- Last Updated: Monday, 01 May 2017 08:56
- Published: Tuesday, 23 August 2011 14:47
- Written by Mark Olden
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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.