The Beginnings of Manchester’s Caribbean Carnival

In the month of October we will be marking Black History Month by sharing a series of short essays written by four recent graduates of the History Department at the University of Manchester. These students were part of Kerry Pimblott’s third-year seminar on the Black Freedom Movement and were tasked with putting their new historical skills to work by performing original research on the transnational links between movements for racial justice in the US and UK. We would like to extend our thanks to the many archivists and librarians who assisted the students in developing these important profiles in Black British History.

Our first blog post on Manchester’s Caribbean Carnival is from Eva Gewirtz-O’Reilly, a recent graduate of the University of Manchester History Department.

Eva Gewirtz-O’Reilly presenting on Manchester’s Caribbean Carnival at Manchester Central Library in December 2020.

Inspired by a longing for home, émigrés from the British Leeward Islands established Manchester’s Alexandra Park carnival in the early 1970s. Caribbean carnival – a community-led, artistic and cultural celebration – is profoundly political. Born out of a complicated history of slavery, colonialism and religious conversion, carnival is ultimately an expression of freedom, celebration and happiness. The British Caribbean carnival is a unique hybrid of different West Indian traditional artistic forms. It is influenced by both the historical context of racism in the UK and the politics of culture, economics and space. As of yet, no substantial (or even partly substantial) historical account of Manchester’s carnival exists. This article draws attention to some of the contributions of Ms Claudia Jones and Ms Locita Brandy to the British Caribbean carnival tradition. Comparisons between Manchester, Leeds and London’s Notting Hill carnivals will be drawn where appropriate. As archival material on Manchester carnival is scarce, an interview with Lorna Downer, who has been an activist in the Afro-Caribbean South Manchester community since the 1970s has been conducted. This article will situate the political and cultural importance of Manchester carnival in the 1970s and 1980s within the antiracist and community-centred efforts of contemporary West Indian activists and the wider Afro-Caribbean community.

British carnival: the context of racism

For West Indian migrants celebrating carnival in the 1970s, their experiences of Britain were likely shaped by ten to twenty years of hostility by racist whites. As early as 1960, George Lamming comments that ‘colonialism is at the very base and structure of the West Indian cultural awareness.’[1] In this context, the British carnival tradition can be seen as an effective response by West Indian migrants to the racist structures in Britain. The first British carnival, held in London in 1959, was both a commemoration of and a defiant response to the racist riots that took place in Nottingham and London’s Notting Hill in the summer of 1958.

Mother of the British Caribbean carnival: Ms Claudia Jones

Press photo of Ms Claudia Jones (Seattle Times Archive, circa 1950)

As its key organiser, Claudia Jones today is remembered as the ‘mother of Caribbean carnival in Britain’.[2] She was born in 1915 British colonial Trinidad and radicalised in 1930s Harlem, New York. As a black woman and a communist, Jones was a victim of the McCarthyite hysteria that gripped the Cold War United States.[3] Her criminalisation and subsequent deportation to Britain in 1955 placed her at the forefront of the struggle towards decolonisation.[4] Positioned at the ‘centre’ of the collapsing British Empire, Jones focused her antiracist activism in the realm of cultural politics. This approach centred on fostering community, affirming black womanhood and challenging racist beauty politics that marginalised Black women.[5]

Manchester carnival chairperson: Ms Locita Brandy

Ms Locita Brandy leading the carnival parade (Courtesy of Locita Brandy Ahmed Iqbal Ullah Race Relations Archives, 1974)

As a founding member and the chairperson of Manchester’s carnival committee – the Manchester Alexandra Park Association (MAPCA) – Ms Locita Brandy played a central role in its organisation from 1970-1997.[6] In 1959, Brandy and her family moved to Moss Side where they were the first black family on their street.[7] Inspired by ‘a longing for home’ and memories of the colourful and vibrant St Kitts and Nevis carnival of her home, Brandy worked with other members of the Leeward Island People Association (LIPA) (which would merge with other community members to form the MAPCA in 1971) to introduce Manchester’s first Caribbean Carnival.[8] T. L. Rayner, President of the MAPCA throughout the 1970s, credits Locita Brandy and LIPA with rescuing the carnival in 1971 when lack of interest nearly saw its collapse.[9]

Whilst a jointly-run community procession took place in 1970, Alexandra Park carnival as a West Indian celebration organised by the West Indian community of South Manchester began in 1972.[10] Media sources cite the starting year of Manchester’s Caribbean carnival as 1973 and describe it as an ‘impromptu affair.’[11] Both Locita Brandy and Diana Watts reference the Caribbean carnival’s start date as May Bank Holiday weekend 1972.[12] The description of carnival as ‘impromptu’ found in numerous press sources ignores the efforts of Moss Side’s West Indian community in the organisation of carnival. Brandy’s records present evidence of the hard work and dedication of LIPA and MAPCA to first put Manchester Caribbean carnival on the city council’s agenda, and then arrange the carnival procession and ensure its smooth running.[13] Manchester’s Caribbean carnival was both created and sustained by the dedication of members of the MAPCA and LIPA, particularly Locita Brandy, throughout the 1970s and 1980s.

Scottish bagpipe band perform at the first carnival procession in Alexandra Park (Manchester Central Library Archives, 1970)
Carnival-goers in Alexandra Park (1970)

The organisers of Manchester Carnival envisioned it as a communal event with the purpose of familiarising white and black people, generating happiness and fostering solidarity within the community. Throughout the 1970s and 1980s, Locita Brandy’s records highlight consistent efforts to involve the South Asian and Chinese communities of Moss Side in the Caribbean carnival celebration.[14] This mirrors the approach of carnival organiser Rhaune Laslett in Notting Hill.[15] Whilst similarities are shared across carnival in different British Caribbean communities, there is considerable diversity in the artistic forms represented. This presents the uniqueness of the British carnival tradition, as one influenced and embraced by different immigrant communities – for example, African, Asian and South American.[16] This also highlights the socioeconomic homogenisation of non-white immigrant communities into the category of politically black.

Carnival queen beauty contest

Carnival beauty queen contest in London’s indoor Caribbean carnival (Daily Mirror circa 1960)

The carnival queen contest was reinvented by Claudia Jones in the British context as an antiracist and cultural affirmation of black womanhood and beauty. Whilst contestants of the contest in Manchester, London and Leeds were in the 1970s and 1980s all thin, single and beautiful, no colour-bar or class restrictions were in place. In this way, the British carnival queen contest’s contrast with its colourist and classist Caribbean counterpart is significant.[17] The BBC televised contest was broadcast live from the 1969 indoor carnival in Camden’s St Pancras Town Hall. By bringing visibility to the experiences of black women, Jones’ carnival queen contest provided a clear challenge to racialised notions of beauty that marginalised black women. Through the West Indian Gazette and Afro-Asian Caribbean News (the first independent black newspaper in the UK) Jones advertised and endorsed the carnival and carnival queen. In this way Jones worked to refashion and extend ‘the project of Caribbean cultural nationalism for a new British context.’[18]

Abasindi Leaflet (Courtesy of Locita Brandy, Ahmed Iqbal Ullah Race Relations Archives, circa 1985)

This approach was shared by Abasindi – Manchester’s Black Women’s Cooperative. They played an active role in cultural events of the carnival during the 1980s. Diana Watt highlights how Abasindi used ‘dance to symbolise the role of Black women at the forefront of struggle within a specific socio-historical context’.[19] For the women of Abasindi, African and Caribbean culture was a peaceful tool to confront ‘decades of disparagement and marginalisation… [and challenge] racist representations.’[20] Forms of cultural and racial resistance are not only enabled but encouraged by the structures of carnival.

‘We are all for Manchester!’ (Courtesy of Locita Brandy, Ahmed Iqbal Ullah Race Relations Archives 1976)

These newspaper clippings suggests the shared pride of Manchester’s Afro-Caribbean community in their 1976 Manchester carnival queen, Irma Brandy (daughter of Locita Brandy). A collective West Indian pride represented the forgoing of island loyalties. It had emerged in the earlier decade, with ‘its origins in the drama of nascent nationhood.’[21] The currency of carnival queens as cultural ambassadors is highlighted across the media representation of Irma Brandy. A local news article on the Brandy family highlights their numerous roles in promoting Caribbean traditions and carnival.[22]

‘Manchester Crowns her Queen’ (Courtesy of Locita Brandy, Ahmed Iqbal Ullah Race Relations Archives, 1976)

For Lorna Downer, who has been an activist in South Manchester’s Afro-Caribbean community since the 1970s, her mother’s occupation as a seamstress making costumes for the carnival inspired her own involvement. As a teenager, Downer ‘used to get involved in the costume making for the prince and the princess. And I enjoyed that and cheering them on stage. One of the costumes I made for my nephew when he won.’[23] The role of the Brandy family in the organisation and celebration of carnival is a wider theme across the British carnival tradition. Children growing up in households in which the politics and art of carnival were central, would then ‘join with parents and grandparents in the making of carnival.’[24]

Steel pan and calypso music

Steel pan player and teacher Arthur Culpepper with members of the Ducie High School Steel Band afterschool club (BBC Countdown to the Festival Episode 4 1977)

Trinidadian art forms of calypso and steel pan music are central to the celebration of Manchester carnival. In the fifties, sixties and seventies, they became historically significant in their own right. Famous calypsonians helped to popularise vernacular West Indian music in Britain. Lord Kitchener and the Mighty Sparrow helped to create ‘a new syncretic culture’ within Britain.[25] In a 1977 episode of Countdown to the Festival, the BBC filmed the Manchester Ducie High School Steel Band preparing for and taking part in Leeds Carnival. Under the direction of Arthur Culpepper – a famous steel pan player who fought to have the steel pans recognised as an instrument – the band enthusiastically practice for the carnival.[26]

Lorna Downer also highlights this key component of the British Caribbean carnival; the sharing of artistic forms between the carnivals in different cities. ‘The Manchester carnival performers come from Leeds, Birmingham and they join in the procession… When you go to London carnival, those troops that you see on the procession come from all over the city. They’ve all had their own carnival so it’s like let’s take the whole thing to Leeds, let’s take the whole thing to London. That’s what we love about it.’[27] This organic part of carnival, the sharing of art between Afro-Caribbean communities across the UK, is of profound importance in the creation of country-wide community sentiment.

Self-determination

Carnival created important economic and cultural choices for Manchester’s Afro-Caribbean community. Downer highlights the colour-bar that barred black Britons from pubs, shops and other venues across Manchester: ‘we had to grow our own community because we weren’t accepted.’[28] Downer suggests that self-expression and belonging were significant for first generation West Indian migrants organising the carnival. ‘Carnival was… definitely a form of self-expression. I don’t like the accepted bit but it was about acceptance, because that’s what you could hear the adults talking about.’[29] Carnival played an important part in binding a West Indian community in the Moss Side area, and fostering solidarity with other sympathetic groups.  It also enabled greater economic opportunities for the Afro-Caribbean community. ‘The growth of the costume, fashion, food industries at the time of carnival is huge.’ Although much of the work created by carnival was seasonal, ‘it’s definitely grown people’s businesses.’ The economic and cultural growth of the Afro-Caribbean community in Manchester both bolstered and was bolstered by carnival.

‘Taking space’

In carnival, embodied performative art occupies the street. This radical act of ‘taking space’ is central to the political significance of carnival in the African diaspora tradition. The Trinidad carnival for example is tied to the historical context of emancipation, and a nonconformist celebration of it. In his 1986 study ‘The Struggle for Black Arts in Britain’, Kwesi Owusu contrasts the visible and performative nature of carnival art with the central concern of western art to create an illusory space, contained from the real world.[30] Carnival art is conceptualised as ‘ethnically other’, and placed in ‘the domain of threatening culture.’[31] This has contributed to its negative media coverage both across the Notting Hill and Alexandra Park carnivals. It is unsurprising that carnival, as an Afro-Caribbean diasporic cultural, and radical political event is chosen to be seen as threatening in a hierarchical society. This should not take away from the opportunities that carnival presents, in particular, a subtle yet powerful challenge to racism.

Conclusion

The beginnings of Alexandra Park’s Caribbean carnival mark a seminal moment in Manchester’s cultural history. Carnival is a powerful antiracist and celebratory cultural event. It holds the potential to grow communities and engage all in its yearly joy. It is a symbol that asserts the positive cultural contribution of Britain’s black community. Manchester carnival should be recognised and remembered for its historical and cultural importance.

Bibliography

Primary Sources

Brandy, Locita, ‘Agenda: 22 February 1978’, Manchester, 1978. Ahmed Iqbal Ullah Race Relations Centre – GB3228.09/6/04.

Brandy, Locita, ‘Manchester Carnival Timeline’, Manchester, 2014. Ahmed Iqbal Ullah Race Relations Centre – GB3228.09/7/21.

Brandy, Locita, ‘Talks for the Carnival’, Manchester, 1969. Ahmed Iqbal Ullah Race Relations Centre – GB3228.09/2/19.

Brandy: The Spirit of Carnival, Manchester, Date Unknown , Ahmed Iqbal Ullah Race Relations Centre GB3228.09/6/07.

Fry, Tristan, ‘The Carnival’, Countdown to the Festival, episode 4. 1977. BBC.

Gewirtz-O’Reilly, Eva, Interview with Lorna Downer, 28 November 2019, Material in Author’s Possession.

Rayner, T. L, ‘Carnival 1977 Address’, Manchester, 1977. Ahmed Iqbal Ullah Race Relations Centre – GB3228.09/2/16.

Secondary Sources

Bone, Matthew and Dan Box, ‘Manchester’s Caribbean Carnival’, 3 February 2019, https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-manchester-47088864 [accessed on 04/12/19].

Boyce Davies, Carol, Claudia Jones: Beyond Containment (Oxford: Ayebia Clarke, 2011).

Boyce Davies, Carol, Left of Karl Marx: the Political Life of Black Communist Claudia Jones (London: Duke University Press, 2007).

Ferris, Lesley, ‘Incremental Art: Negotiating the Route of London’s Notting Hill Carnival’, Social Identities 16 (2010), 519-536.

Owusu, Kwesi, The Struggle for Black Arts in Britain: What Can We Consider Better Than Freedom (London: Cengage Learning, 1986).

Riggio, Milla Cozart, Carnival: Culture in Action: the Trinidad Experience (New York: Routledge, 2004).

Rowe, Rochelle, Imagining Caribbean Womanhood: Race, Nation and Beauty Competitions, 1929-1970 (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2013).

Schwarz, Bill, ‘“Claudia Jones and the West Indian Gazette”: Reflections on the Emergence of Post‐Colonial Britain’, Twentieth Century British History 14 (2003), 264-285.


[1] Milla Cozart Riggio, Carnival: Culture in Action: the Trinidad Experience (New York: Routledge, 2004), p. 13.

[2] These words are inscribed on a commemorative blue plaque (unveiled in August 2008) on the corner of Tavistock Road and Portobello Road in London’s Notting Hill.

[3] Carole Boyce Davies, Claudia Jones: Beyond Containment (Oxford: Ayebia Clark, 2011), p. 16.

[4] Bill Schwartz, ‘“Claudia Jones and the West Indian Gazette”: Reflections on the Emergence of Post‐Colonial Britain’, Twentieth Century British History 14 (2003), pp. 264-285(p. 267).

[5] Rochelle Rowe, Imagining Caribbean Womanhood: Race, Nation and Beauty Competitions, 1929-1970 (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2013), p. 152.

[6] Locita Brandy, ‘Manchester Carnival Timeline’, Manchester, 2014. Ahmed Iqbal Ullah Race Relations Centre – GB3228.09/7/21.

[7] Locita Brandy, ‘Manchester Carnival Timeline’, Manchester, 2014. Ahmed Iqbal Ullah Race Relations Centre – GB3228.09/7/21.

[8] Locita Brandy, ‘Talks for the Carnival’, Manchester, 1969. Ahmed Iqbal Ullah Race Relations Centre – GB3228.09/2/19.

[9] T. L. Rayner, ‘Carnival 1977 Address’, Manchester, 1977. Ahmed Iqbal Ullah Race Relations Centre – GB3228.09/2/16.

[10] Diana Watt and Adele D. Jones, Catching Hell and Doing Well Black Women in the UK – the Abasindi Cooperative (London: Institute of Education Press, 2015), p. 53.

[11] Matthew Bone and Dan Box, ‘Manchester’s Caribbean Carnival’, 3 February 2019, https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-manchester-47088864 [accessed on 04/12/19].

[12] Diana Watt and Adele D. Jones, Catching Hell and Doing Well Black Women in the UK – the Abasindi Cooperative (London: Institute of Education Press, 2015), p. 53; Locita Brandy, ‘Manchester Carnival Timeline’, Manchester, 2014. Ahmed Iqbal Ullah Race Relations Centre – GB3228.09/7/21.

[13] Locita Brandy, ‘Agenda: 22 February 1978’, Manchester, 1978. Ahmed Iqbal Ullah Race Relations Centre – GB3228.09/6/04.

[14] Locita Brandy, ‘Agenda: 22 February 1978’, Manchester, 1978. Ahmed Iqbal Ullah Race Relations Centre – GB3228.09/6/04.

[15] Milla Cozart Riggio, Carnival: Culture in Action: the Trinidad Experience (New York: Routledge, 2004), p. 5.

[16] Ibid, p. 13.

[17] Rochelle Rowe, Imagining Caribbean Womanhood: Race, Nation and Beauty Competitions, 1929-1970 (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2013), pp. 1-7.

[18] Rochelle Rowe, Imagining Caribbean Womanhood: Race, Nation and Beauty Competitions, 1929-1970 (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2013), p. 152

[19] Diana Watt and Adele D. Jones, Catching Hell and Doing Well Black Women in the UK – the Abasindi Cooperative (London: Institute of Education Press, 2015), p. 73.

[20] Ibid.

[21] Bill Schwarz, ‘“Claudia Jones and the West Indian Gazette”: Reflections on the Emergence of Post‐Colonial Britain’, Twentieth Century British History 14 (2003), pp. 264-285 (pp. 273-274).

[22] Brandy: the Spirit of Carnival, Manchester, date unknown , Ahmed Iqbal Ullah Race Relations Centre GB3228.09/6/07.

[23] Interview with Lorna Downer, 28 November 2019, Material in Author’s Possession, Minute 5.

[24] Milla Cozart Riggio, Carnival: Culture in Action: the Trinidad Experience (New York: Routledge, 2004), p. 1.

[25] Ibid, p. 272.

[26] Tristan Fry, ‘The Carnival’, Countdown to the Festival, episode 4. 1977. BBC.

[27] Interview with Lorna Downer, 28 November 2019, Material in Author’s Possession, Minute 17.

[28] Interview with Lorna Downer, 28 November 2019, Material in Author’s Possession, Minute 3.

[29] Interview with Lorna Downer, 28 November 2019, Material in Author’s Possession, Minute 4.

[30] Kwesi Owusu, The Struggle for Black Arts in Britain: What Can We Consider Better Than Freedom (London: Cengage Learning, 1986), p. 8.

[31] Ibid.

One Comment Add yours

  1. dannyfriar says:

    Great research. I myself research the history of the Leeds Carnival and carnivals in Britain. One thing not mentioned here, that needs more research, is The Manchester Caribbean Carnival that took place in 1962. After the success of her indoor carnivals in London, Claudia Jones wanted to spread Caribbean Carnival across the UK and chose Manchester as the first place to try out that idea. The great Calypsoian Lord Kitchener was living in Manchester at the time and Claudia Jones knew him on a professional level at least (he’d performed at Jones’ London carnivals). Claudia Jones organised an indoor carnival at Free Trade Hall but, despite the star attraction of Lord Kitchener and Mighty Sparrow, the carnival was unsuccessful

    Like

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