Kelso Cochrane Day 17th May
Long before Stephen Lawrence and George Floyd, another Black man’s racially motivated murder moved hearts and minds in Britain. Although the Notting Hill Carnival remains a lasting reminder of his death, many have forgotten the role his death played.
We are proposing from May 2022 that we set up an annual fitting tribute and project, maybe a week/month of events, we have time to listen so send us your ideas.
Kelso Cochrane was born in Antigua in 1927 and migrated to London in 1954, settling in Notting Hill. On 17 May 1959, while walking home from Paddington General Hospital where he had received treatment after a work accident, he was attacked by a group of white youths and stabbed to death. More than 1,200 people attended Kelso’s funeral.
Mr Cochrane’s murder was a pivotal moment that ‘changed the dynamic’ between the Caribbean and White working class communities of North Kensington.
Mr Cochrane was part of a generation of Caribbean people who were encouraged to help fill Britain’s struggling labour force after the Second World War – namely the Windrush Generation. In more recent years associated with Teresa May’s Windrush Scandal.
However, upon arrival to the UK, Caribbeans like Mr Cochrane were met with hostility and racism where they expected a warm welcome. Racial tension was especially high in Notting Hill, where many parts were notorious for being working class slum lands through the 1940s and 1950s.
There can be few incidents that struck such a cord with the public Black and White in these times where racism and racial poverty were rife. This was probably the first time a crime was recognised publicly as a ‘Race Crime’, its consequences went much wider – it was the beginning of the end of Oswald Mosely’s Union Movement ‘The Black Shirts’.
The Union Movement was active in Notting Hill at that time, and Colin Jordan’s White Defence League had its headquarters in Princedale Road. The previous year, a series of violent attacks on Black people had culminated in the Notting Hill “race riots” in which White mobs of up to 400 people attacked the houses of West Indian residents. It was the whipping up of an atmosphere of violent racism by Mosley’s Union Movement and Jordan’s White Defence League that led directly to Kelso’s murder. In 1961 a local ‘Mosleyite’ named Peter Dawson told the Sunday People that a Union Movement member was responsible for killing Kelso (see full quote at the bottom). However, the police denied that the attackers were motivated by racism and nobody has ever been charged with the murder.
Black and White people marched together on peaceful protests, promoting the harmony of Blacks and Whites living together, it produced a strong response from anti-racists that was to have a lasting effect. Today in Notting Hill, every August, black and white people celebrate in one of the biggest street festivals in the world. Few know that the carnival was originally organised by anti-racist activists, under the tutelage of activist Claudia Jones, as a way of combating racism by celebrating Caribbean culture and to show Londoners and White British people that there was nothing to fear from the Black communities.
Those Black and White community anti-racist protests that persisted over the coming years led to the1965 the Race Relations Act criminalised incitement to racial hatred.
That murder 62 years ago on Saturday 17 May 1959 became one of the most significant moments in the history of racism in Britain. Stabbed to death by a gang of racist White youths, Cochrane was killed in a strikingly similar way to Stephen Lawrence 34 years later in 1993. In both cases there was a conspiracy of silence that protected his murderers, but of course Stephen’s name remains well known while Kelso’s has largely faded from public memory – LETS CHANGE THAT lets campaign for a ‘Kelso Cochrane Remembrance Project’ It could be over a week or a month but lets be positive, send your ideas.
We also still need to get justice for the Kelso’s family, who have to live with the thought that his killers are still free and may still be walking the streets.
In 2006 the BBC made a documentary ‘Who Killed My Brother’, following Stanley Cochrane as he came to Britain to find out what happened to his brother and to try to get the case re-opened by the police. The extra tragedy and grief for him was that he had financed his brother’s trip to England, but he did not have enough funds to come with him.
In 2009 on the 50th Anniversary of his death there was an unveiling of a Blue Plaque on the place of his death it says:
‘Kelso Cochrane 1936-1959 Antiguan Carpenter And Student, Was Fatally Wounded On This Site. His Death Outraged And Unified The Community, Leading to The Lasting cosmopolitan Tradition In This Area Of North Kensington’
Unless there is a continuous struggle against racism and fascism they will return again. The best way that we can commemorate the death of Kelso Cochrane is to continue that struggle today and use his name as a byword for racial and social justice.
Did Pat Digby murder Kelso Cochraine?
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 (it’s a worthy read).
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.”
Footnote: We cannot rule out the involvement of John ‘Shoggy’ Breagan in the murder and Mosley’s right hand man Peter Dawson, who either knew or was one of the group, both of these men formed part of the ‘Nigger Hunting Groups’ that operated around Notting Hill in the late 50’s.
Dawson told the reporter, Ken Gardner of The People newspaper in 1961:
“It was one of the Union mob … A great guy. Did it to teach the other nigs a lesson. But none of us in the movement would tell the police a thing”.