Family Of Kelso Cochrane Demand Access To Police File On His Murder

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Anti-racist march in Notting Hill after the killing of Kelso Cochrane. Claudia Jones, founder of the Notting Hill carnival, second from left in front of banner

THE FAMILY of a black man murdered in 1959 is demanding access to the police file on his unsolved killing, said the radio documentary, The Murder of Kelso Cochrane, on BBC Radio 4 Monday night.

It is being repeated at 11:00 BST today, 23 August.

Kelso Cochrane was stabbed to death on a west London street, in what’s believed to have been a racist attack. Nobody was ever charged with the crime.

The Metropolitan Police says the file is not available to the public because the case is still open.

The family lawyer says this secrecy is not justified, and the family is ready to take legal action if necessary.

At the time of his death, the 32-year-old was living in London, working as a carpenter and planning to study law.

Cochrane had been born in Antigua, and had arrived in England five years before his death, following a spell in the United States.

He had been married there, but the relationship had broken down.

He had also left two young daughters in the US, to whom he still sent toys – dolls, tea sets, and skipping ropes. One of them, Josephine, says that these ‘little things’ gave her ‘the impression that he was a loving father and that he cared’.

Like many other members of the Windrush generation, Cochrane was living in the west London area of Notting Hill.

It was one of the few parts of the city where new immigrants from the Caribbean could find housing, although it was often expensive, overcrowded and in poor condition.

On the evening of 16 May 1959, Cochrane paid a visit to his local hospital, Paddington General. His thumb was painful after an injury at work.

On his way back home, he was attacked by a group of five or six white youths. Witnesses said they saw them encircling him, kicking and hitting. One jumped on his back.

Two Jamaican men walking past saw the incident and ran to help. Cochrane was able to stand, so they got him into a taxi and took him to St Charles’ Hospital in nearby North Kensington.

Cochrane didn’t seem to be bleeding heavily, but he’d been stabbed in the heart with a thin blade. By the time they arrived at the hospital, he was in severe shock. He died there, just before 1.00am.

By 4.00am news of the death had made the newspapers. A late edition of the Sunday Express that morning carried a flash headline: ‘Murder in Notting Hill’.

Notting Hill had already become identified with racial tension. In the previous summer of 1958, riots lasting several days had broken out in the neighbourhood.

The riots ended in early September, but for black residents the undercurrent of violence persisted.

Neo-fascist groups had become active in the area, including the Union Movement of Sir Oswald Mosley.

In spring 1959, another group, the White Defence League, had set up an office in the heart of Notting Hill, saying it would ‘campaign for white interests’.

But for all the tension, nobody had been killed in a racist attack – until Kelso Cochrane.

The police inquiry was led by Detective Superintendent Ian Forbes-Leith. He had a team of 20 officers at his disposal.

The investigation quickly focused on a party, which had been taking place close to where Cochrane was attacked on Southam Street.

Several guests were brought in for questioning. Two were held for more than 48 hours – Patrick Digby, a 20-year-old merchant seaman, and John ‘Shoggy’ Breagan who was 24. They were later released without charge.

The police were quick to dismiss the idea that racism was the motive. Forbes-Leith told the press that the stabbing had ‘absolutely nothing to do with racial conflict’. He suggested the motive could have been robbery.

That was met with disbelief by many in Notting Hill’s black community. John Prince, a friend of Cochrane, told the BBC in 2006 that it had been frightening.

He said: ‘Suddenly now you’re faced with the possibility of being murdered just because of who you were as a person.’

On 6th June 1959 thousands of people, both black and white, gathered for Cochrane’s funeral, lining the streets of Notting Hill, following his coffin to nearby Kensal Green Cemetery.

In the wake of the murder, the activist Claudia Jones and others set up the Inter Racial Friendship Co-ordinating Council, which paid Cochrane’s funeral costs, organised silent protests in Whitehall, and pushed for laws against racial hatred.

Over time, the police inquiry was wound down.

Decades later in 2006, Cochrane’s older brother Stanley came to England for the first time. He wanted to find out who killed his brother. A BBC documentary team followed him.

The investigative journalist Mark Olden tracked down Patrick Digby and John Breagan but neither were willing to meet Stanley.

Both denied involvement in the murder. Stanley asked to see the police file but was only allowed to see an abridged version.

Among those who saw Monday night’s programme was Pat Digby’s step-daughter, Susie Read. She contacted Olden, and told him she remembered Digby’s friends baiting him with an odd name – ‘Oslo’ or ‘Kelso’.

She has now told the BBC that once during an argument, she had challenged Digby about the accusation: ‘He said, “Well, if I did, you could never prove it.” I said, “Did you kill him?” He said, “Yeah”.’ Digby died in 2007.

But Olden kept digging. He spoke to a guest at the Southam Street party, who told him Digby had come back after the attack, and confessed to people there.

He spoke again to John Breagan, who said that he and Digby had left the party together before the murder. When first asked why by the police, one of them said it was to look for girls, the other said it was to have a fight. But when detained in the police station, they were held in adjacent cells. Breagan told Olden that this had allowed them to ‘straighten’ their stories. Breagan died in 2019.

In 2011, Olden published a book, Murder in Notting Hill, which prompted Kelso Cochrane’s daughter Josephine to contact him. Growing up in New York, she knew her father had died, but until then hadn’t realised he’d been murdered.

Josephine is now at the centre of the family’s efforts to get the police files opened. She told the BBC that as she hadn’t known her father growing up she wanted to know ‘everything’ about his murder and the investigation ‘before I die’.

The investigation file into Kelso Cochrane’s murder has been transferred to the National Archives in Kew, but it will remain closed from public view until 2054 – after Josephine’s 100th birthday.

It’s not uncommon for unsolved murder cases to be restricted for up to 100 years – this is so they only become public after all those involved have died.

Crime historian Dr Mark Roodhouse, of the University of York, who got other files opened, has had a Freedom of Information request turned down.

He was told that releasing the files would cause the family ‘immediate mental distress’. However, it is Cochrane’s family who now wants the file released.

Meanwhile, the main suspects are dead and it is difficult to point to any evidence that could be subject to ‘cold case’ techniques. The BBC documentary team was told in 2006 that Kelso Cochrane’s clothes had been destroyed in the late 1960s.

The BBC documentary makers went back to the Metropolitan Police this summer, asking them to explain why the Cochrane family was unable to access the file.

The Met told them that ‘as with all unsolved murders this case is not closed and any evidence that comes to light will be assessed and investigated accordingly’.

The Met said that officers from the Special Casework Team had made efforts to engage with Cochrane’s family, via their legal representatives, with a view to discussing details of this murder investigation – but that these efforts had so far been unsuccessful.

Daniel Machover, the lawyer acting for the Cochrane family, says the family will pursue a formal route to obtain the file – challenging the reasons previously given to withhold it.

He has obtained multiple statements to support the request, from Kelso Cochrane’s immediate and extended family, and from journalists who have tried to obtain the file over many years.

Machover has also provided the death certificates of the key suspects, and others who are likely to have been significant witnesses in the case.

He says it’s too late for criminal justice, but the family hopes there will be something in the file that ‘at least gives them a picture, a flavour, an idea of what was done to try to secure a criminal charge and a criminal prosecution’.

Less than a mile from where he was attacked, a street has been named after Kelso Cochrane, as well as a new block of social housing.

Members of the Cochrane family are grateful for the recognition but they still want something more.

Millicent Christian, the daughter of Cochrane’s cousin, says that Stephen Lawrence’s mother Doreen eventually achieved ‘some kind’ of justice. ‘We’re looking for that same kind of justice for our Kelso.’