‘The worst kept secret in Notting Hill’

August 25, 2011 — Review

Written by Harmit Athwal

A gripping new book on the racist murder of Kelso Cochrane over fifty years ago reveals the identity of the man suspected of the stabbing.

Mark Olden’s book, Murder in Notting Hill, is a painstaking investigation into the unsolved murder of Kelso Cochrane, who was stabbed to death by a gang of white youths on Sunday 17 May 1959 in Notting Hill, west London. The killing is one of the first recorded racially motivated murders in the UK. (Read about other murders with a racial motivation here.)

Carpenter, Kelso was murdered as he walked home in the early hours of the morning after receiving hospital treatment after breaking his thumb at work. He was wearing a plaster cast on his left arm when he was stabbed through the heart on Southam Street in west London. Numerous young men from the area were questioned after the murder, but only two were held by police for over 24-hours as they sought to verify their stories.

Olden worked at the BBC and worked on its programme into the murder, Who Killed My Brother? As a result, he probably had access to material that would have been hard for the ‘lay’ researcher to access. He has however supplemented his research with numerous interviews with people (he had to track down) who were around at that time. Olden’s style and descriptions leave you with a flavour of the area and a sense of what it was like to live there in 1959.

Through documents at the National Archive, Olden was able to establish that there was a very real fear (on the part of the government and police) that the death would lead to a repeat of race riots seen the previous year in Notting Hill and other areas in the UK. High-level meetings (involving government minsters and overseas representatives) were held and the home secretary, Rab Butler, was briefed regularly following the murder. There seemed to be more concern over the ‘state of race relations’ in the UK than finding the murderer of a ‘lowly’ black carpenter. There were serious concerns that organisations campaigning against racism at the time would use Kelso’s murder to make him a ‘martyr’ for their cause.

Policing

There are remarkable similarities between the way that Kelso’s death was investigated then and how other murders with a suspected racial motive are investigated now. The police PR-machine was set in motion, very public actions were made by the police, and they conducted huge searches and door-to-door inquiries in the area. Yet they still failed to catch their man.

As with numerous other such murders since Kelso’s, the police ruled out a racial motive to the attack and instead insisted that it was robbery. Just two days after Kelso’s murder, the officer leading the inquiry, Detective Superintendent Ian Forbes-Leith, was quoted in the press as saying ‘The stabbing had absolutely nothing to do with racial conflict’, and an unnamed Scotland Yard source was also quoted as saying ‘The fact that he happened to be coloured does not in our view, come into the question’.

Olden was probably frustrated in his search for the truth as limited information from official sources is available. The National Archive has refused to release papers relating to Kelso’s death (until 2044) on the grounds that it ‘could put at risk certain law-enforcement matters, including preventing or detecting crime, arresting or prosecuting offenders and the proper administration of justice’. It is highly improbable that anyone will ever be charged in connection with Kelso’s death, as the man believed to have stabbed him, Pat Digby, is now dead. But other questions remain unanswered about the police investigation: why was Kelso’s clothing destroyed, just a few years after his death? Why did police fail to search the home of Pat Digby, merely collecting his clothing, particularly when you consider the searches taking place in and around the local area for the weapon? A year after Kelso’s death, the local Kensington News, quoted an unnamed police officer: ‘We know who killed Kelso Cochrane – but we can’t prove it.’ Whether they even wanted to prove it is the question.

Another aspect the book touches upon is police corruption and collusion with the press, which is particularly resonant today with the recent scandal surrounding News International and their payments to police for information. Just three hours after Kelso’s murder the story was on the front page of the Daily Express. How this came about is explored in the book. An internal investigation was conducted but the culprit, probably one of three senior police officers, could not be found, as they all denied responsibility. The book reveals that while senior police heading the investigation were meant to be investigating the murder they were simultaneously trying to defend their ‘good’ names as a result of the leak to the press. So how committed to the investigation could they have been?

Why police were unable to convict those responsible for the murder is debatable, but one thing is pretty obvious – they knew who did it. A police officer who Olden interviewed many years later confirmed this, but believed that there was not enough evidence to secure a conviction – this often seems to be the case where the death of a black person is concerned.

The murderer of Kelso Cochrane was known to many people in the area and the code of silence which dominated the local community meant that he was allowed to go free. One of the unnamed local characters that Olden interviewed called it ‘the worst kept secret in Notting Hill’. Kelso’s family, instead, received the life sentence. There seems to be a deep commitment behind this book to uncover who killed Kelso. Olden’s dogged research reveals a love for the area in which he lives. Some may question whether Olden is correct in his naming of Pat Digby as the murderer. A man arrested with Digby had just been released from prison after serving a sentence for a racist attack on another black man.

However, to me, the story that emerges from Olden’s book is compelling and can only add to what little is known about the murder. I have only one criticism: the book could benefit from a map, to show the key locations in the area. But other than that this, Murder in Notting Hill, is an excellent read and is highly recommended.

Related links

Buy a copy here

Zero Books

Read an IRR News story: ‘Remembering Kelso Cochrane’

Read an IRR News story: ‘Fifty years on – remembering Kelso Cochrane’

Murder in Notting Hill by Mark Olden is available from Zero Books for £11.99.

The Institute of Race Relations is precluded from expressing a corporate view: any opinions expressed are therefore those of the authors.

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