BLACK DEATH

Apology Plea to Met Police Over Murder in Notting Hill 62 Years Ago Today

A gang of around five white youths overpower a solitary black man on a London street at night. One of them drives a knife deep into him. The fatal attack is unprovoked and over in seconds. 

A few witnesses come forward, but they cannot identify the gang with court-proof accuracy. There’s an added complication. The murder occurs in an area targeted by the far-right and home to a tight-knit community with a large criminal population who look dimly on those who assist the police.

The names of those believed to be responsible are whispered around the neighbourhood. At first, the police deny the crime is racially motivated, but it becomes a cause célèbre for activists to rally around and demand change.

The similarities between the murder of Kelso Cochrane on a slum street in North Kensington on 17 May 1959, and that of Stephen Lawrence near a bus stop in Eltham in southeast London 34 years later are striking. 

But while the Lawrence case burns in the public's consciousness, Kelso Cochrane’s murder became an historical footnote, even though it too was a defining moment in UK race relations.

No Quiet In London

“There is no quiet in London these days,” Radio Moscow told its African listeners eleven days after Kelso’s “savage murder”. 

By then, activists including Claudia Jones, the chain-smoking communist who’d been thrown out of America during the McCarthy witch-hunts, and Amy Ashwood Garvey, the ex-wife of the black nationalist leader Marcus Garvey, were demanding justice. 

They formed the Inter-Racial Friendship Co-ordinating Council in response to the murder and were granted an hour with a Home Office official to call for a new law banning incitement to racial hatred. 

The killing occurred in an area that had become synonymous around the world with racial violence. The month before, Sir Oswald Mosley, Britain’s wartime fascist leader, announced he would stand for parliament in North Kensington in the 1959 general election.

And the previous summer his acolytes and son Max Mosely were agitating during the Notting Hill race riots - when marauding white mobs attacked lone black men, before the latter fought back. 

All this put anti-racism on the national agenda, and in 1965 the UK passed its first Race Relations Act.

But the murder of Kelso, who came to the UK in 1954 with dreams of becoming a lawyer, lived in a bedsit just off the Portobello Road, and earned £15 a week as a carpenter, soon faded from the headlines.

And while the Lawrence family waited 18 years for partial justice when two of the white gang - Gary Dobson and David Norris - were finally convicted of the 18-year-old student’s murder, Kelso’s family have had none.

Today, on the 62nd anniversary of the murder, his daughter Josephine, who lives in New York, her sister Karen, surviving siblings in Antigua and his extended family in London are supporting a petition for the Metropolitan police to apologise for its failings.

The petition, organised by activists in North Kensington, is also understood to be supported by the Antigua and Barbuda High Commission.

Little Chance of Justice

After hundreds of hours of testimony at the Stephen Lawrence Inquiry, Sir William Macpherson concluded in 1999 that the Met was “institutionally racist” and “fundamental errors” had littered the murder investigation. 

By contrast, in Kelso’s case there’s been no inquiry, no trial, no apology and no access to the murder case files, which remain closed until 2054, when there will be little left of the dead man’s family. 

The evidence in the public domain indicates that Kelso had little chance of getting justice back in 1959, an era when the Dixon of Dock Green TV image belied a police force that was judge and jury in its own cause and reflected the racist attitudes of wider society to ‘coloured immigration’ from the colonies.

Within three days of the murder, two suspects, Pat Digby and ‘Shoggy’ Breagan, had been placed in the vicinity around the crucial time and were detained for questioning. 

At first, they gave contradictory accounts of their reasons for leaving a nearby party on Southam Street, which had become a main line of police enquiry. This inconsistency didn’t satisfy detectives, who continued holding the pair pending corroboration.

When Breagan was interviewed decades later; by then a broken old man with years of prison time for various crimes, petty and otherwise, behind him, he disclosed something remarkable.

The police, he said, placed him and Digby in adjacent cells, which allowed them to iron out the contradiction ahead of their next interviews. They were released soon after.

Digby died in 2007 and Breagan in 2019.

False Leaks

The detective leading the murder inquiry was under internal investigation for leaking details to The Sunday Express before Kelso’s next of kin had even been told of the tragedy.

In a separate leak, the police fed false and damaging details about Kelso to The People newspaper. 

This was the age of ‘the Murder Gang of Fleet Street’ - a bunch of male crime reporters who were undistinguishable from the Scotland Yard detectives, whose word and ways they hung on.

Reporters were briefed that Kelso’s death was not a racial matter just a robbery by

“teenage thugs… who were broke after a night of pub crawling in the Notting Hill district and wanted to rob anyone they could find for the price of a taxi fare back to where they lived. The last bus had gone.” 

There’s no evidence that the main suspects’ homes in Notting Dale, about a mile from the crime scene, were ever searched for the murder weapon, particularly Digby’s house.

A witness saw one of Kelso’s assailants try to grab an iron railing to use as a weapon during the attack, but no fingerprints were taken - a “serious” missed opportunity, according to a decorated former officer familiar with the case and working in Notting Hill at the time.

Witnesses were shown photos of the suspects, but there was no full-blown ID parade as the evidence warranted, the same former officer remarked.

Cold Calculation

These failings should be considered in the light of a wider question: Was the will to convict anyone really there?

Home Secretary Rab Butler appealed in the House of Commons for “anyone who can help the police in their investigation of this deplorable murder of a coloured man in Notting Hill to do so”. 

The newspapers said calling for witnesses from the mother of Parliaments was unprecedented, then noted that Butler was considering recruiting black police officers to ease racial tension.  

But behind the scenes, declassified papers show that civil servants and West Indian politicians discussed discrediting Claudia Jones and the activists rallying around Kelso’s case. Meanwhile, Special Branch, whose undercover activities are currently subject to a public inquiry, was keeping tabs on them.

The authorities’ overriding concern, documents also show, was not just to calm tensions, but for the case to recede from view

There was talk among officials, for instance, of repatriating Kelso’s body - so his grave wouldn’t become a site for “annual pilgrimages” by “mischief makers” – but only after “a reasonable interval” to avoid “undue publicity”.

In 1959, the death penalty was still law. Did fears of the convulsions likely to have been provoked by a young white man going to the gallows for killing a black man mean a cold calculation was made somewhere down the line? That justice was subverted, and the murderer allowed to slip through the net in the name of a supposed greater public good?

The murder case files at the National Archives are likely to hold answers to these and many other issues around Kelso’s death. The files have been the subject of many fruitless Freedom of Information requests over the years. 

As well as a police apology, members of Kelso’s surviving family are now calling for the secret Cochrane papers to be released.

Who knows, maybe the two are connected.

From Kelso to George

In 2003, at the request of Kelso’s brother, Stanley, the Met re-opened the case. But after conducting a ‘focused forensic review’, it was deemed that no forensic opportunities existed; that Kelso’s clothes had been destroyed in 1968 “with the proper authority” and, that there wasn’t the evidence to charge anyone.

Almost 1,000 statements were taken in the original investigation and significant resources devoted to it, the review concluded.

For the activists in North Kensington behind this week’s petition - who have fought for years to prevent time erasing awareness of the injustice that Kelso suffered - the matter cannot rest there. 

In the week before the first anniversary of George Floyd’s murder in the US, they want to remind the world that Kelso’s life mattered and acknowledge the loss his surviving relatives have endured for more than six decades. 

And so it goes.