Above: Tom in Oz now at the Royal Mile Edinburgh Sunday 26th Sep 2010.
A restaurant owner and activist, he stood up to police persecution
Sunday 26 September 2010
The community activist Frank Crichlow, who has died aged 78 after a long illness, was a stalwart symbol of black urban resistance in the face of police persecution. This he achieved through withstanding the trials and tribulations visited on the Mangrove restaurant, which he established in the Notting Hill area of west London in the late 1960s.
Born in Trinidad, in the Woodbrook district of the capital, Port of Spain, Crichlow arrived in Britain on the SS Colombie in June 1953. Five years earlier, the Empire Windrush, with 492 passengers on board, had entered the history of multiculturalism as the ship bringing the first large group of Caribbean migrants to the UK after the second world war.
Initially living in Paddington, Crichlow recalled in the 1990s in an interview with Colin Prescod and Eric Huntley that it "could be a week before you saw another black person. Guys used to hang out on Sutherland Avenue where there was a club called Johnson's, owned by an African, run by a Jamaican. People used to look forward to going, and everything started mushrooming from there."
For a time Crichlow worked for British Rail, then in 1956 formed the Starlight Four band, which had some success with appearances on radio and television, and in a cinema advertisement. He used the money to open the El Rio Cafe in 1959 at 127 Westbourne Park Road – the interior decorated with fishing nets purloined from Southend – which became a gathering place for the black community, a likely first stop for those arriving in London from the West Indies.
As the photographer and writer Val Wilmer notes, "Crichlow had links with and benefited from the experience of an earlier group of settlers from the prewar and wartime era, Soho's African entrepreneurs; they would all have known each other from the gambling tables (in December 1960 the Rio attracted a fine as a common gaming house)." Certainly, with the Notting Hill race riots of 1958, begun by gangs of white youths, still a raw and recent memory, for black people to congregate was as much a matter of safety as sociability (a decade later, when I moved into the area, looking anxiously over one's shoulder was still par for the course); but "slumming it" at the Rio also appealed to white customers.
Crichlow said of those days: "It was amazing. White and black people socialising like you and I could not imagine today. Christine Keeler, who used to call me "Dad", John Profumo – they all came to the club. Colin MacInnes and all sorts of arty types came too – they loved the spirit of the place and felt released from their own stiff culture." At the Rio, Keeler met her Jamaican lover, "Lucky" Gordon, a coupling that fuelled the defining political/sexual scandal of the 60s, the Profumo affair, which culminated in the resignation of the Tory secretary of state for war. According to Crichlow himself, quoted in Tony Gould's Inside Outsider: The Life and Times of Colin MacInnes (1993), the Rio was a "school or university" for hustlers, attracting the rebellious and street-smart.
Notting Hill had become the UK's black-culture capital, and in 1968 Crichlow went upmarket, opening the Mangrove at 8 All Saints Road – going "from a sleazy cafe to a proper restaurant", in the words of Darcus Howe, who had gone straight to the Rio on his arrival in 1962 and subsequently worked at the Mangrove. West Indian cuisine was enjoyed by locals and visiting celebrities alike, including writers, musicians and intellectuals. The clientele encompassed CLR James, Richard Neville, (Lord) Tony Gifford, Jimi Hendrix, Vanessa Redgrave, the Four Tops, the cast of the Avengers, Nina Simone, Marvin Gaye, Sarah Vaughan, Sammy Davis Jr, and Diana Ross and the Supremes. "People would be waiting outside in cars until tables were free… The place would be packed and we'd see the police peeping through the windows," Crichlow reminisced.
At the interface of liberal counter-culture, radical chic and ordinary community life, the Mangrove was by no means a dangerous drugs den, yet the Notting Dale constabulary seemed determined to close it down. Crichlow was continuously targeted with raids and fined for such petty licensing offences as allowing dancing or serving food after 11pm, although spurious police claims about drug dealing on the premises could not be made to stick. "In the first year they raided my restaurant six times and six times they found nothing."
Protesting against police harassment in 1970, Crichlow, Howe and seven others were arrested for "riot and affray". The highly publicised trial at the Old Bailey, which lasted for 55 days the following year, was a cause célèbre, exposing racism within the police force almost 30 years before the Macpherson Report. The "Mangrove Nine" were acquitted. "It was a turning point for black people," Crichlow said. "It put on trial the attitudes of the police, the Home Office, of everyone towards the black community."
After this win he set up the Mangrove Community Association as an offshoot of the restaurant, providing advice and assistance, nurturing local projects to improve housing, establish youth facilities and services for the elderly, and help rehabilitate ex-offenders and those with drug and alcohol addictions.
Despite being well-known throughout the community for his anti-drug stance, in 1979 Crichlow was charged, alongside five others, with drug offences, of which he was again cleared. In 1988, police officers responsible to the deputy assistant commissioner Paul Condon used sledgehammers to break into the Mangrove allegedly to seize drugs. Crichlow spent five weeks in custody before being granted bail, on conditions that banned him from going near his business for over a year, from which the Mangrove never recovered. When the evidence was demolished by a legal team consisting of the solicitor Gareth Peirce from the radical firm of Birnberg & Co, Michael Mansfield QC and Courtney Griffiths QC, the jury threw out the charges. Suing the Met in 1992 for false imprisonment, battery and malicious prosecution, Crichlow was awarded record damages of £50,000.
Of equal importance to his involvement with civil rights was his connection with cultural ventures, and he was a central figure in the development of the Notting Hill Carnival. The award-winning Mangrove Steelband was founded in 1980.
The solicitor Benedict Birnberg said: "Frank was a great person who stood out among others around him, never bitter, always it seemed to me cool in the face of discrimination and prejudice." The community development expert Vince Hines observed: "Because of his work, Britain has become a more tolerant, caring and balanced society." He is survived by his son Knowlton and daughters Lenora, Francesca and Amandla from his former partnership with Lucy Addington.