For many the area of Notting Hill has become synonymous with urban gentrification, the ‘romantic comedy’ as well as the internationally renowned annual August carnival. Yet long before the London riots of 2011, or the inner city riots of the early 1980s, this area of North Kensington became synonymous with the race riots of 1958. Local ‘teddy boys’, inspired not least by a resurgent whiff of fascism, attacked members of the expanding black community. The riots themselves have been well documented and subject to much discussion (see below) yet one now largely forgotten exploration of the causes of these riots is well worth revisiting. Pearl Jephcott’s ‘A Troubled Area: Notes on Notting Hill’ is a detailed consideration of ‘the causes of the general malaise of North Kensington’ (Jephcott 1964:18). Jephcott worked on the research from 1st May 1962 to November 1963. The City Parochial Fund funded the study as The North Kensington Family Study. The exact locale for the research was the ‘Notting Dale’ area that Jephcott described as being within a seven-minute walk of the Ladbroke Grove tube station.
After the first few months of the study, during which Jephcott immersed herself into the area ‘she did not know well’, it was decided (given the scale of what she had observed) to focus specifically on the social problems associated with multiple occupancy housing and ‘the possibility of stimulating small-scale joint action among the residents on specific problems’ (Jephcott 1964: 19). She concentrated on 20 multiple occupancy houses for the detailed study, collecting data through ethnographic observation, collating the written experiences of the residents, photographs and by amassing information on rents, home ownerships and lettings. In doing so Jephcott richly captures a world so far removed from current gentrified location and graphically documents the squalor, the problems of multi-occupancy, the lack of provision for children and adolescents, alongside the lived experiences of ‘the residents from overseas’ (Jephcott 1964: 80). Ahead of her time Jephcott pointedly remarks that ‘though the unfamiliar colour of their skin causes them to be classed together, they are far from being a group racially or socially’ (Jephcott 1964: 80) – this at a time when the population of Britain, more broadly, was struggling with ‘difference’ and where dominate discourses steered towards a homogeneity in the ‘them’ and ‘us’. Indeed, with some foretelling of what was to come in later debates, in their review, Jackson (1965) suggests of the book ‘what is quickly made clear is that this is not mainly a problem of race relations but of urban geography, class, history, and housing. There are long-term explanations which underlie the squalid degeneration of areas like Ladbroke Grove’ (Jackson 1965: 350).
One of the most appealing aspects of Jephcott’s broader approach is the ‘lack of side’ – a non-judgemental style to research where the researcher documents to explain and offers evidence based recommendations where possible. In the current era of ‘sociology of/as activism’ this may not appear very radical and yet, perhaps in the ‘Millsian’ sense, this was a definitive political act of writing to ‘speak the politics of truth to power’ (see Mills 2008[c1944]). Jephcott’s concerns were fundamentally for the individuals who she had researched and portrayed in her writings, and as Goudsblom (1977) writes:
‘Unfortunately it is not superfluous to remind ourselves that in sociology we are dealing with people. All too often sociologists….start out with an abstract conception of social action or social system.…it makes sense, therefore, to state quite explicitly that we are concerned with people, bonded together in dynamic constellations….’ (Goudsblom 1977: 6-7)
The concern for people is still something often overlooked in contemporary sociology and, to that end, suggests Jephcott is well worth revisiting.
References and Further Information
Goudsblom, J. (1977) Sociology in the Balance: A Critical Essay. New York: Columbia University Press.
Harvey, A. (1965) Book Review: A Troubled Area by Pearl Jephcott, Faber, 1964, Urban Studies 2: 85-86.
Jackson, J.A. (1965) Review of Back Street New Worlds: A Look at Immigrants in Britain (Huxley) and A Troubled Area: Notes On Notting Hill (Jephcott), Race Class, 6: 350
Mills, C.W. (2008[c1944]) The Powerless People: The Role of the Intellectual in Society, in, Mills, C.W. (2008) The Politics of Truth: Selected Writings of C. Wright Mills – Selected and Introduced by John H. Summers. Oxford: Oxford University press.
I would like to thank Bharat Mehta of the Trust for London (the Parochial Foundation was amalgamated with Trust for London in July 2010) for locating archived material relating to A Troubled Area and the North Kensington Projects.