The Leeds West Indian Carnival began on the August Bank Holiday in 1967 as the first in Europe to be organised entirely by British Caribbeans. Traditional features of Trinidadian Carnivals gave influence such as music, parading, costumes and drinking which stems from a rich cultural history dating back centuries. The origins of the carnival lie in an event organised in 1966 at Kitson College, now Leeds college of Technology, by two students, Frankie Davis and Tony Lewis. In the same year, Arthur France’s carnival idea was rejected by the United Caribbean Association. In response, he set up a committee which did not deliver, but soon selected another including Willie Robinson, Wally Thompson, Irwin and Rounica, Samlal Singh, Calvin Beech, Vanta Paul, Rose McAlister, Anson Shepherd and Ken Thomas.
1967 – First Carnival
The first Queen Show took place in Jubilee Hall, now Leeds Media Centre. Vicky Seal won, wearing a costume called The Sun Goddess made by Samlal Singh. Gay Carnival Steel Band, The Invaders, and St. Christopher Steel Band played, and Cheyanne Indians and Fantasia Britannia troupes paraded in the streets. The route went from Potternewton Park to Leeds Town Hall – around 1000 attended.
The queen was Jean Jeffers in a costume called Caribbean Sky at Night, while Trevor MacDonald was Master of Ceremonies. Attendance had at this point grown to an estimated 17,000.
By now, the carnival was becoming more well-known and undergoing rapid development under patronage of Lord and Lady Harewood. They had developed connections with local, national and international businesses who sponsored the costumes of the Carnival Queen processions.
The parade route went through these places in order: Potternewton Park to Harehills Avenue, Chapeltown Road, Regent Street, Appleyard’s garage, Eastgate, Headrow, New Briggate, and to North Street, before the procession would make its way back on a slightly altered route. From the 1970s to the 80s, steel bands were pushed on wheeled wooden platforms. Therefore, organisers scheduled a break halfway around the parade route for the people pushing the floats.
The Mecca Ballroom in Merrion Centre held a Caribbean evening. Wilberforce Steel Band played, and Leeds West Indian Dancers with Rebel Daughters and Zion Brothers also performed. Tickets for the event were priced at 90p in advance or £1 at the door. The Last Lap Dance event first took place at the refectory of Leeds University.
The Queen Show moved to the Chapeltown Community Centre on Reginald Terrace in this year.
Strike action by the National Graphical Association meant the carnival got little coverage that year apart from a couple of small newspaper articles. However, 5,000 supposedly attended.
Police called it a wonderful day and an example to all other carnivals. This was due to riots between Caribbean youth and police at Notting Hill Carnival the previous year. Compared to the previous year, attendance doubled to approximately 10,000. Lord Mayor, Councillor Patrick Crotty was photographed with some of the younger participants of the carnival showing his support of the community in Leeds. Primrose Hill High School in Burmantofts would be the venue for the Queen Show and Last Lap Dance event from this year and throughout the 1980s.
Carnival layout became more extensive that year. Susan Pitter & Reggie Challenger were the comperes for the evening. There is evidence of support by public sector bodies, as these institutions received thanks from the Carnival team: Leeds City Council, Leeds Education Department, Commission for Racial Equality, Yorkshire Arts Association, and Leeds Community Relations Council.
The parade was shorter than in previous years, but steel bands from various parts of Northern England played, showing that the awareness and interest in the carnival was expanding. A disco was held after Last Lap Dance at Primrose Hill High School for £1.50 a ticket.
This year saw a lot of fresh faces performing at the Queen Show: The Kooler Ruler Disco, John Noel, Friction, La Rumba Limbo Dancers and the Paradise Steel Band. Corporate support was given by Scaffolding Great Britain and Westminster Bank.
That year, the parade was shortened to avoid the town centre, a change that has remained in place ever since.
The Committee had less money this year. For the Queen Show, Marya Pill Dancers and a 10-minute singing performance by Judy & Linda from Bradford provided entertainment.
People who lived next to Primrose High School, where the Queen Show and Last Lap Dance had taken place, complained about the processions lasting until the early hours of the morning. In response, organisers altered the programme to finish at 11pm and the bar to close at 12.30.
In this year, the Queen Show and Last Lap Dance mpved to West Indian Centre in Laycock Place. That way, processions could continue for as long as the organisers wanted without drawing complaints.
That year, the carnival acquired major corporate sponsorship. The Carnival Prince and Princess, children between the ages of 3 and 13, appeared at the Queen Show for the first time.
Dudley Nesbitt, who had travelled from Trinidad to teach steel pan music earlier that year, provided a steel pan solo which left audiences captivated.
1988 – The 21st Anniversary.
The Caribbean Times helped support the celebrations by creating a commemorative magazine. The issue contained a mix of colour and black-and-white photo spreads honouring past carnival Queens, attendees, participants, and committee members from 1974-88. Touching letters of support showed the significance of the carnival. Additionally, the magazine presented interviews with those involved in the first West Indian Carnival.
Newspapers reported positively on the occasion, and the festivities attracted a crowd of around 40,000. From local police forces came positive responses, with “no incidences, no arrests, and no trouble” according to Super Intendant Gerry Ingham.
On the evening after the Monday Carnival procession, three people were killed in surrounding areas. Early reports for the carnival were positive with headlines like “Police happy as crowds enjoy festival”. Later, papers ran stories on the tragedy. The Evening Post quoted Ian Charles’ sorrow at the deaths. The police officer in charge of overseeing the festival, Keith Bargh, said that until the deaths the day had been “orderly and good-humoured”.
Since the deaths took place after the carnival procession they were “directly linked to the carnival,” according to Garth Frankland
The carnival returned to its normal format, but youths were persuaded not to set up Sound Systems on Harehills Avenue. Martin Wainwright from The Guardian wrote that there were 50,000 people in attendance, ‘considerably down’ compared to previous years. However, organisers and police estimated there to have been 100,000 attendees.
At the 25th Anniversary Carnival Queen Show, there were ten contenders, the largest number of contestants to date. In the end, Denise Lazarus claimed the title for herself. The procession on Monday started, for the first time, with a morning procession based on Trinidadian Carnival tradition. The Carnival parade followed in the afternoon.
For the first time, the ranking system for selecting a Carnival Queen was revealed. The carnival had its longest list of acknowledged sponsors in its history.
Publicity for the carnival advertised the largest mainstream star presence in the carnival’s history. The Yorkshire Post published Carnival photos in colour for the first time, but the article contained inaccuracies to the culture and inspirations of the Carnival. Pamela Campbell won the crown of the Carnival Queen, and around 50,000 people attended the festivities. However, four arrests also occurred during the celebration.
The first Calypso Monarch contest took place on the Carnival’s Saturday night. Seniors sang calypso they had composed themselves with the backing of a local steel band, fighting for the contest title.
The Yorkshire Evening Post provided a 24-page tabloid guide to the West Indian Carnival’s 30-year anniversary. Arthur France, who received an MBE award for his contributions to celebrating West Indian culture that year, added to the publication. The guide helped show how multi-cultural the carnival had become with photographs showing two white women hard at work on AZTEC style costumes.
Hughbon Condor wrote that the carnival “is the only positive means of portraying black culture from a black angle without being controlled by white institutions”.
Throughout the course of the 1998 carnival, an estimated 100,000 people attended and enjoyed the festivities. Many popular music acts performed and newspapers, like The Yorkshire Post, were overwhelmingly positive about the events. Police reported only a single crime, a handbag theft.
Raw design, who had done the previous year’s Carnival brochure, produced another which was even more impressive. The pamphlet contained twenty-four pages detailing the events, advertisements, information on local charity projects, and an exclusive interview with Sir Trevor Macdonald.
To celebrate the millennium, the largest ever number of women competed to be Carnival Queen. Sarai Campbell won the title.
The council allowed the carnival to return to the city centre that year.
This year saw not only the 40th anniversary of the Carnival, but also the 800th anniversary of Leeds as a city.
For the first time, a Carnival King, Tyrone Henry, was crowned. Davina Williams accompanied him in her third term as Carnival Queen.
Leading up to this year’s Carnival, unknown attackers set fire to Carnival headquarters, accompanied by unrest in the Chapeltown area. In response to the arsonattack, offers of help came in from the local community and further afield. People called in with messages of support, and some helped sort through the burnt wreckage and clean up the area. In spite of the climate, a crowd of 100,000 still attended.
Due to the success of the Carnival, a special event was held a few months later.
The Carnival brought in 2.7 million pounds that year, with a sizable amount of those profits coming from people who weren’t local to Leeds. Had it not been for harsh weather conditions, earnings likely would have been even greater.
Hordes attended Leeds West Indian Centre for the J’Ouvert Morning, a precursor to the main event. Attendance went back up to 150,000 people that year. Close to the celebrations, two teenagers became victims of a stabbing, but the incident wasn’t linked to the Carnival.
A leader of the Carnival Committee described this year’s celebrations as a “dress rehearsal” for the 50th anniversary. 160,000 people attended. In collaboration with Phoenix Dance Theatre, a Carnival ballet was performed. However, attempts to return the Carnival into the city centre did not come to fruition.
Hours before the Carnival started, three people were injured in two separate shootings. As such, police were on high alert during the celebrations.
(Text: Daniel Gaughan, Matthew McNamara / Photos: Callum Fawcett, Matt Gerlach / Editing: Eli Smith)