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Black History – East London

Immigration has played a big part in shaping our capital's history, culture and character. Nowhere is that more evident than in East London, where the historic docks have welcomed migrant populations for centuries says BGN's James Scott

Although evidence suggests there has been a Black population in London as far back as Roman times, it was Britain’s involvement in the Transatlantic Slave Trade from the 16th-century that brought significant numbers of Black people, often forcibly, to the capital.

During the 18th-century, the Black population of London – particularly in areas such as Mile End and Stepney – was estimated at around 10,000 people, approximately one per cent of the total population. Many were Black men and women who had escaped slavery, while a number included former American soldiers who fought alongside the British in the American War of Independence, and were allowed to settle in England as free men. After the abolition of slavery in Britain in 1807 and the British Empire in 1833, there was a steady decline in London’s Black population. However, by 1880 enough Black Londoners had been born in the city to create small communities, establishing themselves in dockside areas such as Canning Town.

Black History Month
Photo: Mediadrumimages / Tom Marshall

After the Second World War, the United Kingdom was suffering from a weakened economy and a shortage of workers, amidst concerns about its declining population. The government passed the British Nationality Act in 1948, granting citizenship status and the right to settle in the UK to anyone born in a British colony. The HMT Empire Windrush, a former German navy troopship taken by the British government as a prize of war, brought the first 802 migrants from the Caribbean to Tilbury docks in Essex on 22 June 1948. Those first passengers – and everyone who arrived subsequently from Jamaica, Barbados, Trinidad and other Caribbean countries – would become known as the ‘Windrush generation’. 

Empire Windrush

Sadly, the Windrush passengers were not shown the same hospitality as they might have expected from a country that needed their help to get back on its feet. As a result of the housing shortage in London following the war, more than 236 men were temporarily housed in an air-raid shelter, 11 storeys beneath Clapham South tube station. Many of the Caribbean arrivals established a community in nearby Brixton and were able to find jobs but faced hostility and discrimination over housing, particularly from white Londoners who did not want Black neighbours, and from immoral landlords who charged them double the rent of white tenants. 

Claudia Jones
Claudia Jones (1915 – 1964) Claudia founded Britain’s first major Black newspaper, the West Indian Gazette, in 1958 and played a central role in founding the Notting Hill Carnival. She helped organise access to basic facilities, as well as the early movement for equal rights.

Growing racism in the following years, inflamed by groups such as Oswald Mosley’s Union Movement, resulted in the Notting Hill race riots in 1958. There had been escalating violence against Black residents in the streets, which culminated in a mob of hundreds of white men attacking the houses of West Indian residents. The following year, 32-year-old Antiguan-born resident Kelso Cochrane was stabbed and killed by a gang of white youths as he walked home from work. More than 1,200 people would attend his funeral.

Walter Tull
Walter Tull (1888 – 1918)
A former professional player who played for Clapton, Tottenham Hotspur, Northampton and Rangers. Walter was one of the first mixed heritage players to play in the football league and is widely considered to be the first African-Caribbean mixed heritage man to be commissioned as an infantry officer in the British Army. He was killed in action in France during the First World War on March 25, 1918. Photo: Mediadrumimages / Tom Marshall

In an attempt to ease the racial tensions, Trinidadian-born activist Claudia Jones organised the first Caribbean Carnival in St Pancras Town Hall in January 1959. Taking elements of this carnival, such as steel band music and Caribbean costumes, Notting Hill residents Rhaune Laslett-O’Brien and Andre Shervington would organise a children’s street fayre in 1966 to try and integrate the West Indian, African, Irish and English families who lived in the area. The fayre would become an annual tradition, evolving into the three-day celebration of Caribbean culture we know today as Notting Hill Carnival, which attracts around two and a half million people each year.

Today it’s easy to see the lasting impact that the  Windrush generation has made on London’s history, industry and cultural identity. Nowhere is this more evident than in the music scene. Small clubs in Soho and Brixton adopted ska, a precursor to reggae, while soca – a blend of ‘Soul of Calypso’ – emerged in the 1970s and 1980s, evolving into a range of styles. It became popular to sample the Caribbean rhythm and calypso into other tracks, a trend that influenced musical styles including dancehall, jungle, hip hop and garage. It would also lay the foundations for a new music genre from East London, which revolutionised the British rap scene.   


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