2021 - 2022 Modern Volume 18

The other side of Notting Hill: black London through the lens of Charlie Phillips

By Lauren Hare

Artwork by Lauren Hare.

When you think of Notting Hill you may picture Hugh Grant and Julia Roberts, hand in hand, strolling down Portobello Road in a sea of white faces. However, Notting Hill from the fifties was home to black Londoners whose presence seemed to have been forgotten during the filming of this ‘classic.’ 

The black community of North Kensington experienced London in a vastly different way from the charming portrayal of our capital, in what has been described as a ‘quintessentially English’ blockbuster. They experienced  an England that rejected its black population – not just on the big screen – but in society as well.

Charlie Phillips is an urban photographer who immortalised the day to day life of black Londoners in Notting Hill, after an American serviceman gifted him his first camera soon after his arrival to the UK in 1956. 

Phillips was born in Jamaica in 1944 where he was raised by his grandparents; his parents had been invited to move to London to help ‘rebuild the mother country’ after the Second World War. This diaspora of people from the Caribbean is known as Generation Windrush. 

A photo of Phillips.

On joining his family in the mid fifties, he was struck by the gloominess of London in comparison to his previous life in Jamaica; the promises from the UK government of good jobs, housing and living conditions were quickly broken, as the black community in Notting Hill were forced into ‘slum-like’ conditions. This, in turn, created a borough riddled with crime, violence, and poverty throughout the mid-late 20th century. Phillips, however, escaped the pull of this lifestyle, and instead focused on his passion for photography and capturing the soul of his community.

Unfortunately, until the end of the 20th century Phillips and his work went largely unnoticed. However, in 1991 he published his photography book entitled ‘Notting Hill in the Sixties’ and in 2005 he was offered an exhibition in the Museum of London. Since then, his story has been revived and we have access to a new medium to explore the experiences of black Londoners in the sixties and seventies. 

Unsurprisingly, this period was fuelled by racial tensions, and London life was underpinned by structural discrimination. Despite Britain welcoming immigration from the West Indies, white locals did not embrace their new neighbours with the same open arms. The informal ‘colour bar’ upheld the racial hierarchy by banning black people from certain public and private spaces.

The summer of 1958 saw these tensions reach a boiling point and what has been coined the ‘Notting Hill race riots’ broke out. The 5-day period of violence was triggered by an incident on the 29th August in which married couple Majbritt and Raymond Morrison were arguing outside Latimer Road tube station. This interracial relationship proved too offensive for bystanders and Majbritt was heckled; being called a ‘black mans trollop.’ Charlie Phillips’ most famous photograph depicts the intimacy and defiance of a Notting Hill interracial couple.

Following this catalyst, racially motivated attacks erupted throughout the borough; the primary perpetrators being the notorious Teddy Boys who targeted black households with firebombs. These racial antagonisms were only heightened by Oswald Mosley’s campaign for the North Kensignton Parliamentary seat in 1959, which advocated for the prohibition of interracial marriages. Despite the fact he lost the election, his racism characterised the intolerant atmosphere of Notting Hill and London more widely. 

However, the black population of North Kensington knew and understood the cultural value they provided for the city and Claudia Jones set up an inside carnival in 1959 to demonstrate Caribbean cultural richness. Jones was a pioneer for empowering the black population of London and started a newspaper called the ‘West Indian Gazette,’ in order to unite the black community with their roots, as well as their new home. Jones’ indoor carnival is considered the catalyst for the creation of the famed Notting Hill carnival 7 years later, and she is now recognised as the ‘mother of the Caribbean Carnival’ in Britain, in which vibrancy and celebration make up the essence of the event.

I have attended Notting Hill carnival for multiple years now and its original aim of celebrating black culture still, clearly, lies at the heart of the event. It has become an intrinsic part of London life and is a vibrant, celebratory symbol of the endurance of the Caribbean community after the Windrush generation were met with exclusion and disregard on their arrival to Britain. It also symbolises the ongoing defiance of London’s black population towards the racial hierarchy that is still upheld in Britain today. 

Photo of Notting Hill carnival. 

Charlie Phillips is one of the greatest photographers of our time and should be recognised more widely as a pivotal figure of London’s black community. He has provided us with a raw and emotional insight into the life of the black community in Notting Hill in the late 20th century; highlighting the hardships they encountered, as well as the beauty and intimacy this community shared. This photographic history should be disseminated more widely as a means of educating our society about the other side of Notting Hill; both its cultural richness catalysed by the Caribbean diaspora, as well as its haunting history of violent racism.

You can view Phillips’ photos here: Black British photography: Charlie Phillips (museumoflondon.org.uk)

Images: 

Charlie Phillips, Brixton, London. 2019 (cropped).jpg, MassiveEartha, Wikimedia Commons, Creative Commons Attribution 3.0

Notting Hill Carnival 2014 (14861102629).jpg, Angel Ganev, Wikimedia Commons, Creative Commons Attribution 2.0.