The History of Notting Hill Carnival

A large drumming group at Notting Hill Carnival
Image: Ms Jane Campbell / Shutterstock.com

At the end of August, the streets of West London are transformed into a celebration of colour, music, and all things Caribbean. The Notting Hill Carnival is an annual street festival that comes around on the final weekend of August to celebrate the culture, arts, and heritage of Caribbean people.

Where did it all begin?

The origins of Notting Hill Carnival trace all the way back to the age of the slave trade. During this period, Caribbean culture was closely tied to the pre-Lenten festival of Mardi Gras and the masquerade balls held by the French plantation owners. These balls saw all the landowners and their families enjoying amazing celebrations while enslaved people were strictly forbidden from getting involved.

After emancipation, the people of the Caribbean created their own traditions, drawing in part from these masquerades, but also traditional African tribal dance and music. Their own masquerading, songs, and dances were often used to ridicule and mock their former enslavers.

The beginnings of Notting Hill Carnival

By the time of the first Notting Hill Carnival, over 30,000 Caribbean people were living in the UK after the SS Empire Windrush’s arrival.

Trinidadian human rights activist Claudia Jones is credited with the first ideas for the carnival. The first outdoor festival took place in 1966 and was organised by social worker and activist Rhaune Leslett who wanted to create an outdoor space to be enjoyed by children and the local West Indian community. Trinidadian musician, Russell Henderson, got involved, playing steel pans with his band and attracting more attention. Soon, more and more people were dancing, getting involved, and enjoying the festive spirit.


Bringing the stage to Notting Hill

By 1974, 100,000 people were attending the event and enjoying a taste of Caribbean culture and music. Wilf Walker introduced the first stages in 1979, with reggae and punk bands stepping up to perform. Music from dub to ska to traditional calypso rang out across the streets, and today, over 2 million people turn up over the weekend to enjoy the sights and sounds. It’s as big as 11 Glastonbury festivals combined. Alongside diverse performances and stages, there is also traditional Caribbean food, sound systems, and cultural activities.

Female dancer at Notting Hill Carnival dancing in a Caribbean-inspired green dress
Image: Sampajano_Anizza / Shutterstock.com

5 Fascinating Facts about Notting Hill Carnival

Amazing and packed with colour and vibrancy, attending Notting Hill Carnival is an experience you’ll never forget. These five top facts give a little more insight into this annual event.

1. Too chilly for lent

As mentioned, Notting Hill Carnival has roots that date back to Lenten festivals, usually organised around February in the Christian calendar. However, as the UK is not known for its winter sun, the event is always at the end of August.

2. Mas bands are the star

Mas or Masquerade bands are at the heart of all things Notting Hill Carnival, particularly during the parade. Mas bands are made up of individuals wrapped in elaborate and colourful costumes, dancing and performing to the music as they parade the streets. Multiple Mas bands take to the streets throughout the Carnival. They have different requirements to join. Those interested in taking part can peruse the bands and see if they want to join. Bands can include up to 300 people.

3. A huge economic boost for London

London’s economy gets a great boost from Notting Hill every year. The Carnival contributes around £93 million to the local economy each year. A lot of this comes from the hundreds of traditional festival food stalls dotted around the streets. The festival does require a huge police presence of around 9,000, but this costs just £6 million, a fraction of the amount it brings in.

4. Endless opportunities to embrace the Caribbean

Notting Hill Carnival has come such a long way. Now, there are over 70 performing stages, at least ten steel pan bands, and over 40 sound systems immersing visitors in the best of Caribbean music. Enjoy Soca, calypso, dub, funk, reggae, and so much more.

5. Sunday Food Fight

Sunday is traditionally the family day of the Carnival but there’s also a slightly messy tradition you may (or may not) want to get involved in. Sundays at Notting Hill Carnival could result in a sticky mess, as it is traditional for festival-goers to slap each other with chocolate throughout the day!

6. When is Notting Hill Carnival?

Notting Hill carnival takes place from Saturday 27th August to Monday 28th August.