So what was really going on? Let’s backtrack. During this same time, a strong Caribbean community was also moving into Notting Hill, the product of a temporary worker shortage that the Tory government sought to alleviate for business with an open immigration policy.
When the economy, in the beginning of a shaky “recovery” from recession in the early 1950s, hit a snag a few years later, there was heavy competition for unskilled low-level jobs between them and the original white residents. Both poor white and Caribbean families were at the mercy of unscrupulous landlords, such as Peter Rachman, whose practices became so infamous that a new term was generated to describe it: “Rachmanism.” And what did the Tory government – so quick to jump in the help business – do to alleviate the problems for the working people of Notting Hill?
Nothing. Zero. Zilch. The Daily Mail, with its customary tact and sensitivity, ran an incendiary piece headlined “Should We Let Them Keep Coming In?” But there were other, more sinister, elements who also exploited the situation. Oswald Mosley’s Union Movement leased an office at 47 Kensington Park Road, and Britain's war-time fascist leader held regular meetings in the area in 1958, as did John Tyndall of the National Socialist Front. Meanwhile, the White Defence League, in the John Tyndall and a fellow Nazi.
It now seems likely that Nazi and Fascist elements in the Notting Hill area were the ones who instigated the riot, setting the Teddy Boys up as the fall guys. form of the Nazi Cambridge graduate and former schoolteacher Colin Jordan, also ran its operations from nearby 74 Princedale Road (in 1960 it would merge with the right-wing, deceptively named National Labour Party, forming the first version of the British National Party).
So what did happen? The pervading view is that that the riot started as an outgrowth from a domestic dispute between a black man, Raymond Morrison, and his white Swedish wife, Majbritt, near Latimer Road Tube station. A crowd of white men materialized, intending to defend Majbritt (who didn't want to be defended), and a scuffle broke out between them and some of Raymond's West Indian friends.
As fighting continued, a story arose that sounds suspiciously like some of the fantastic tales routinely generated by Black and White, the organ of the local fascists (typical headlines: “Negroes Lead in VD;” “Black Gets White Girl;” “Kings of the Drug Trade”). It morphed the story of domestic dispute into one of a white woman having been raped by a black man, and that this was the cause of the fighting. The rage arising from reaction to that story spun out of control, resulting in white on black violence all over Notting Hill. A mob of about 400 whites (roughly the number of hard-core fascists and sympathizers in the area – coincidence?) chased Caribbean residents, who’d now joined forces in self-defense.
There were clashes over a four day period, until a group of mostly Jamaicans retaliated by throwing home-made Molotov cocktails outside the ostensible base of the white mob, the Totobags Café at 9 Blenheim Crescent. As the white crowd backed away, a few of the West Indians gave chase waving machetes and meat cleavers. Even before then, police, mounting one of the biggest operations of the decade, had struggled to contain the mob, but within 48 hours of the Black counterattack, an uneasy calm settled at last settled over Notting Hill, and police regained control by 5 September 1958. Almost miraculously, despite numerous injuries, no one was killed. Around 140 people were arrested, mainly white, but also Black victims who’d been armed in self-defense.
So were Teddy Boys involved in the Notting Hill riots? Indubitably – some because they really were racists, some out of a misplaced and misdirected need to “defend a white woman’s honour,” and some because they were bored and had nothing else to do. Were they conspicuous amongst the rioters? Unquestionably - how could anyone look like that and not be conspicuous?
Were they the backbone of the riot? Doubtful, there’s no reliable evidence to show they were. Their actual numbers were probably small. Did they instigate the riot? Certainly not – there’s little doubt that fascist elements were behind it. Since Mosley was seeking election to parliament in the area, he was more than willing to let Teddy Boys take the fall (the attempt was unavailing: Mosley ended up with 8% of the vote in the election). So why, for 50 years, have Teddy Boys been held accountable?
Some of it lies with the human nature aspects of eyewitnesses – if some members of a group are brazen and conspicuous and others are shadowy and inconspicuous, it’s human nature to extrapolate from what one can see tat the inconspicuous ones look like the conspicuous ones, especially at night. But much of it lies with a tactic that right wingers – and many conservatives – continue to utilize to this day: If there’s a problem, don’t devote resources to solving it, find a scapegoat.
And that’s what they did. They made a scapegoat of the Teddy Boys, not only for Notting Hill, but for everything that was perceived to be wrong with 1950s Britain: The antagonism between the generations; the breakdown of law and order; racial tension; and, more generally, growing lack of self-esteem in the postwar order.
Certainly there was a loss of self-esteem in foreign affairs, but it extended to its domestic problems, too, epitomised by a strange and largely unwanted multicultural society. Since it was the working-class that bore the brunt of the influx of immigrants, a result of the McCarrenWalter Immigration Act of 1952, they reacted with the most overt hostility. Rather than point the finger of blame at them as a whole (itself a classist act) adult society pointed at the Teddy Boys, regarded them as atavistic monsters and made them scapegoats for society’s failure to successfully absorb these new immigrants.
The visible nature of the participation of Teddy Boys in the disturbances – however peripheral in actuality – made it possible for government and the media to put all the blame for racist violence on their shoulders. Remember the official policy toward the Teddy Boys had always been suppression and marginalization. What better way to justify and enable both of these than to fasten blame upon them for something like the Notting Hill riots? Elements as diverse as the fascist organizations, on the one hand, and the government’s manifest refusal to address either the housing or employment shortages in Notting Hill, on the other, that were far more centrally involved.
And they’d have needed the scapegoat, to boot, even though most Teds outside of London manifested little, if any, recorded racial hostility at the time. What society did, in essence, was to engage in projection, plain and simple, and the racial blame game that it played with the Teddy Boys was nothing less than its increasingly strident quarrel with itself. The powers that be won that round – they won the battle. But as we’ll see in the final part, they lost the war and fell from credibility, grace and power. And if the Teddy Boys took a serious blow, their spirit of rebellion against mass conformity, class restrictions, gender roles and society in general manifested and proliferated in ways even they couldn’t have imagined.