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Murder in Notting Hill

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Packs of violent teenagers marauded through the capital’s streets, leaving a trail of destruction in their wake and provoking apocalyptic headlines about the nation’s moral decline.......In August 1958 – when some of the worst rioting on British streets in the last century erupted in Notting Hill over racial tensions – the bête noirs were Teddy Boys: young hoodlums with quiffs, drainpipe trousers, long coats, skinny ties and pointy shoes. In August 2011 the bête noirs are hoodies with baggy jeans hanging at half-mast down their backsides, and their faces covered by bandanas. 

In my four-year investigation into the unsolved murder of Antiguan carpenter Kelso Cochrane, which occurred in the aftermath of the Notting Hill riots, I found present-day echoes everywhere. The country was being led by an Old Etonian. Fears of knife crime were rampant. Immigration was among the burning issues of the day. What’s more, like the more recent deaths of Stephen Lawrence, Jean Charles de Menezes and even Mark Duggan, the murder of Kelso Cochrane was loaded with political significance.

At midnight on May 17 1959, 32-year-old Cochrane was walking home from  hospital after getting treatment for a broken thumb. It was an unusual  fracture and he’d already had the plaster re-cast once because of the pain. As he approached the junction of  Southam Street  and Golborne Road, a  run-down area on Notting Hill’s  northern edge, he was ambushed by a  gang of white youths. It was over in a  flash and the young men scampered  away, leaving the victim slumped in the gutter. One of them had stabbed him in the heart.

News of a black man killed while innocently walking down a London street minding his own business, sent shock-waves from Whitehall to the Caribbean. Eight months before Notting Hill had been the scene of large-scale racial disturbances. Oswald Mosley, Britain’s wartime fascist leader, had  just announced his candidature in the  district for that year’s General Election, and the even more extreme Hitler–venerator Colin Jordan was also active in Notting Hill, whipping up hatred among his little band of aspiring race  warriors from his White Defence League headquarters on Princedale Road.

Within no time black groups were discussing setting up "self-defence  squads” “for the immediate protection  of West Indian and African people in Britain” as activists including Claudia  Jones, the Trinidadian-born communist  founder of the forerunner to the Notting  Hill Carnival, united around the case to  push for laws against incitement to  racial hatred. They lobbied the Home  Office, held public meetings and  demonstrations, and helped transform Kelso Cochrane’s funeral into a major public event attended by around 1,200 people. 

The funeral was more like a revered statesman’s than an unknown carpenter’s, and black and white came together to make a defiant statement against racial hatred. “Someone by the grave began to sing Abide With Me,” reported The Times. “The crowd took it up and then sang Rock of Ages with quiet and deeply emotional emphasis. Many people were in tears.”

Despite all the campaigners' efforts, it would be six years before the UK’s first Race Relations Act was passed.

Two questions underpin Murder in Notting Hill, my new book on the Cochrane case: who killed him and why weren’t they caught? Trying to find the answers meant endless trawling of documents at the National Archives, and months knocking on doors trying to find those who knew the truth before they reached the end of their days.

Some of the paper trail still remains off-limits to the public. The Cochrane murder case files in fact, are closed until January 2044: the Metropolitan Police refuse to release them on the grounds that to do so “could put at risk certain matters, including preventing or detecting crime, arresting or prosecuting offenders and the proper administration of justice”.

However, a good deal of tantalising material has seeped into the public domain. For example, in one file - which remained classified for 45 years - the contours of a flawed police investigation begin to emerge. Again, there are echoes of current events. In this case, dubious or corrupt relations between the press and the police.

Some three hours after Kelso was stabbed, news of his death was splashed across the front page of the 4 a.m. edition of the Sunday Express. This was before the victim’s relatives had even been informed and meant potentially vital information about the murder had been leaked in the first hours of the investigation. When a cheque for £10 (worth around £160 today) from the newspaper addressed to a “John Wilson” arrived soon afterwards at Harrow Road police station, where the murder investigation was being directed from, an internal disciplinary inquiry was launched by Scotland Yard.

After six months, the culprit was identified: the source of the leak was the man leading the murder hunt, Detective Superintendent Ian Forbes-Leith, one of the Met’s rising stars. His career never recovered and he retired 18 months later.

This was just one piece of the jigsaw. Other documents, as I show, suggest that ultimately the authorities' concerns of maintaining public order almost certainly superseded the desire for justice. As to the second question – the identity of Kelso Cochrane’s killer – it was, as the book reveals, “the worst kept secret in Notting Hill”.

Mark Olden is a TV producer and journalist.

Murder in Notting Hill is published by Zero Books and is available from August 31. Please support CrimeTalk by buying your copy of this book through our Shop. Click on the book icon below to buy.
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