By Jamillah Harris
Kelso Cochrane, born in 1927, was an Antiguan Carpenter living in West London. In 1959, he was attacked and murdered by a gang of white men. His murder highlighted the hostility and racism that was rife at the time and marked the onset of anti-fascist movement and resistance in the area.
On 17th May 1959, Kelso Cochrane was walking home from hospital on Southam Road, North Kensington, after sustaining a work injury when he was attacked and fatally stabbed by a group of 4 – 6 men. That night, there were a number of house parties on the same road and 3 groups of witnesses were present; a local resident claimed to have heard the group of attackers shouting racial abuse at Cochrane at the time of the incident. Cochrane, who was still conscious after the stabbing, informed those assisting him that the men also attempted to steal his belongings. Sadly, he died on the way to the hospital.
Kelso’s murder is considered to be reflective of a time of building hostility and violence towards black people that had recently arrived in London and other parts of Britain. Having arrived in London on the Empire Windrush in 1948, many of the West Indian migrants settled in the slums of Notting Hill. In the years leading up towards Kelso’s murder, some white people living in the area would express their discontent at the West Indian presence. British fascist politician Oswald Mosley gained support of some racist locals with his plan to repatriate West Indians living in Britain, motivating people to act against the “evils of the coloured invasion”. Black people suffered violent attacks from ‘Teddy Boys’ in the streets and in their homes. In the summer of 1958, race riots further terrorised black residents of the North Kensington area and a violent conflict arose at Toto Bags, 9 Blenheim Crescent, a popular West Indian cafe and community centre. Following these events, 9 white rioters were prosecuted and given 4 year prison sentences. Families, friends and other members of the public were outraged by this decision, believing that the rioters did not deserve such punishment. The campaigns for ‘justice’ for the white rioters, as well as the continuing violence shown towards black people on a daily basis demonstrates the climate of hostility that allowed for Cochrane’s murder to take place.
Those responsible for murdering Kelso Cochrane were never brought to justice and the police investigation of the murder came under much scrutiny. Friends, family, and members of the local community were outraged by their failure to convict those involved, despite the fact that the murderer was widely acknowledged to be a man called Pat Digby. The murder was reported in the press as a racial attack; however, the police handled the murder as an attempted robbery, denying the significance of race. There were many flaws in the procedures undertaken by the police attempting to solve the crime. Following the attack, Forbes Leith - the police officer in charge of the investigation – arrested Pat Digby and his friends. Digby and one of his friends were placed in adjoining cells, allowing for them to corroborate upon their stories. They were released after 12 hours. Claiming to have performed a thorough search for the weapon used to kill Cochrane, the police searched the canal and the drains in the surrounding area but never performed a rudimentary search of Digby’s house. Claims have been made that Digby hid the knife used to kill Cochrane under the floorboards of his house, however, the police never agreed to a search, meaning that the weapon could still be there.
Considering that the murder took place at a time of capital punishment, it was considered by many that the police were unwilling to kill a white man for murdering a black man. Whether this is the result of racism within the police force, or of their reluctance to incite further racial tension, it is evident that not enough was done to bring Cochrane’s murderers to justice.
In response to the police’s negligence of the case, many members of the local community acted in an attempt to gain justice for Cochrane. 1,200 people attended his funeral held at Kensal Green Cemetery; it was noticed that the demographic of those that were present was mixed, showing the magnitude of support and solidarity from the local community. Cochrane’s murder compelled Claudia Jones, editor of The West Indian Gazette, to engage others in the fight for justice, raising a movement against the mistreatment of non-white people in Britain. Campaigners marched to Downing Street in silent protest in an attempt to raise awareness of and gain justice for his murder. In 1962 Notting Hill Carnival was initiated in commemoration of the murder, and in 1965, new legislation was passed in an attempt to put a stop to racial violence and discrimination. However, Cochrane’s murderer had still not been brought to justice.
In 2003, Kelso’s brother Stanley arrived in London from Antigua with the intention of reopening his brother’ murder case. However, Stanley was not met with the cooperation he expected from the police as he was informed there was no forensic evidence and that Kelso’s clothes had been incinerated in 1969. On hearing about this case, journalist Mark Olden offered to assist Stanley and made a freedom of information request to the Metropolitan Police. This request was denied on the grounds that the case may be reopened by the police despite their lack of intention to do so. Despite the lack of cooperation from police, Mark Olden was able to gain a greater understanding of the events that took place surrounding Cochrane’s murder by interviewing members of the local community. Following his investigation, Olden wrote his book ‘A Murder in Notting Hill’, naming Cochrane’s murder and rightfully suggesting that the murder was racially motivated. In 2009, 50 years after Kelso’s death, a blue plaque was placed at the site of his murder to commemorate a tragic event that signified a time of racial tension but also marked the coming together of the local community. In the same year, members of the community arranged for local artist Alfonso Santana to create a mosaic portrait of Kelso Cochrane on his grave in Kensal Green.
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