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Dancing in the Street

Leeds West Indian Carnival

Leeds West Indian Carnival programme 1973

The Leeds West Indian Carnival is the oldest authentic Caribbean carnival in Europe, and 2017 marked its 50th anniversary.

It began as a Carnival Fete in 1966 led by Arthur France, MBE, who came from St Kitts Nevis in 1957, and two of his friends, Frankie Davis, from Trinidad, and Tony Lewis, from Jamaica. They were students in Leeds, and wanted to celebrate and share their heritage. In 1967, they enlisted more help from Ian Charles, Calvin Beech, Willie Robinson, Samlal Singh and Rose McAlister, and created a Carnival parade through Leeds alongside the indoor fete.
Playing steel pans at Leeds West Indian Carnival 1974
Arthur had always wanted to be part of a Carnival, but his parents were very religious and would not let him take part back home in Nevis as a child. 'But I was always very fascinated by carnival,' he said. 'As a child I remember seeing Levi Jeffers and other men who are in Leeds now in a play called David and Goliath which they put on the road in carnival, along with a Masquerade troupe. When I got to Leeds I dreamed of having a carnival here. When I could hear the St Christopher Steel Band in Potternewton Park, just with the pan round their necks, I couldn’t believe it. It was a dream come true.'
The Carnival now happens on August Bank Holiday Monday each year and attracts thousands of people of all cultures from all over the UK, Europe, America and the Caribbean, and troupes from Birmingham, Luton and Nottingham.
All carnivals are usually a time where roles are reversed. They have a parade, and the crowning of a Carnival Queen and Princesses. To be an authentic West Indian Carnival, Leeds also has a number of strong Caribbean traditions:
  • J’Ouvert Morning, the traditional early morning, mini-procession starts Carnival Day. Jouvert is French patois for 'day break' and is a large street party held during Carnival throughout many Caribbean cultures. Its origins coincide with the emancipation from slavery in the British West Indies in 1838 which provided Africans with the opportunity, to not only participate in Carnival, but to embrace it as an expression of their newfound freedom. J’ouvert is also known as ‘pyjama jamming’ and often people wear pyjamas, nighties, onesies and fancy dress. J’ouvert Morning at the Leeds West Indian Carnival is a major feature of the event and takes place each year early on August Bank Holiday Monday. This is a mini procession and with soca music designed to be the perfect way to warm up for the main parade which happens later on in the day. 
  • The King & Queen Show showcases the figurehead carnival costumes competing for the prestigious Carnival King & Queen titles. The Prince & Princess Show is the junior version.

  • Carnival Parade costumes are inspired by Caribbean masquerade, designed and manufactured to a carnival theme.

Young girl wearing an exotic costume with 'wings' either side and above her head.
Young girl wearing an exotic costume at Leeds Carnival 1980

  • There is traditional and contemporary carnival music through steel pan, soca, drum and calypso. It includes the Calypso Monarch Show - a live lyrical and musical contest with singers performing their own original calypso compositions.
  • Food is a major part of carnival, from the Carnival ‘must taste’ jerk chicken, to festival (Jamaican dumplings), from West Indian curries with rice and peas to mango coleslaw – and lots more besides.

The Leeds West Indian Carnival starts and finishes in Potternewton Park, Chapeltown, Leeds, LS7.
Chapeltown is an area of Edwardian terraces in mid-east Leeds which has provided affordable housing for many different communities when they were new to Leeds. Around 20,000 people live there. In the 1950s and 60s the Jewish community that had made their home there started to move out to the wealthier suburbs and Chapeltown’s flavour became more Caribbean.
Crowds are gathered in Chapeltown Road on August Bank Holiday Monday, 25 August, 1980 to view the procession of the thirteenth West Indian Carnival to be held in Leeds since its beginnings in 1967. A group of youngsters have claimed a higher vantage point on top of a bus shelter.
Crowds Awaiting Leeds West Indian Carnival Parade 1980
Listen to Claude Hendrickson (one of the organisers of Leeds West Indian Carnival) talk about the meaning of Carnival (from 00.44 – 1.36).