John Michell and Michael X. It was at a meeting at 26 Powis Terrace in 1965 that the Free School came up with the idea of a free festival. The main aim of the festival was to bring the various culture groups of the area together and become familiar with each other’s customs. The Fair had been in the works since June or July 1965 and the Mayor of Kensington and Chelsea, Alderman Fisher had shown his support and had become a patron. However, by July 1965 Alderman Fisher had withdrawn his patronage due to Michael X’s involvement. At one meeting Michael X suggested asking The Beatles manager Brian Epstein to become a patron and holding Carnival fund-raising concerts at Porchester Hall but nothing came of either idea. With no financial support, Rhaune Laslett set about organising the fair with help from the local community. She borrowed costumes from Madame Tussaud’s, local hairdresser did hair and make-up for free, stallholders from Portobello market donated horses and carts and the gas board and fire brigade donated floats. The Notting Hill Fayre and Pageant or The London Free School Fair was held over a week from 18 September 1966. It was later described by Rhaune Laslett as “a celebration of poverty”.
The week-long fair included a ‘Portobello parade’ on Sunday 18 September. The parade included a man dressed as Elizabeth I and children dressed a Charles Dickens characters. The parade also included Irish girl pipers, a West Indian New Orleans-style marching band, Ginger Johnson’s Afro-Cuban band, a fire engine and Russell Henderson’s Trinidadian Steelband. The parade began and ended at Acklam Road. From Acklam Road the parade went down Ladbroke Grove, Holland Park Avenue, Notting Hill Gate, Westbourne Grove and Great Western Road before returning to Acklam Road. Some film footage of the parade still exists today and photographs were taken by The West London Observer. The newspaper reported on the Fair on 22 September under the headline ‘Jollity and Gaiety at the Notting Hill Pageant’. After the parade, an International Song And Dance Night was held at All Saints Hall in Powis Garden and The West London Observer reported that it was “a complete sell out”. It was also reported that due to the success of the Fair the Free School had decided to make it an annual event. Other events, including a Jazz and poetry evening, Charles Dickens amateur dramatics, and ‘old tyme music hall’, were held throughout the week. Poet Michael Horovitz wrote about the parade in his 1966 poem ‘Carnival’. He wrote:
Children – all ages chorusing – we all live in a yellow submarine – trumpeting tin bam goodtime stomp – a sun-smiling wide-open steelpan-chromatic neighbourhood party making love not war.
With the success of the 1960 Caribbean Carnival held at Seymour Hall, an even larger venue was chosen for the 1961 Caribbean Carnival. That year’s indoor Carnival event was held at the Lyceum Theatre on 20 February 1961. Once again Stanley Jack was in charge of the Carnival. He invited lots of theatre and film people to come and support the Carnival. His dance troupe of Limbo dancers performed on the stage. Also returning from the 1960 Carnival was singer Elaine Delmar who was backed by The Ray Ellington Orchestra. Ray Ellington had been among the performers at London’s first Caribbean Carnival in 1955. A beauty contest was held again and was won by a Jamaica woman named Cherrie Larman. The BBC didn’t film any of the Carnival this year (or any year afterwards) but part of the Carnival was filmed. The Associated Press Archive includes a short newsreel titled ‘Caribbean Carnival’. It shows an unidentified steel pan band which includes a bongo player. The film also shows that this year’s Carnival also included some guests in costumes including a cat-faced man.
Caribbean Carnival, 16 March 1962
1962’s Caribbean Carnival didn’t take place until March and despite the success of the Caribbean Carnival held at the Lyceum Theatre the previous year, this year’s Carnival returned to Seymour Hall. The show was produced by Pat Castagne and the cabaret was directed by Boscoe Holder. That year’s Carnival was held on 16 March and the headlining act was Calypso star Mighty Sparrow. Mighty Sparrow was extremely popular in Trinidad and his records had been released in Britain since 1959 but he had never performed there before. Claudia Jones and her committee had arranged for Mighty Sparrow to perform at the Carnival and his visit was highly anticipated. There was a tense wait to see if Mighty Sparrow would make it. He did, but had problems with the band. In the end he performed alone with his guitar. Guests were also entertained by Curtis Pierre and The Dixieland Steel band who had come to England in 1961.
Carnival in Manchester, 1962
In 1962, Claudia Jones organised a second Caribbean Carnival like she had done in 1960. Her idea was to spread Caribbean Carnival outside of London. It was perhaps due to her connections with Lord Kitchener that she chose Manchester. The Manchester Caribbean Carnival took place at the Free Trade Hall. The show was the same as the one held in London but the Manchester Caribbean Carnival was not a success. Despite the star attraction of Mighty Sparrow, very few people turned up. The Manchester Carnival led to the meeting of two Calypso Kings, Lord Kitchener and Mighty Sparrow. Mighty Sparrow convinced Lord Kitchener to return to Trinidad, which he did later in the year.
Caribbean Carnival, 1963 and 1964
The 1963 and 1964 indoor Caribbean Carnivals both took place at Seymour Hall. Claudia Jones’ Caribbean Carnival had by now become a greatly anticipated event for the West Indian community in London. The 1963 Carnival saw the beauty contest replaced with a masquerade costume competition. The competition was won by a Trinidadian man playing King Sailor, a traditional Trinidadian Carnival character. The 1964 Carnival included music provided by Curtis Pierre And The Dixieland Steelband who had performed at the Carnival in 1962. Other acts included guitarist Gene Lawrence and his combo, Silver Strings. Gene Lawrence was born in St. Vincent but lived in Trinidad from the age of sixteen. He arrived in England in 1959 and formed the Silver Strings around the same time. The masquerade costume competition that year was won by two men portraying jab jabs, another traditional Mas character.
Claudia Jones passed away on Christmas Eve 1964 after suffering a massive heart attack. After her death the indoor Caribbean Carnivals that she organised ended, making the 1964 Caribbean Carnival at Seymour Hall the last of its kind. Victor Crichlow, Phillip Allscrub and Frank Bynoe continued to hold Steel Pan dances in venues such as The Lyceum Theatre and Porchester Hall.
I Have A Dream March, 31 August 1963
In 1963 Claudia Jones and her Committee of Afro-Asian Caribbean Organisations organised a march in solidarity with Martin Luther King’s March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. Martin Luther King’s march had taken place in Washington on 28 August 1963 and had ended with Martin Luther King giving his ‘I have a dream’ speech at the Lincoln Memorial. Claudia Jones’ march took place in London, 3 days later. The march began at Ladbroke Grove tube station and headed down Ladbroke Grove towards Holland Park Avenue before ended at the U.S. Embassy in Grosvenor Square.
When Claudia Jones organised her first indoor Carnival event in 1959 it was never intended to be a one-off event but rather an annual one. In the 1959 souvenir programme she wrote: “It would be unfair for me not to tell you that we have still another determination, that is, to make the…Caribbean Carnival an annual event.” A second Caribbean Carnival was arranged by Claudia Jones to take place in February 1960. This time the larger venue of Seymour Hall was chosen. Again, Stanley Jack was picked to be the Carnival’s choreographer and Edric Connor was the director. Edric Connor had hoped to make a film of the event but was unable to raise the funds. Parts of the Carnival were filmed by the BBC who broadcast a 20-minute programme title ‘Caribbean Carnival’ later that night. 1960’s Carnival attracted over 2,000 people, twice as many as the previous year and again people were turned away.
The Caribbean Carnival at Seymour Hall took place on 6 February 1960. Like the previous year’s event, the 1960 Caribbean Carnival included Jazz, Calypso, Steel Pan and dance. A beauty contest was also held during the Carnival. The Carnival began with a fire dance (by an uncredited performer/performers) followed by Rupert Nurse And His Orchestra. The orchestra, who played a mix of Jazz and Calypso, had played at the 1959 Carnival. They were followed by two Steel Pan bands. The first of which was The Russ Henderson Trinidadian Steel Band. The Russ Henderson Trinidadian Steel Band was London’s best known steel band at the time and had appeared at the 1955 indoor carnival. However, this was their debut at an indoor Carnival event organised by Claudia
Jones. The Tropicana Steel Band also performed on the stage at Seymour Hall. Guests were then entertained by Allister Bain’s dance troupe, The Bee Wee Ballet of Grenada. Allister Bain was born in Grenada, where he formed his dance troupe. In 1957 he worked on the movie ‘Island In The Sun’ before moving to England in 1958.
The first calypsonian to perform that day was Cy Grant. Cy Grant had appeared in the 1956 TV movie ‘Man From The Sun’ but was best known for performing Calypso songs on the Tonight Show between 1957 – 1962. Part of his performance was filmed by the BBC. The BBC also filmed British-Jamaican Jazz singer Elaine Delmar. Elaine Delmar was the daughter of Jamaican trumpeter Leslie ‘Jiver’ Hutchinson. She had released her debut single, ‘I Loves You Porgy’, in November 1959. The highlight of the show was calypsonian Lord Kitchener. Ten years ago he had led a improvisational Carnival march from Lord’s Cricket ground. Five years later he performed at London’s first Caribbean Carnival at the Albert Hall, travelling from Manchester especially for the event. In 1960 he again travelled from Manchester to London to perform at the indoor Carnival at Seymour Hall. The 1960 Caribbean Carnival ended with Trinidadian dancer Patsy Fleming performing a Limbo dance.
A second Caribbean Carnival was held in 1960. Again organised by Claudia Jones, this indoor event took place at Kensington Town Hall and was the closest indoor Carnival came to Notting Hill. Very few details of this second Carnival exist today but it was no doubt a similar affair to the one that took place at Seymour Hall.
West Indian Gazette Carnival, 30 January 1959
The West Indian Gazette Carnival or The London Caribbean Carnival was the first of a series of indoor Carnival events organised by Trinidadian Claudia Jones. Claudia Jones was born in Trinidad in 1915 and lived in New York with her family from the age of nine. She came to London in December 1955 and founded the West Indian Gazette in 1958. Four months after launching the newspaper, racial riots broke out in Notting Hill and Nottingham in August 1958. As a result, Claudia Jones set about trying to find a way to “wash the taste of Notting Hill and Nottingham out of our mouths”. In December 1958 a West Indian Carnival was suggested and because it was winter the Carnival was held indoors. Claudia Jones used her connections to gain use of St. Pancras Town Hall in January 1959.
The West Indian Gazette Carnival was held at St. Pancras Town Hall on 30 January 1959. The stage was decorated with a Caribbean backdrop and palm trees. The stage decor was by Rhoda Mills and Charles Grant. A crew worked from midnight to 7 am decorating the stage and hall. Stanley Jack was the Carnival’s choreographer. Stanley Jack had only arrived in England from Trinidad a few months earlier.
Like the indoor Carnival held in 1955, the 1959 Carnival’s entertainment included Jazz, Calypso, Steel Pan and dance. Photos from the day show that the hall was packed with guests and most report that 1,000 people danced inside with hundreds more dancing outside in the freezing cold. A souvenir brochure was put together and sold at the Carnival. Part of the proceeds went towards assisting the payments of fines of youths involved in the Notting Hill riots.
The Carnival was directed by Edric Connor and the headlining act was English jazz singer Cleo Laine who was backed by The Mike McKenzie Trio, lead by Guyanese pianist Mike McKenzie. Cleo Laine was born in Uxbridge, Middlesex to a Jamaican father and English mother. She had been the singer with John Dankworth And His Orchestra from 1951 until 1958. Trinidadian Jazz guitarist Fitzroy Coleman also performed at the Carnival. Fitzroy Coleman had arrived in England in 1945 and had recorded with Lord Kitchener and Lord Beginner. Rupert Nurse had also arrived in England in 1945 and had played with Fitzroy Coleman and Cyril Jones. He was appointed musical director of Melodisc records in 1953. Rupert Nurse And His Orchestra performed at the Carnival, playing a mix of Jazz and Calypso.
Calypso music was provided by Mighty Terror, one of England’s best loved Calypsonians. He had arrived in England in 1953 and had begun recording for Melodisc in 1954. He recorded ‘No Carnival In Britain’ that year. At the West Indian Gazette Carnival he performed a specially written Calypso titled ‘Carnival at St Pancras’. Jamaican vocal group The Southlanders also performed at the Carnival. They had had a top twenty hit in 1957 with ‘Alone’ but were perhaps best known for their 1958 song ‘The Mole In The Hole’. Also performing at the Carnival was the event’s directer Edric Connor. Edric Connor had recorded three albums with The Southlanders in 1954-1955 and had had a hit with ‘Manchester United Calypso’ in 1957. Other acts included The Sepia Serenades and Tobagonian singer Pearl Prescod.
Steel Pan music was performed by The Trinidad All Star Steel Band, who at one point left the stage and were surrounded by guests. A second steel band, The Hi-Fi Steel Band, also played on the day as did Errol Phillips And The Trinidad Hummingbirds Steel Band which featured a solo by Venice Villarion.
Boscoe Holder And His Caribbean Dancers performed ‘Carnival Fantasia’. Also dancing on the stage was The West Indian Students Dance Band, solo dancer Corinne Skinner-Carter and David Berahzer’s Malimba Dancers. The stage show also included exhibitions of Limbo dancing and Tamboo Bamboo. The Carnival also included a Carnival Queen Beauty Contest. 12 contestants took part in the contest, six from Jamaica, four from Trinidad and one each from British Guiana and St. Vincent. The contest was won by 22-year-old Faye Sparkes who won a free trip to Trinidad for Carnival. The Carnival ended with the guests taking part in a grand finale Jump-Up around the building and back into the hall. The BBC filmed parts of the Carnival which were broadcast later that night in a 30-minute programme titled ‘Trinidad Comes To Town’. Several photographs taken by Donald Hinds also exist showing some of the acts as well as the guests dancing.
Kelso Cochrane Funeral Procession, 6 June 1959
On 27 May 1959, a West Indian man named Kelso Cochrane was stabbed to death by a gang of white men on Sotham Street in Kensal. This murder took place during a period of racial unrest in London. The Notting Hill race riots had taken place during the previous summer and the White Defence League was founded in September 1958. Their headquarters were set up in Notting Hill. Fascist leader Oswald Mosley, who was standing as the Union Movement candidate for North Kensington in the 1959 election, was holding street meetings around the area.
Kelso Cochrane’s Funeral took place on 6 June 1959. Over a thousand people, both black and white, followed Kelso Cochrane’s funeral cortege along Ladbroke Grove to Kensal Green Cenetety. Pathe News captured 3 minutes footage of the Procession which has been described as a proto-Carnival procession. (The Associated Press Archive also includes footage of the funeral, both films are silent). Mike Phillips called it ‘the great event which ended the 50s and began the West Indian decade of Notting Hill.’
When Rock And Roll Came To Trinidad, 1956-1957
During 1957 British teenagers found themselves occupied not just by one music craze but by three. There was Rock ‘n’ Roll, Skiffle and Calypso. All three crazes had begun as early as 1956 and had reached a peak during the summer of 1957. Only one, Rock ‘n’ Roll, would survive the end of the year. A look at the top 30 from March 1957 gives some idea as to what was popular among the record buying public at the time. There is Rock ‘n’ Roll from Fats Domino (Blueberry Hill (#10)), Bill Haley And His Comets (Don’t Knock The Rock (#12)) and Little Richard (Long Tall Sally (#13)). Skiffle was also making the charts with songs by Lonnie Donegan (Don’t You Rock Me Daddy-O (#6) and The Vipers Skiffle Group (Don’t You Rock Me Daddy-O (#19). This was a time when the same song recorded by two different artists could chart during the same week. This was the case at the beginning of March when two versions of the Skiffle favourite ‘Don’t You Rock Me Daddy-O’ both charted. It was also the case with ‘The Banana Boat Song’ with three versions all making the UK charts the first week of March 1957. (That week’s chart also included two versions of ‘The Garden of Eden’, ‘Singing The Blues’ and ‘Young Love’ all in the top 30). Harry Belafonte’s version of ‘The Banana Boat Song’ was the highest charting at number 16. Not far behind were The Tarriers at number 20 and Shirley Bassey at number 23.
During 1956 and 1957, Calypso and Rock ‘n’ Roll often crossed paths. Lord Melody recorded ‘Rock N Roll Calypso’ in 1956 and Lord Kitchener recorded a different song with the same name around the same time. The Fabulous McClevertys’ 1957 album ‘Calypso’ opened with the track ‘Don’t Blame It on Elvis’ which name-checked the King himself. At the other end of things The Deeps recorded ‘Calypso Rock ‘n’ Roll’ in 1956 and The Mike Pedicin Quintet recorded ‘Calypso Rock’ in 1957. Don Cornell’s 1957 album ‘For Teenagers Only!’ included the song ‘Rockalypso’. The Calypso Craze saw Calypso music being recorded by artists of all kinds, both young and old. Among them was Nat King Cole, who in 1957 released the single ‘When Rock And Roll Came To Trinidad’.
Woolton Village Fete, 6 July 1957
Calypso very rarely crossed over into Skiffle, although the two musics were closer linked than Calypso and Rock ‘n’ Roll. Calypsonians and Skifflers both told stories with their songs and both music genres were easily accessible to working class teens. With its homemade instruments, Skiffle also shared a similarity with Steel Pan and other Carnival percussion instruments such as the Bottle and Spoon and Tamboo Bamboo.
Skifflers would have been familiar with Maxine Daniels 1957 single ‘Coffee Bar Calypso’. Skiffle and Coffee bars went hand in hand during 1957, with the 2i’s Bar in London being the most famous Skiffle venue in Britain. Skiffle/Calypso’s biggest crossover came in July
1957 when Johnny Duncan And The Blue Grass Boys released ‘Last Train To San Fernando’ as a single. The Calypso song had first been recorded in 1950 by Mighty Dictator and had also been recorded by The Duke of Iron. With a lot of Skiffle songs being about trains, ‘Last Train To San Fernando’ seemed the perfect choice for a Skiffle group and the single reached number two on the UK charts.
‘Last Train To San Fernando’ was popular with Skiffle groups across the country including The Quarrymen in Liverpool, who added it to their repertoire. The Quarrymen’s lead singer, 16-year-old John Lennon was already familiar with Calypso music. A few months earlier, during the height of the Calypso Craze, he had written his first song, a number he called ‘Calypso Rock’. On 6 July 1957, The Quarrymen took part in the Woolton Parish Church Garden Fete in Woolton, Liverpool. The fete began with a parade that left the church and made its way around Woolton village before returning to the church. The parade included a brass band, Girl Guides, and Boys Scouts. At the end of the parade on a flatbed lorry were The Quarrymen headed by John Lennon, Calypsonian. The Quarrymen didn’t play any Calypso songs during Woolton Village Fete but their leader had written one. John Lennon wasn’t Liverpool’s only Calypsonian. Lord Woodbine had been living in Liverpool since 1949. John Lennon and Lord Woodbine’s paths would eventually cross but the pair hadn’t met at this point.
The Marcus Garvey Birthday Skiffle-Carnival, 17 August 1957
Six weeks after The Quarrymen performed at the Woolton Village Fete in Liverpool, Skifflers took to the streets in London. In the Notting Hill area of London, members of the West Indian community gathered together to celebrate the birthday anniversary of Jamaican national hero Marcus Garvey. A Skiffle-Carnival was held in St. Stephen’s Garden. Although the exact date of the Skiffle-Carnival is unknown, the most likely date would be 17 August 1957. Marcus Garvey was born on 17 August 1887, making 1957 the 70th anniversary of his birth. Music was played on bongos, guitar, graters, bottles and boxes by local West Indian musicians. The home-made element to the instruments is similar to those used by Skiffle groups but the type of music played is unknown. However, the fact that those involved with the Carnival have given it the name ‘Skiffle-Carnival’ suggests that Skiffle had some part to play.The musicians’ names are recorded as Totobag, King Dick, Gash Boots, Benji and Baron Baker. The musicians travelled up the street towards the Gigi blues club. The Marcus Garvey Birthday Skiffle-Carnival is all but forgotten now and very few details have been recorded. No photos or film footage exist. The Skiffle-Carnival was most likely a small affair but an important one none the less. It was the first West Indian lead parade held in the Notting Hill area of London.
Nottingham Carnival, June 1958
When James ‘Woody’ Heyliger arrived in England from St. Kitts he felt homesick and missed the Carnival and Christmas Sports from back home. His mission was to bring West Indian Carnival to England. Supported by the St. Kitts community in the Meadows area of Nottingham, James ‘Woody’ Heyliger organised a West Indian-style Carnival in Nottingham in 1958. After gaining permission from local police, James ‘Woody’ Heyliger
arranged for a Carnival parade to take place in June 1958. ‘Fancy Indian’ costumes were made using feathers from the local market and a parade route was planned. It was decided that the parade would begin and end at the Meadows Embankment Ground in the heart of the St.Kitts community in Nottingham. From the Meadows Embankment Ground the parade headed towards Nottingham city centre. When it reached the market square, it turned around and headed back to the Embankment Ground. By the time the parade had reached the city centre it had attracted a large crowd of both black West Indians and white British spectators. For the British this was a completely new experience but one they quickly embraced. A crowd of people followed the parade from the city centre back to the Embankment Ground, joining in with the troupe along the way. The Carnival parade held in Nottingham in 1958 brought together people from different races. A few months later Nottingham would witness those people divided when violent race riots began in the St Ann’s district of the city on 23 August 1958. A week later riots took place in St Ann’s in Nottingham and Notting Hill in London. In London, Claudia Jones organised a Caribbean Carnival in response to the riots, both in Nottingham and London.
The First Caribbean Carnival In London, 31 July 1955
By July 1955 Britain had already seen Steelpan and Calypso in it’s clubs, on it’s streets and on it’s TV screens. The BBC had aired Bal Creole in 1950, Caribbean Cabaret and Calypso Quarter in 1951, and Caribbean Carnaval in 1953. Pathe News had filmed Russell Henderson’s Steel Band on at least two occasions and in February 1955 they reported on Princess Margaret’s visit to Trinidad and Tobago. The Princess was already known for enjoying West Indian music and was reported to be a fan of Lord Kitchener and Russell Henderson. During her visit to Trinidad, Princess Margaret attended a garden party held at Government House in Port-of-Spain. During the party she was entertained by Calypso music, steel drums and dance troupes in a staged carnival. These images, captured by Pathe News, were shown in movie theatres across Britain and may have been the inspiration to stage an indoor carnival event in London.
Jamaican entrepreneur Hugh Scotland was the man behind London’s first ‘Caribbean Carnival’. Hugh Scotland worked as a booking agent and was well known for booking black entertainers living and working in London. In 1955 he hired the Albert Hall in London to stage a variety-show-styled concert which would be billed as “The First Caribbean Carnival In London”. No photographs or film footage of the event exist today but a copy of the concert’s programme has survived and it gives details of who was involved with the Caribbean Carnival.
London’s first Caribbean Carnival took place indoors at the Albert Hall on Sunday 31 July 1955. The lineup included Calypso, Jazz and Steel Pan along with various dance troupes. England’s biggest Calypsonian Lord Kitchener was just one of the Calypso singers to perform at the event. He was living in Manchester at the time and came down to London
especially for the concert. George Browne, who recorded Calypso under the name Young Tiger, also performed at the show. Edric Connor was at the height of his fame in 1955. He had formed the group The Southlanders in 1952 and had released his successful album ‘Songs From Jamaica’ in 1954. During the summer of 1955 he was a featured singer in the West End musical revue Jazz Train. Edric Connor performed at the concert backed by The Southlanders, who also had their own spot. The programme describes them as “Jamaica’s tight harmony quartet”.
The programme also included Jazz provided by The Ray Ellington Quartet which featured Trinidadian guitarist Lauderic Caton and Jamaican bassist Coleridge Goode. Also on the bill were The Hermanos Deniz Cuban Rhythm Band and British trumpeter Eddie Calvert, who had just had a number one hit with the instrumental Oh Mein Papa.
London’s first Caribbean Carnival featured two steelbands, one from Trinidad and one from England. The steelband from Trinidad was The Trinidad Southern All Stars which had been formed by brothers Theo and Selwyn Stephens in 1953. The band arrived in England in 1954 and began recording for Parlophone in 1955. Although they are not listed on the programme, Russell Henderson’s Steel Band also performed at the concert.
The carnival ended with a series of mas and dance performances. Ben Johnson And His Dancers were just one of the dance troupes to perform at the show. Ben Johnson had previously been a member of the Jamaican troupe Les Ballets Negres who had formed in London in 1945. Other dancers included Horace Jeremie and Vivian Jack’s dance troupe.Vivian Jack had been a member of the Bury Thomas troupe in Trinidad before moving to England in 1955 and forming his own small troupe. Among the members was Trinidadian dancer Corinne Skinner-Carter who the programme listed as ‘Doreen Skinner’. Boscoe Holder And His Caribbean Dancers also performed at the show’s finale and as a last minute addition to the programme Boscoe Holder and Vivian Jack staged a stick fight but without the sticks.