Race, riots and murder in BritainSunday, September 11, 2011
KELSO Cochrane is an iconic figure in British race relations. Over 50 years ago, the young Antiguan was killed by a gang of white youths in Notting Hill, West London. No-one was ever convicted. He was the Stephen Lawrence of his day: a symbol of racial injustice.
Cochrane was born in 1926 in rural Antigua. Like many West Indians, after the Second World War he migrated to the United States. He began as a farm labourer, joined the US army briefly and then ended up in New York. He married a black American, presumably for "green card" reasons. But the marriage collapsed and he was deported back to Antigua.
After a while, Cochrane decided to make his fortune as a migrant again. He borrowed his fare from his brother Stanley and this time set sail for England. Like most West Indians who went to the UK by boat, the train from his port of arrival (Plymouth) took him into Paddington Station. And, like hundreds and thousands of other West Indians, he settled close by in Notting Hill.
To understand the background to the murder of Kelso Cochrane, it is important to appreciate the white racist violence which was raging at the time. The areas comprising Notting Hill, Ladbroke Grove and North Paddington in West London were the heartbeat of the West Indian community.
In consequence, there was an upsurge of white racism in the area. Many were organised in groups like Oswald Mosley's British Union Movement and the White Defence League. Their slogan was "Keep Britain White" and they would roam the streets harassing black people and black homeowners.
My family lived in the area then and my mother liked to tell the story of how a gang of white racists came knocking at our door. No-one knows what they would have done if my burly black father had answered the door. But we had Irish tenants in the basement.
The father, Paddy, was particularly fond of my chubby baby self. When he realised that a gang of white racists was outside, he said firmly, "They are not getting our Diane". Then he marched upstairs and opened the front door. The gang assumed he was the homeowner and melted away.
But in August 1958, nearly 400 white youths went on the rampage in Notting Hill, Ladbroke Grove and North Paddington. After the first night, five black men lay unconscious. The violence did not finally peter out until September. The police tried to claim at the time that the rioting was not about race. But years later the testimony of the policemen at the scene was published. A police constable, Richard Bedford, said he had seen a mob of 300 to 400 white people shouting: "We will kill all black bastards. Why don't you send them home?"
Another constable, Ian McQueen, on the same night said he was told: "Mind your own business, coppers. Keep out of it. We will settle these niggers our way. We'll murder the bastards."
Less than a year later, Cochrane had an accident at work, breaking his thumb. Around midnight that day he was on his way home from Paddington General Hospital, having been treated for the fracture, when a group of white youths attacked him. One of the youths stabbed him in the heart with a stiletto knife and Cochrane died.
Because of the atmosphere of racist violence, Cochrane's death electrified the community. There were protest marches down Whitehall. Newspapers offered substantial rewards for the capture of his killers. The then home secretary, Rab Butler, made an appeal in Parliament for witnesses to come forward and set up a public inquiry into race relations. Over a thousand people attended Cochrane's funeral. The Times newspaper reported, "Many people were in tears."
Now, a journalist, Mark Olden, thinks he has discovered the killer. In his book Murder in Notting Hill he reveals it was 20-year-old Patrick Digby. He was arrested but never charged. His step-daughter described him as an "over-the-top racist" and told the author she accused him of murdering Cochrane to which he replied "Yeah. So what if I did. You can't prove nothing."
It took nearly 50 years for the truth about Kelso Cochrane's murder to emerge. Hopefully it will not take as long to get to the bottom of the recent riots that erupted on the streets of London.
Diane Abbott is the British Labour Party's shadow public health minister
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