JONES, Claudia (1915–1964)
Plaque erected in 2023 by English Heritage at 6 Meadow Road, Vauxhall, London, SW8 1QB, London Borough of Lambeth
Journalism and Publishing
CLAUDIA JONES 1915–1964 Anti-racist activist and a founding spirit of Notting Hill Carnival lived here
Claudia Jones was a ceaseless campaigner for racial justice and is credited with having been among the first to bring Caribbean carnival to London. English Heritage has commemorated her with a blue plaque at 6 Meadow Road, Vauxhall.
Claudia Vera Cumberbatch was born in Belmont, Port-of-Spain, Trinidad (then part of the British Empire), on 21 February 1915. In 1924, Claudia – along with family – sailed to New York, where her parents had already gone in search of a more prosperous life. She was raised in impoverished Harlem and, despite spending almost a year in a sanitorium while suffering from tuberculosis, graduated from Wadleigh High School in 1935.
As she recalled, her family had gone to the United States of America looking for betterment but found poverty and racism. In February 1936 she joined the Communist Party (CPUSA), attracted by its clear stance against discrimination then suffered by African Americans. She worked in a laundry, factory and millinery but had always been drawn to journalism. In 1937 she became an associate editor for the Weekly Review, the paper of the Young Communist League and by 1943 was editor-in-chief. She took the name ‘Claudia Jones’ and worked for the communist party’s main newspaper, the Daily Worker.
From the USA to London
Claudia Jones’s deep involvement with the CPUSA made her a target for FBI surveillance and, amid anti-communist McCarthyism, her immigration status led to her being targeted for deportation. She was jailed four times and a heart attack she suffered in 1951 has been attributed to this treatment.
A deportation order was served in 1955 and – as a subject of the British Empire – she was extradited to Britain. In London, she was supported by the Communist Party of Great Britain (CPGB), which found her a job at the New China News Agency. Jones represented Vauxhall and Tulsa Hill at the 25th congress of the CPGB in 1957, but a distance developed between her and the party’s mainstream, partly due to her close association with ‘Manu’ Manchanda, a fellow activist who divided opinion.
Jones’s activism in London shifted focus. Her major publishing achievement was to set up the West Indian Gazette in March 1958, later known as the West Indian Gazette and Afro-Asian Caribbean News. This monthly newspaper was intended as a mouthpiece for London’s then 100,000-strong community of Caribbean origins, and highlighted issues of discrimination. The paper struggled financially but was an important focus for an emerging West Indian identity in Britain. Jones edited it until her death.
Bringing carnival spirit to London
Following serious race riots in Notting Hill and Nottingham in 1958, Jones and others at the West Indian Gazette discussed ways to ensure it never happened again. One idea was to bring the spirit and the joy of an African Caribbean carnival to London, with music, dancing and talent contests. The first event, sponsored by the West Indian Gazette, was held at St Pancras Town Hall on 30 January 1959 and was partly televised.
In May 1959, the racist murder of Kelso Cochrane caused Jones to double down on efforts to seek political progress through cultural celebration and exchange. The indoor carnivals became an annual occurrence for the rest of her life. Elements from these indoor events were later incorporated into the outdoor carnival in Notting Hill, the first of which took place in 1966, after Jones’s death.
Via the West Indian Gazette, Jones was also active in campaigns against the 1962 Immigration Act, the apartheid regime in South Africa, and the Vietnam War. In August 1963, she led a march on the American Embassy to protest for black civil rights. Among civil rights campaigners and pan-Africanists she counted Paul Robeson, Ben Davis and Amy Ashwood Garvey as friends; she also met Martin Luther King, Chairman Mao and Picasso.
Jones moved to 6 Meadow Road, Vauxhall in 1956. It was home for almost four years, making it her longest place of settled residence in London; she shared it with ‘Manu’ Manchanda. Those years encompassed two key achievements: the founding of the West Indian Gazette in 1958 – its offices were not far away, at 250 Brixton Road – and the holding of the first African Caribbean carnival in January 1959. Jones subsequently had homes in Stockwell and in Belsize Park.
Jones’s life was blistered by poverty and ill-health: at the point of her death she was being prosecuted for non-payment of council rates, while several hospital stays were caused by her heart and lung problems. She died of a heart attack at home in Belsize Park in December 1964. Her ashes were interred in Highgate Cemetery, just to the left of Karl Marx.
Jones was a journalist, a publisher, a political activist and much more: she was a galvanising figure for the London black community and had a shared foundational role in what became the Notting Hill Carnival. Her campaigning encompassed many forms of social justice, including women’s rights. What marked her out was her awareness of the use of culture as a lever to open minds, and thereby drive change. This was never better illustrated than by her role in bringing carnival to London.