St Pauls Carnival
Bristol’s longest-running street festival is more than just a carnival. For many, it’s part of their very identity. How did St Pauls Carnival start? And what does it mean to those whose lives it has shaped?
A brief history of St Pauls Carnival
Early immigrants from the Caribbean settled in the St Pauls area of Bristol in the 1950s alongside other migrant communities from Ireland and Asia. Many had been invited here to fill the skills gap following the Second World War and St Pauls provided affordable housing.
The first St Pauls Festival was in 1968. The organisers were local residents and activists who aimed to bring together the European, African-Caribbean and Asian communities. They wanted to challenge negative stereotypes of the area. In the early days, it was very much a community event with local residents selling home-cooked food from their front gardens.
Over time, it became known as St Pauls Carnival and in 1991 was renamed St Pauls Afrikan Caribbean Carnival to put greater emphasis on the African-Caribbean community. By this time, the event was attracting thousands of revellers from across the city with its spectacular parade, booming sound systems, and food stalls.
Carnival kept growing, and in recent years has attracted tens of thousands of people from all over the UK. In the narrow streets of St Pauls, this has been challenging, and resulted in the event being cancelled between 2015 and 2017. Many have argued that it has become too commercial and too controlled, and needs to return to its community roots.
Over 50 years since that very first festival, Carnival still strives to celebrate St Pauls’ rich cultural mix. Can it maintain its community focus? It really depends on who you ask.
Voices of St Pauls Carnival
Carnival has helped shape the lives of many Bristolians. In 2017, M Shed volunteers gathered some of these personal stories. Here’s a snapshot of what they found…
Delroy – Local resident
“I went to primary school in St Pauls. In those days it wasn’t thousands of people from out of town, it was pretty much the community of St Pauls. All the local primary schools would be involved and there would be a big competition. The floats consisted of a large flat-bed lorry. On a Friday night you went back to school to help decorate the lorry and all the excitement would be really building up. On the Saturday, the lorries would start off. I can remember being in my costume, doing a song and a dance and performing. The idea of putting primary school kids on the back of a lorry and driving along is something that health and safety would have a heart attack over now.
Even if I wasn’t part of the official procession, we’d go down anyway. It would be like every kid in St Paul’s and Easton would turn out and jump on a lorry. You’d see these lorries going along at five or ten miles an hour and kids running alongside and people pulling them on. It was all great fun and you felt like the star for the day. Normally you see footballers or celebrities having open bus tours. This was your chance to be the celebrity and have your own open bus tour, cheered on by your community.”
Glen – Chef
“My mum used to do the stall along the road here. I used to come and help her out selling food in the stalls. In them days, people used to have stalls. Different people selling Jamaican food, people doing curried goat, fried fish, dumplings, fritters, they were doing the whole works. Most people come for the food innit? The different different food, which they’ve never tried before.
It’s the one time of the year that people can come out and have a good time and celebrate and eat and drink and be merry and have fun. It’s all tropical, it’s like you’re in the Caribbean, you bring it here. Busy, busy, busy, you haven’t got time to stop because there’s so much people coming in, buying and going.
It started off with a Caribbean thing, but it’s multicultural now, because everybody is involved. You don’t just see one colour of people. You see everybody, which is good. I hope the future will make it be much better.”
Dee – Carnival artist
“I have a company which specialises in making really big carnival puppets. They were born out of carnival, out of protest. I became interested in carnival generally and its origins in creating images of the slave masters.
When I think of Carnival in Bristol I just think of the crush on Grosvenor Road and the cars and their horns and the sound systems. It’s a bombardment of every single sense. That doesn’t really happen the same anywhere else. The majority of artists I enjoy working with most in Bristol, I met through working at Carnival. Carnival is just such an intense experience. I’ve shared a lot of laughter with those people. It’s been special to me for my friendships and my colleagues and my work life. It’s a very special place to me.”
Docta Flex Soundsystem MC
“I did my first gig in 1999. If you have a club, shut your club and come to the Carnival because no one is going to come to your club. That’s how good the Carnival was. Over the years the council tried to stop certain things and the law gets a bit tighter. It’s not easy to control something you don’t understand. They should have seek out to the community and find out how they are going to feel about it, but it never happened. When I just come to this carnival, everyone was happy, and then people start finding decisions that was making them sad. Someone can’t get a stall no more in their own community. Other people from outside are coming to get stalls. You move a sound system from a street, you move the whole street. For instance, I set up on a street, I got my cousin to do chicken, my auntie to do alcohol, I got my next little niece doing sweets, I got fried fish by my old grandad over there, we’re all in this together, we live here. But you move the sound system? Now the people who live there, on that same street, are going to be pushed out.
A lot of people don’t see these things and don’t involve the community and then wonder why they rebel. It’s how Caribbean people celebrate their one time of year of love and unity. It’s not there just to make money, it’s there so people actually come together.”
Arfan – Local shop worker
“My father set this shop up with his brother and this is what I’ve known. Maybe if I’d established this business myself, I’d have probably closed half day on Carnival. You see people walking past outside and you want to go. When I was a young kid I was able to. Now, it’s just working from start to finish. We have to do a few months planning ahead and a few weeks cleaning up after the event.
There’s a lot of outside youths that come. 99% of them are good. You hear a few stories in the press. It’s never the local kids, because this is their home street where their mums and aunties walk, so why would they? It’s always outsiders.
The struggle that they [migrants to St Pauls] went through when they first came, and this party scene that they set up to celebrate their culture, is a link. People celebrating carnival in 50 years time are going to read up about that link and the different cultures and people that settled here. If it disappears, that link won’t be so evident, it will probably be written in a textbook, but what’s a textbook? You want to see it happening in your own life.”
Jessica – volunteer and lifelong punter
“One of my first memories is being in a pram with my mum and looking at all of the bright colours and the costumes. I think it’s always been really important for me, because of my background. I’m of mixed race, half Caucasian and half Ghanaian, and I don’t know my African family at all. I’ve always felt a bit detached from that side of my heritage and going to Carnival always made me feel a bit more connected.
It’s a feeling of acceptance. Everyone is just there to have a good time. It’s a time when I can feel really, really proud to be mixed race and to have African heritage. That’s why I’m so glad that it’s coming back. I feel like Bristol has really been missing out and it’s felt like there’s been a bit of a hole in Bristolian culture without having Carnival. It’s something that I’ve been able to experience at various stages in my life. As a child, as a toddler, as a teenager and now as a young woman, and it’s something that I hope to be able to do for the rest of my life.”
Joyce – Local resident
“The last time it happened, unfortunately I wasn’t well, but I dressed up in my bright colours and sat in my wheelchair in my front garden. It was just lovely to look down into St Agnes Park. It was all happening there. As people went to and fro, they were saying “Hi! It’s lovely to see you sitting out here.” I said “Yes, when I look down to the park, I feel a part of it.”
Many times you would try and wear something in the colours of Jamaica. Anything bright, colourful, vibrant. People from the West Indies want to have a little bit of their culture developed in the country that they were newly residing in. It used to be great to be able to see the floats, and the young children from the school. You’d see the steel band, you’d see the children, all the different colours. It was really gorgeous. When I was allowed, of course, to go and see it!”
Trini – managed acts for Carnival
“It’s the one day where we free as a bird to do whatever we like. That’s Carnival to me. The first time I attended St Pauls Carnival the people were like one vibration that day. It was just so vibrant. You’d see food you don’t see back then, like seeing the actual coconut where you could bust it and get the juice out. It was just plenty bacchanal. Bacchanal is a Trinidad word for excitement. It’s two days of the year where regardless of your colour, your creed, your race, your status, everybody come as one to enjoy that music, the food, culture. It didn’t have no class or no barriers on those two days every year. That’s carnival to me: where everybody come together as one.
I would change the politics behind Carnival. Why must it have a group of people that depict the way how other people enjoy themselves based on their lack of understanding? That’s not right. Instead of staying on your high horse, you come down in the crowd and enjoy us, our way, see a different culture. I would make sure that Carnival happened ever year.”
Chris – Local police officer
“I’m a beat manager for the St Paul’s area of Bristol, a job I’ve done for the last 26 years. Usually on foot patrol within the Carnival site. I must have done it over 20 times. I don’t think I’ve missed a single one. I’ve always felt that it was part of my job to be there for Carnival.
During the day time, I enjoy it, and I see lots of people I haven’t seen for ages, so there is always a good atmosphere. But I’ve always felt that changes as the evening progresses. It’s more of a serious, nightclub like event, as opposed to a celebration. The main challenge is trying to protect the public. There is always a criminal element present in any large crowd of people. It’s the same wherever you go in the world. You have the consumption of a lot of alcohol, and sometimes other substances as well, and that can lead to disorder.
I think it can be good for St Paul’s in that it presents St Paul’s in a different light. St Paul’s has a reputation. I’m not going to say it’s undeserved – there is a drug issue in St Paul’s and there has been an issue of criminality – but the vast majority of people who live in St Paul’s are decent, really nice people, who just want to get on with their lives and are not involved in crime or drugs at all. It’s good for those people to have the area portrayed positively, as a vibrant, happening place.”
Shanade – youth worker & volunteer
“I have been involved in Carnival since I was little. A few years ago I started volunteering and helping in the local community. Carnival was a time where I got to spend time with family, I got to be involved, be on the floats, perform. We lived really close so loads of family members, even the ones who lived in London, would come down and see us. When my mum came over from Jamaica, Carnival brought everyone together. I’ve always been raised in the community where we go and see and talk to other people, they are like family to us. For me, it’s a celebration of all of that and bringing stuff from back home for us to be able to experience.
There is a zebra crossing where everyone knows we stand. All our friends and family, my friends with their kids, my mum’s friends, everyone congregates there. We watch the whole procession. Sometimes people don’t realise how important it is to the community. When you’ve got so much negative stigma about where you live, and you actually enjoy where you live, you speak to your neighbours and everyone is really friendly, it is really, really important for them to have this day. It shows that they are really creative people and all these things that are wonderful about the community and the history.”
Many thanks to the volunteers who conducted the interviews on this project: Sharon Woma, Alex Mormoris, Jake Wittlin, Antonette Clarke Akalanne and Trevor White.
Illustrations by Jasmine Thompson.
Original photography by Aiden Harmitt-Williams.
Find out more about St Pauls and Black History with our interactive story map.