Kelso Cochrane was a carpenter from the West Indian island of Antigua. He lived quietly in Notting Hill, west London, with his fiancee Olivia Ellington. He earned £15 a week and liked to listen to Ella Fitzgerald.
Born in 1926, he trained as a carpenter before moving to the US in 1949. He worked on a farm, joined the US army, got married and had a daughter. He was training to become a lawyer, but found himself deported back to Antigua after his marriage fell apart.
Kelso arrived in Plymouth in September 1954 on the French liner Colombie with around 500 other mostly male West Indian passengers. He eventually settled in west London, moving around various addresses on Notting Hill’s northern fringe.
Around 10.30pm on 16 May 1959, Kelso left the flat he shared with Olivia and walked towards Paddington General hospital. He had broken his thumb in an accident at work and his arm was in plaster. But the pain from the fracture was preventing him from sleeping and he resolved to get some pain-killers.
Kelso never made home from the hospital. A gang of young white men surrounded him at the junction of Southam Street and Goldborne Road. Kelso fell, stabbed to death with a stiletto blade.
No one was ever convicted for Kelso’s murder, despite the murderer’s name being “the worst kept secret in Notting Hill”. Journalist Mark Olden has worked with Kelso’s brother, Stanley, to bring the truth to light. His new book, Murder in Notting Hill, re‑interviews witnesses and suspects 50 years later.
Olden presents a complex and involving story. We slip between the Notting Hill race riots of 1958 (see below), the murder investigation of 1959 and his own, more recent, inquiries.
Certain features of the case are wearily familiar. Police immediately dismissed a racial motive. Detective Superintendent Ian Forbes-Leith, who headed the investigation, said, “We are satisfied that it was the work of a group of about six anti-law white teenagers who had only one motive in view—robbery or attempted robbery.”
But black people in Notting Hill refused to accept this story. Olden reports, “Within 24 hours of his death the Committee of African Organisations held an emergency meeting in London and sent an open letter to prime minister Harold Macmillan in which they connected the racial violence infecting America’s deep south.”
An angry public meeting in west London drew 500 people. Local activists began an ongoing protest—marching up and down Whitehall with placards to draw attention to the case. Some 1,200 people wound their way through the streets of Notting Hill for Kelso’s funeral.
Racists had hoped that the murder of the West Indian carpenter would spark the “race war” they had tried to ignite the previous summer. But instead it had the opposite effect—uniting people in the poor west London district and strengthening the fight against racism.
Many questions remain unresolved about the murder. Who leaked the story to the Daily Express on the night Kelso died? And who briefed newspapers with the entirely untrue story that he was a violent drunk? Olden concludes that police officers were responsible for both.
The People newspaper ran a story less than a month after Kelso’s death, headlined “Gang victim led double life”. It stated, “Cochrane had been drinking on the night of his death and was known to be truculent after a few drinks. He had a conviction for causing grievous bodily harm to a workmate, whom he attacked with a spanner. The knife that killed him was probably his own. He liked to carry one. And police think he may have lied to his friends about his wrist injury.” Every single one of these statements was untrue.
On the same day as the People published its tissue of lies, Colin Jordan’s fascist White Defence League held a rally in Trafalgar Square. The crowd was 2,000-strong—but almost half were anti-racists who proceeded to disrupt proceedings with shouts of “Who killed Kelso Cochrane?”
Throughout the police investigation there was a split. Community activists demanded that the killing should be treated as a racist murder, while the police and the establishment tried to make sure that it was not.
All this took place at a time when the governments of the West Indies were trying to assert their independence. The Colonial Office called a meeting with representatives from the West Indian colonies to discuss the case.
Participants were particularly worried by the role of the Interracial Friendship Coordinating Council. This was organised by veteran communist activist Claudia Jones and had raised the £257 to pay for Kelso’s funeral.
“It was generally agreed that the West Indian members should dissociate themselves from the activities of the Council,” read the minutes of the meeting. “It was, however, essential to time this action carefully if the Council was to be discredited.”
The government was more concerned with the immigration controls it was planning to introduce under the pretext of easing “racial tensions”. The Commonwealth Immigrants Act of 1962 introduced the first controls on entry by British citizens—controls that in practice applied only to non-whites.
One of the most interesting features of Olden’s book is the light it shed on the changes that working class people experienced at the time. He describes the black people and the poor white families they lived alongside.
Pat Digby died in 2007. Olden presents convincing evidence that he was Kelso’s murderer. He was the police’s chief suspect and was held in custody but never charged.
This was partly because of a culture where no one would grass to the hated police. But it was also true that the police were among the worst racists.
As one of the local whites put it, “What the police were doing nobody knows. Cos he was a black bloke, a black person. ‘What you want to worry about him for? Let it lie’.”
Susie Read remembers Digby as her violent and racist stepfather. “If he hadn’t been in a punch-up, he’d come in and pick on me. If he was in a good mood I’d try my best to keep it going. If he was pissed, I’d give him another drink, hoping he’d pass out.”
But Digby doesn’t come across as a cartoon villain. Susie adds, “The stupid thing was in his later years he’d work with black blokes and he was all over them like a fly. Now this is how his mind works. He loved Muhammed Ali. Unless he beat Henry Cooper, then he was the biggest coon going.”
Despite never being officially solved, the Kelso Cochrane case marked a turning point for racial politics in Britain. Like the killing of Stephen Lawrence more than 30 years later, it brought the scale of racism into sharp relief.
Duwayne Brooks, a friend of Stephen who was with him when he died, draws comparisons between the two cases. “In Kelso’s case the police refused to accept it was a racist murder and said it was a robbery. In Stephen’s case they refused to accept it was a racist murder.”
Much has changed for black people in Britain since Kelso’s murder. But the culture of institutionalised racism in the police and judicial system remains, as Olden’s work makes grimly clear.
Riots and racism: Notting Hill in the 1950s
In the early 1950s Britain was desperately short of labour and government ministers actively encouraged immigration. Many West Indians came to the “mother country”—despite a colour bar in many jobs and housing, and ignorance among the existing population.
In the 1950s Notting Hill was one of the poorest areas of London. By 1958 some 7,000 West Indians were living there. The existing white population lived in squalid slums that had been bypassed by the housing programmes of the post-war boom.
There was a lull in the post-war boom in 1958 and jobs became harder to find. The press was filled with lurid stories of black men running brothels, selling drugs and taking part in violent crime.
On Saturday 30 August 1958 a crowd of up to 400 began a “nigger hunt” and rioting began. Black people were attacked on the street. Stones and petrol bombs were thrown through windows. They got no protection from police and had to fight to defend themselves.
While Notting Hill was a race riot, it was never true that all whites fought blacks. The Times reported during the riot that white housewives were “looking after their coloured neighbours’ babies and doing their shopping for them” and “white and coloured children were playing together” on the streets.
The political reaction to the riot meant that anti-racist activists were organised when Kelso died. The first indoor Notting Hill Carnival had already taken place in January 1959.
The response to Kelso’s killing combined with the response to the riots. Soon Notting Hill was to became an area synonymous with anti-racist struggle rather than with racist violence and the far right.
Murder in Notting Hill by Mark Olden is published by Zero Books, £11.99. It is available from Bookmarks, the socialist bookshop. Go to www.bookmarksbookshop.co.uk