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II. Race riots in the second half of the 20th century Britain

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II. Race riots in the second half of the 20th century Britain

Race riots in twentieth century Britain had similar courses of action as the causes of most of them were related to the issues of race, immigration, and discrimination. The aim of this work is to analyse the incidents that have been described as race riots and discuss the reactions that followed. Although they showed similar features, they should be seen as specific, isolated incidents. Many discussions were led on how the social science should approach the disturbances. Michael Keith deals with the danger of making generalisations as Rowe points out:

One of the more problematic arguments advanced by Keith concerns the difficulty in generalising about ´disorder’ and the need to recognise the local, specific character of such events. Whilst it is salutary to be reminded of the particular local relations that generate disturbances, Keith raises a methodological difficulty in that social science needs to discuss such disparate events at some level of generalisation and in relation to macrolevel developments (Rowe 105).

This part of the work focuses on the disorders in Nottingham and Notting Hill in 1958 which, under the influence of immigration waves, are often described as a turning point in British race relations. Prior to the analysis of reactions and impacts the riots had not only on the local but also on the national level, an overview of the situation is given.

II. 1. Nottingham and Notting Hill 1958–1959

The riots of 1958–59 occurred on a small scale in comparison to those that came later towards the end of the 20th century. In spite of this fact, they were significant in terms of race related questions and analyses. As Keith later stresses in his book, it is not important to generalise about the riots, but rather to understand the causes and consequences of the disturbances because of further development in the issue of national identity and community cohesion. For that reason it is the aim of the next part of the thesis to discuss the background and context of Nothing Hill and Nottingham riots and most of all the impact they had.

As for the context, in Nottingham, West Indians and West Africans worked in the early 1940s for the Royal Force Army and they settled there after the war. By 1958 Caribbeans and Asians formed one per cent of the Nottingham population. Very often they had to undergo a severe critique of the whites. The local Labour Exchange favoured whites to blacks and for that reason the blacks were often refused to get the jobs that were advertised. Racial discrimination and abuse were evident in the workplace. All these factors only supported the mutual hostility. Before the main incidents, there were reported many attacks by gangs of white youths, subculture known as Teddy Boys, on the blacks (Hiro 39).

The Nottingham riots began on Saturday night, 23 August 1958, when there was a fight between a black man and a white man on St Ann’s Well Road in Nottingham. It happened outside the Chase Tavern. Soon 1,500 people were present and all the police were called to intervene. The Chief Constable describes the situation, “The mob were now attacking any coloured person in sight whether they had been implicated in any way in the disturbances or not” (Rowe 107). Disorders lasted till midnight and several people and one police officer were taken to hospital. In contrast to other incidents, these were not wide ranging, however they attracted attention of both local and national press as they revealed the unrest hidden in the society. The press was concerned with the riots and Nottingham Courier predicted further clashes in that area. It became a sensation and a number of tourists arrived in the area to see the riots. “The Times reported on 16 September that the city authorities had asked the police to approach bus companies in nearby areas to ask them to stop these ‘sight-seeing trips’”(Rowe 108). As expected, the riots repeated next weekend on 29 and 30 August. It was reported that around 4,000 people gathered, but mostly teddy boys and local people and only a few black people, because they rather stayed indoors after the experience of the previous week. These incidents were described rather as attacks against the police, because the police was said to protect the blacks on last Saturday. There was little record on the disorder. “The Times reported on 1 September 1958 that the Chief Constable stated that the police had been forced to ‘use strong methods in self-defence against the white population’. Some fifty people were arrested following the second weekend, twenty four of whom were charged with public order offences” (Rowe 109).

At that weekend, riots in Notting Hill erupted. Notting Hill in London is predominated by the immigrants from the West Indies, as the areas of North Kensington became since the 1950s a favourite destination of these immigrants. It is necessary to explain that the disorders concerned a much wider area than Notting Hill. Jacobson commented on that confusion, “The name ‘Notting Hill’ has been given to the riots, but the area in which disturbances of one kind or another took place is very wide indeed. It stretches from beyond the Edgware Road on the west to Shepherd’s Bush on the east; and from the Bayswater Road on the south to somewhere north of Westbourne Park”(qtd. in Rowe 106). The riots were more extensive than those in Nottingham. Several racial attacks preceded the major incident on Saturday 30 August 1958, when nine white youths started to attack black men on the streets. Using knives, staves, pistols and under the influence of alcohol they left the injured unconscious in the streets. As a consequence, nine young people were sent to prison. However, disorders continued with more intensity in the name of slogans “We’ll get the blacks”, “Down with niggers”, “We’ll kill the blacks” (Hiro 38). Attacks were part of everyday life by the end of August. Black people experienced shouting, threatening, abuse and lynching, petrol bombs were thrown on their cars and their homes. Hiro commented in his book on the reaction of black people. After they got over the first shock, they tried to help each other, self-defend themselves. “Once the blacks in Notting Hill had overcome their initial alarm, shock and despondency, they tried to help themselves. They provided elaborately arranged escorts for those black London Transport employees who had to work late-night or early-morning shifts, and formed vigilante groups which patrolled the area in cars” (Hiro 40).

It is difficult to specify when the riots died away. The fact remains that after the summer of 1958 the situation returned to normal, although there were some occasional clashes. A serious incident happened in May 1959 when a West Indian carpenter, Kelso Cochrane, was stabbed to death in Notting Hill. The police failed to find the murderer, which only worsened the relations between the police and the community as the migrants were unfairly treated by the police and the situation continued during the 1960s. According to a survey taken in 1969 by Tony Leander, a youth worker, 60 per cent out of 130 young black people stated that the relationships between police and the black youths were bad (Keith 46). Common issues among the migrants were alcohol, loitering, and assaults. All these factors “placed the police inevitably at odds with West Indian people, but also provided a forum for racist behaviour under the guise of law enforcement, an opportunity that too often was not missed” (Keith 46).

II. 1. 1. Responses to the riots

The next part will deal with the explanation of the disorders and will take a look at the social, economic, and political factors. The topics discussed will be housing and unemployment, racial antagonism, and immigration policies.

Housing, unemployment

Socio-economic factors are crucial for the debate on the riots. Poor quality housing and unemployment in Nottingham and Notting Hill caught the attention of commentators. The fact is that after the arrival, immigrants had to face over-crowded, poor quality housing, although it was one of the main political issues of the 1950s to improve housing conditions. Despite this effort, Nottingham and Notting Hill belonged among the most affected areas. The survey taken some years after the riots showed that the housing density in Notting Hill was higher than in other parts of London and the low quality housing was also characteristic of both areas and was a subject of slum clearance programme (Rowe 113). The political debate about the disorders made a close link between the housing problems and migration, as Frank Tomney, Labour MP explained:

Into this huge city, where people scramble for houses and where the Rent Act is in operation, streamed thousands of colonial nationals. They had a perfect right to come here under the Constitution of the country and their associations with the Commonwealth, but nevertheless, they aggravated a problem which was already acute (Rowe 113).

Housing problems were seen as a background factor in relation to the unrest. However, there were contradictions in that issue. Caribbeans, on one hand, were seen as responsible for the housing shortages as they took over the housing for whites. On the other hand, very often they were assigned such undesirable housing because of the prejudiced attitudes of white people.

Immigration had also impact on labour. Initially, after the Second World War, the immigrants were welcomed as the source of cheap labour for the needs of the labour market. Ironically, after the economy recovered during the 1950s, blacks were blamed for taking jobs from the whites. The issue is also very controversial as those immigrants with qualifications needed, especially in the National Health Service, had no problem with gaining employment. Those immigrants with no qualification or qualification that was not demanded in Britain had to do inferior jobs. Discriminative attitudes in the area of employment are supported by the frequent practises of Labour Exchanges and their ‘No Coloureds’ signs on the doors. The employers and trade unions gave their arguments for these practises, as they stressed the harmonious relations with the whites in the workplace as well as they were trying to keep their positions and wages. For that reason, blacks were more likely to be made redundant as one employer gives his reason, “Whenever I have to put off staff, I sack the coloured ones first. The trouble is that whenever you dismiss West Indians they make such a fuss. They say you have done it because of colour prejudice, and that makes you feel a rotter. But there would be a riots if I did anything else” (qtd. in Rowe 116).

Another issue was concerning national assistance. As there were many unemployed blacks who received national assistance, white people did not like the idea that they were financing them and called for some restrictions. Conservative MP, Cyril Osborne, explains, “It seems reasonable and fair to the British people who are paying money into these funds that a limit should be placed upon the number of people coming here and drawing upon those funds to which they have made no contribution” (Rowe 116).

It is necessary to conclude that the immigrants cannot be entirely blamed for both the housing and employment issues, as for example some extreme right- wing party suggested. Both media and views of the politicians accepted that migrants coming to Britain only added to the social problems which had already existed in British society (Rowe 116).


Even though Nottingham and Notting Hill riots were not so extensive, they provoked wide debate on the immigration politics on the national level and they are described as “watershed in the development of racialised politics in Britain” (Solomos, 1993: 59). The political response to them called for the immigration control. Solomos explains that the riots were used to support the ideas which were already in the minds of politicians at that time. “The disturbances in Nottingham and Notting Hill were used by the pro-immigration controls lobby to support calls for the exclusion or even the repatriation of ‘undesirable immigrants’. They were also used in support of the argument that black immigrants were threat to the rule of law in the inner cities and endangered the ‘English way of life’” (Solomos, 1993: 60). These arguments represent one standpoint to the question of race, meaning that if racism is a feature of a society, it is better to restrict the immigration in order to prevent the society from the contact with people from different ethnic backgrounds. The counterargument was that the official statistics showed that the number of West Indies immigrants declined in 1957, 1958, and 1959 and thus it was not possible to make conclusions that the disturbances were caused by the increasing numbers of Caribbeans, as the Conservatives maintained. As Rowe claims in his The Racialisation of Disorder the opinions that disorders were catalyst for the immigration control are “simplistic” (120). It is because the politicians called for the control in the early 1950s and the demands did not result into legislation mainly because of maintaining good relations with other Commonwealth countries and also the possibility of free movement of labour. Another reason why the disorders cannot be seen as the main cause for the Act of 1962 is that this legislation only changed the method of controlling legislation, “Before immigration was formally controlled in 1962 there was a period of immigration unregulated by law. However, other, more informal and perhaps illegal measures were taken to discourage immigration” (Rowe 121). This is supported by the fact that there was a tendency to reduce immigration even before the riots erupted. As was already stated, Conservative Party supported the Immigration Act, whereas the Labour Party as well as the Liberals were against it. As for the public attitudes, both broadsheets and tabloids dealt with the issue of race and immigration and debate on housing and social conditions.

The general feeling that the entry of black immigrants must be restricted and the political debate led up to the announcement of Immigrants Act on October 1961 and despite the criticism from the press and the Labour Party, the Act became law in 1962. “The Act introduced a distinction between citizens of Britain and its colonies and citizens of independent Commonwealth counties” (Solomos, 1993: 63). According to it, people having Commonwealth passports had to go through immigration control except people born in Britain or having British passports or people who were in the passports of the previous two types of person. Other citizens needed a voucher to enter Britain, these were for people with specific jobs, skills, and qualifications. From the beginning it was obvious that the Act was aimed against the black people and there has been a debate whether it was effective or not. There were calls for tighter controls especially for those having British passports but living outside the United Kingdom. Political campaign was followed by the introduction of the second Commonwealth Immigrants Act in 1968. Under this law people holding British passport were subject to immigration control. The exception was when their parent or grandparent was born or registered as British citizen (Solomos, 1993: 66). After the introduction of the new Act there was even more racialisation of the immigration and race relations issues and they became subjects of political debate.

II. 1. 2. Conclusion

The aim of this part was to give an overview of the Nottingham and Notting Hill riots. The work concentrated especially on the causes leading to the riots and then to the reactions to the disorders. It also included some debate on British immigration policy.

At first the socio-economic factors were discussed and it was shown that the racioalised explanations blamed the Caribbean migrants for all the housing and employment problems. Responses to the riots in 1958 were similar to the disorders in 1919 and 1936, Holmes in his publication A Tolerant Country describes the attitudes and the “understanding of a British national character and history which emphasised traditions of tolerance, obedience to the law, and respect for law and order. The migrants from the Commonwealth were considered problematic because they were not considered to share these characteristics, and so were outside of the tolerant British community”(qtd. in Rowe 128). The debates concerning the introduction of the Immigration Act points at the shift which Britain slowly underwent from that notion of mother country and empire towards a new role in Europe.

In general, the riots in Nottingham and Notting Hill in comparison to the more recent race riots are rather small-scale confrontations and relatively small numbers of people involved in them. They were also not responsible for the major political shift in immigration policy. The reason why the thesis pays attention to them is that they influenced and accelerated further discussion of racialisation in post-war Britain and pointed at the uncertain future in the development of race issues. To summarize, the debate showed that when we talk about racialisation it is necessary to consider local and temporal context, where the ideas about race are formed, that is why it is not always good to generalize as was stressed at the beginning of this part. Moreover, historical background and ideas about race are also important for the understanding of race relations.

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