THE PEOPLE’S FREE STATE OF PORTOBELLO MANIFESTO
“If it were attacked,” repeated Wayne, awed into an almost mechanical enunciation. “Mr Turnbull, it is attacked. Thank Heaven I am bringing to at least one human being the news that is at bottom the only good news to any son of Adam. Your life has not been useless. Your work has not been play. Now when the hair is already grey on your head, Turnbull, you shall have your youth. God has not destroyed it, he has only deferred it. Let us sit down here, and you shall explain to me this military map of Notting Hill. For you and I have to defend Notting Hill together.” GK Chesterton ‘The Napoleon of Notting Hill’ 1904
The campaign to save the antiques market and small shops from the super-landlords’ clone store takeover plans is the latest battle in the historic community struggle of the People’s Free State of Portobello.
The name of the farm/lane/road/market/film festival/etc comes from the 1739 battle of Porto Bello in central America (now Panama), in which the Spanish stronghold was taken by Admiral Vernon.
The local state of ‘independence, individuality and being set apart from the mainstream’ can be traced back to the late 18th century liberal tradition of the Whig Fox family at Holland House.
The first great local community action campaign was a footpath protest in 1837 at the shortlived Hippodrome racecourse between the Portobello and Pottery lanes. On the morning of the first race meeting, locals cut through the fence around the course where it blocked the path to Notting Barns farm. After the owner blocked the hole up again, the first community activists maintained the ‘ancient public way’ by reinstating the entrance hole and adding a northern exit. Once this was achieved, they gathered on the hill grandstand to give 3 cheers for the parish of Kensington. The path protest was supported by the Vestry proto-Council and the local police.
The first radical local hero was the Chartist leader Feargus O’Connor, who trailblazed the People’s Charter calling for universal suffrage in the 1830s. After bringing the country to the brink of revolution in 1848, Feargus lived out his days at Notting Hill Gate. For his final funeral march to Kensal Green cemetery, it was reported that ‘friends and supporters of the deceased in his early political movements mustered in strong force at the Prince Albert.’ Notting Hill Gate in the mid 19th century sounds like a hotbed of revolutionary activity revolving around the Chartist brush shop on the corner of Church Street.
In GK Chesterton’s ‘The Napoleon of Notting Hill’ novel from 1904, the randomly selected joker king decrees that the London boroughs become free city states, ruled by provosts who have to wear medieval style robes. The local literary classic set in the late 20th century was inspired by Chesterton’s revelation that a row of shops at Notting Hill Gate should be preserved and defended from civic interference.
In the local patriotism tradition of the racecourse path protest, the Lord High Provost of Notting Hill takes the king seriously and fights to save ‘Pump Street’ from demolition to make way for a ‘corridor of trade’. After a battle at the beginning of Portobello Road, Notting Hill wins the war but is changed for the worse and loses the final battle to the rest of London.
“As we walked wearily round the corner, something happened… We went round one turning, 2 turnings, 3 turnings, 4 turnings, 5. Then I lifted myself slowly up from the gutter where I had been shot half senseless, and was beaten down again by living men crashing on top of me, and the world was full of roaring, and big men rolling about like 9-pins.” Buck looked at his map with knitted brows. “Was that Portobello Road?” he asked. “Yes,” said Barker, “Yes, Portobello Road – I saw it afterwards: but, my God – what a place it was!”
Local housing action from below began after the Second World War when homeless Eastenders marched up Campden Hill to squat blocks of luxury flats. Rachel Ferguson reported that ‘their ranks included those poor souls who, encouraged by their local Labour leaders, had given up what accommodation they already possessed, in the belief that with smash-and-grab the millennium had arrived… they went, sped by a news-camera or 2, and made farewell remarks of a philosophic if slightly truculent nature at a microphone of which the theme-song was ‘You haven’t seen the last of us.’
After the Notting Hill race riots of 1958 and the Rachman slum housing revelations of the Profumo affair, in the 60s local housing revolution the area was overrun by community activists.
Black community groups formed in the wake of the riots and the killing of Kelso Cochrane included Amy Ashwood Garvey’s Advancement of Coloured Peoples Association and the Inter-racial Friendship Co-ordinating Council. Darcus Howe recalled: “I think Notting Hill has always been, even before the Carnival started, explained to me as liberated territory, a place where you stood up for your rights.”
As students from the New Left group carried out an investigation into housing conditions and support for Oswald Mosley in the area, Labour party and union groups were co-ordinated by the West London Committee for Inter-racial Unity. The post-riot initiatives of the Methodist church on Lancaster Road led to the founding of the Notting Hill Social Council.
The first tenants’ housing associations formed in the late 50s in the Rachman slum areas Colville and St Stephen’s Gardens. The main aim of the former was to open up the fenced-off garden squares of the Powis and Colville neighbourhood. The more militant St Stephen’s Gardens group held a rent strike to force the post-Rachman landlords to do some repairs.
In 1966 the London Free School community action group launched the Notting Hill Carnival and the underground hippy scene from All Saints church hall on Powis Gardens. The Notting Hill Fayre and Pageant procession organised by Rhaune Laslett was followed up by the Free School Sound/Light Workshops in All Saints hall, during which Pink Floyd went psychedelic. The Free School newsletter The Gate/The Grove was expanded into the underground paper International Times.
The following year the Notting Hill People’s Association formed ‘to force the need for non-profit ownership of 1-9 Colville Gardens into the consciousness of the Conservative Council.’ In the summer of love the People’s Association organised the Notting Hill Community Workshop Project housing survey, a more serious version of the London Free School, in All Saints hall – which became the People’s Centre. They also produced the longest running local newsletter the People’s News.
In May ’68 a group of anti-Vietnam war protesters turned up at a People’s Association meeting in All Saints hall intent on more direct community action. The Hustler underground paper reported one man saying: “It’s time we started a revolution in North Kensington.” Local ’68 graffiti included ‘Revolution Now’.
The Notting Hill Interzone A map issue of International Times, ordained with ‘God gave the land to the people’, is described by the editor John ‘Hoppy’ Hopkins as a revolutionary strategy: “The centre of gravity of IT was in Notting Hill. One of the things we understood then is if you want to take the territory you publish the map, that’s an axiom that really works. So we decided that the first place that we want to conceptually seize is Notting Hill – this is in 1968 – so we published a map and we called it Interzone A.”
‘Walking the Grove’ in Interzone IT Courtney Tulloch wrote: ‘Dig the vibrations in and around Notting Hill, perhaps the only area in London where through the differing enclaves of experimental living, a free-form and ingenious communal life-style could really burst forth… Now there are signs that a real underground community is alive, and especially in the village around Portobello Road.’
The local hippy scene has been described as a euphoric classless society with free food, housing and love. If you needed money you just set up a market stall on Portobello, Hare Krishna followers and Situationists were taken seriously, and benevolent rich hippies financed the happenings and parties. The various experimental communal life-styles that sprung up in the area included the Quintessence Hare Krishna commune and the Colvillia gay scene.
After the People’s Association ‘Open the Squares’ campaign culminated in ’68 in the storming of the gates of the Powis Square gardens, the area was chosen due to its ‘Bohemian atmosphere’ as the location of Mick Jagger’s house in ‘Performance’.
In the 1969 film ‘Leo the Last’, Marcel Mastroianni plays an alienated aristocrat who sympathises with the local community struggle in Notting Dale and brings about a ‘firework revolution’ in which his façade house (on the site of the Lancaster West estate) is stormed and destroyed.
The Electric Cinema Club on Portobello was then a ‘safe haven for the hippies’ to watch cult movies and mixed-media shows in, with all profits going ‘to alternative society scenes.’
The community revolution in Notting Hill in the 60s was summed up by Bob Marsden as a Chestertonesque struggle between the south and north of the borough. The Council’s ‘strategy of control by neglect no longer worked, and only some kind of direct counter-action could now control the plague of anarchy and revolution which they imagined to be sweeping over the north of the borough.’
In the early 70s there seems to have been a demo in Notting Hill virtually every other day while All Saints hall hosted at least one community action meeting a night. By then the People’s Association consisted of various sub-groups covering the main local issues: housing, play, education, unemployment and police.
The Notting Hill Squatters group occupied luxury flats to draw attention to homelessness in the area. The West London Claimants Union’s campaigned for Social Security for local strikers declaring: ‘Our movement must challenge the whole nature and purpose of work in this society.’ The still surviving North Kensington Neighbourhood Law Centre, the first in the UK, opened at 74 Golborne Road in 1970, succeeding the People’s Association legal advice centre on Lancaster Road.
The opening of the Westway in 1970 was accompanied by another famous local road protest over the rehousing of the remaining tenants alongside the flyover. As the Westway opened to traffic there was another rehousing demo on the hard shoulder and the same day there was a march under the flyover protesting about police persecution of the Mangrove Caribbean restaurant on All Saints Road.
GK Chesterton’s literary fantasy of internecine area war became reality with the Angry Brigade, representing North Kensington, bombing targets in the south of the borough. After a BBC outside broadcast van was blown up near the Albert Hall before the Miss World contest, a witness reported seeing long-haired youths running away along Kensington Gore, in the direction of Notting Hill Gate. The Miss World contest itself was disrupted by a Women’s Lib flour and smoke-bomb attack.
In ‘The Angry Brigade’ book by Gordon Carr, Powis Square is cited as ‘living evidence of capitalist society in decay… the centre for radical student drop outs and for anyone who wants to go to the extremes in social and political life without too much attention from his neighbours or the authorities.’
In the ‘Schoolkids’ Oz trial, the defence lawyer John Mortimer (Emily’s dad) compared religious dissenters with hippies: “Now the dissenters wear long hair and colourful clothes and dream their dreams of another world in small bed-sitting rooms in Notting Hill Gate. In place of sermons with their lurid phrases about damnation, we have magazines reflecting a totally different society from that in which we live.”
The original Friends of Portobello, Friends/Frendz became the local underground paper at 305 Portobello Road, as Jonathon Green put it, covering ‘the Mangrove, the Metro, lots of police harassment, black struggle, hippy angst; the proper Notting Hill scene.’
International Times announced that ‘the IT/White Panther stall is now together in the basement of Friends Market. We’re selling records, posters, badges, books, skins, leather wristbands and all sorts of revolutionary literature. It’s our first base in the Grove area and the idea is not only to make some much-needed bread, but to provide a place for people to come and rap, give us stories and generally get it on.’
The White Panthers were a much less serious version of the Angry Brigade, set up in solidarity with the Black Panthers, with Mick Farren and the Pink Fairies as London’s answer to Detroit’s John Sinclair and the MC5. The west London chapter, as described by Farren, were “a bunch of street kids on the Grove doing the free food thing.” They also built a stage by the Westway on the site of Portobello Green for hippy free gigs and produced the proto-punk fanzine ‘White Trash’.
“The party line was very, very vague,” recalls the White Panthers Minister of Information Steve Mann in ‘Days in the Life’. “We had to overthrow western civilisation as soon as possible – before lunchtime preferably, although that wasn’t too easy because we didn’t get up very early.”
The ad for the ‘People’s Free Carnival 1971’ proclaimed: ‘The Streets of Notting Hill belong to the People – rock’n’roll, steel bands, street theatre, many goodies. Any bands, people, ideas or help of any sort contact Frendz or People’s Association.’ Frendz reported that the ‘People’s Carnival got off to a joyous start. The street fest continues all this week so do it in the road as noisily as you can.’
The Pink Fairies were pictured amongst the kids in Powis Square ‘at a quieter moment during the Notting Hill Free Carnival, a fantastic week of music, theatre and dancing in the street. Everybody got it on and the streets really came alive.’ Pictures of Mighty Baby and Skin Alley playing on Portobello Green were captioned: ‘The weekly Saturday concert under Westway in Portobello Road pounds on. Next week Graham Bond, Pink Fairies and Hawkwind.’
On the gatefold sleeve of their 1971 album ‘X In Search of Space’, Hawkwind are pictured playing under the flyover along Acklam Road. The Pink Fairies’ ‘Right On, Fight On’ track was apparently inspired by a Fairies/Hawkwind ‘Pinkwind’ free gig under the Westway that was broken up by the police.
The second Glastonbury Fayre in ’71, the first with the pyramid stage, featuring Hawkwind, the Fairies, Bowie and Bolan, was organised by Arabella Churchill, Winston’s hippy granddaughter, from her Revelation Enterprises office at 307 Portobello Road.
The spirit of GK Chesterton was summoned up again in the Frendz story about property speculating in Powis Square: ‘The battle in Notting Hill Gate is not just a battle in a small and highly populated area of London, it is representative in a definitive sense of the battle of a whole new society.’ The struggle was defined as ‘blacks, freaks, heads, youths, communes, single people’ versus ‘dolly girls, accountants, computer programmers and cocoa-drinking androids of the consumer society.’
Mick Farren and Chris Rowley called for a freak power community centre to deal with the perennial ‘basic problems inherent in the Grove – high rent, low availability of pads, constant social pressures, easily obtainable downers’; and to provide an alternative to ‘hanging round your pad, getting out of your skull in Finch’s, crashing out in the Electric.’
Following the Westway opening protests, another local community struggle with the Council for control of the Motorway Development Trust led to the founding of the North Kensington Amenity Trust (which became the Westway Development Trust) – to manage the 23 acres under the flyover for the benefit and use of the local community. Under the administration of the first trust director Anthony Perry, this included the first Caribbean Carnival HQ of Leslie Palmer on Acklam Road.
The last great local protest of the early 70s was the Notting Hill People’s Association ‘community lock-in’ at All Saints church hall on the night of May 8/9 1973. During the extended meeting, reported in the press as ‘The Siege of Notting Hill’, councillors were held hostage and forced to listen to locals’ demands for: the Council to put compulsory purchase orders on multi-occupied properties in the Colville area; the Tabernacle to be opened as a community centre; and the Electric Cinema to be saved from redevelopment. After the protesters left the hall chanting, “Power to the People! CPO!”, the Tory Council leader Malby Crofton famously said, “I am not making any bargains with these bloody anarchists.”
In 1973 the last surviving underground community groups – Frendz, the People’s Defence or Notting Hill Red Defence anti-police group, the West London Claimants Union and the People’s Association housing group – made a last stand, declaring: ‘In isolation we can too easily lose our strategy and initiative and that’s what ‘they’ want – together we can turn Notting Hill into a liberated zone.’
‘The Portobello Village’ between Lancaster Road and Oxford Gardens was described by Craig Sams as the ‘alternative quarter’ of the market, consisting of ‘reggae music, soul food, underground newspapers, wholewheat bread, Bedouin dresses, art deco objects, natural shoes, herbal medicines, a free shop, brown rice and a gypsy fortune teller.’ The Free Shop hippy recycling centre, under the Westway on the corner of Acklam Road, featuring heaps of old sofas and shoes, was a notable Clash pose location.
On Lancaster Road the squatted Royalty cinema/bingo hall was dubbed the Albion Free State Meat Roxy by Heathcote Williams (the father of Charlie Gilmour), who published the Ruff Tuff Cream Puff squatting estate agents magazine. The site is now occupied by Royalty Studios which host the local community police HQ. Heathcote went on to co-found the squatted republic of Frestonia with Nick Albery.
As a large part of the Maida Hill area was designated for demolition and redevelopment, the Chippenham and Elgin squatting scene emerged, out of which came Joe Strummer’s pre-Clash group the 101’ers. Acklam Hall under the Westway (on the site of the Supperclub), which succeeded All Saints hall as the community centre in 1975, was inaugurated by a 101’ers benefit gig for the Law Centre on Golborne Road. Out of the squatting scene on Latimer Road came the legendary proto-punk group the Derelicts.
The Sex Pistols designer Jamie Reid said his favourite local graffiti was: ‘Independence for South Africa, Scotland, Ireland, Wales – and Ladbroke Grove.’
The Rough Trade DIY record label state of independents was founded in 1976 when Geoff Travis set up shop at 202 Kensington Park Road. Most of the first Rough Trade customers were either starting a punk band, fanzine/music journalism career or reggae sound-system. In the late 70s the backyard extension of the shop became the world distribution centre of punk and reggae indie record labels and DIY fanzines.
The Portobello Road underground press tradition was continued in the 80s at number 286 where the post-punk fanzine boom inspired by Sniffin’ Glue and Ripped & Torn was orchestrated by Better Badges. Simon Dwyer wrote in his Sounds fanzine round-up: ‘Every day another young editor staggers proudly under the Westway with a new bag of radical reading matter, making the 3 minute walk from one bright spark of the current explosion, Better Badges, to the other, Rough Trade.’ To this day Portobello Film Festival badges are produced by Joly McFie’s ongoing Better Badges enterprise.
In 1977 squatters on Freston Road faced with eviction declared their independence from Britain and appealed to the UN for assistance. In the tradition of ‘The Napoleon of Notting Hill’ and ‘Passport to Pimlico’, the Free and Independent Republic of Frestonia featured border controls, passports, embassies and a national anthem that went: ‘Long live Frestonia, Land of the Free – not the GLC.’
In the People’s Hall on Olaf Street the National Film Theatre of Frestonia presented the Ealing comedy classic ‘Passport to Pimlico’ – in which SW1 becomes part of Burgundy to avoid rationing restrictions. The London City Mission People’s Hall later hosted rehearsal studios frequented by the Clash and Motorhead.
Out of Frestonia came the Mutoid Waste Company and the Bramley Road housing co-op. Some Bohemian atmosphere is maintained in the area today by the short-life housing co-ops formed by 70s squatting activists, such as Backdoor, Portobello, P59 and W11. The local squatting scene continued to thrive through the 80s and 90s, as portrayed in ‘Sammy and Rosie Get Laid’ and ‘London Kills Me’.
On the 30th anniversary of the Republic of Frestonia, residents of Pepler House on the Wornington Green estate made a declaration of independence in opposition to Kensington Housing Trust’s regeneration/demolition plans for the block. The Worningtonians had their own constitution, flag, president, first lady and independence day, on which the Kensington News reported ‘citizens were sworn into their new home at a ceremony packed full of national pride.’
Under the Westway the tradition of the hippy underground scene free gigs has continued at the Inn on the Green, where most of Hawkwind reappeared, Portobello Green festivals and market stalls, Mick Jones’s Rock’n’Roll Library and the Pop-up Cinema on Acklam Road.
Vague 66 Down and Out in Portobello and Ladbroke Grove