The Bristol Bus Boycott is a landmark event in Black British history. It helped to raise awareness of racial discrimination in Britain and influenced the passing of the Race Relations Act 1965, which made “racial discrimination in public places” unlawful.
Background: The Windrush Generation
After the Second World War, Britain experienced a labour shortage, so Caribbean colonists were invited to Great Britain to help rebuild. Many colonists arrived in 1948 on an ex-Nazi troopship renamed the Empire Windrush. The term ‘Windrush generation’ is usually given to the influx of African Caribbeans that came to the UK after the Second World War and up to the 1970s. Many had served Britain during the war, and all had full rights to enter and settle in the UK under the 1948 British Nationality Act.
Many white British were not welcoming of the Windrush generation. These new arrivals were subjected to colour bars, discriminatory housing practices and blatant hostility. Over time, racial tensions grew as housing became a problem, and white families feared being displaced by Blacks. Their resentment was fuelled by right-wing political groups seeking power on a racial intolerance platform.
This backlash resulted in the Nottingham and Notting Hill race riots of 1958. Many people wanted controls placed on immigration, and to that end, the government passed the Immigration Act in 1962.
Bristol’s Caribbean community
Around 1,000 African-Caribbean migrants lived in Bristol in the 1950s and 3,000 by 1962. Most of them lived in the inner city area of St Paul’s. Racial hatred was prevalent, housing was difficult to find, and available jobs were low-paid.
In the aftermath of the war, the area was still badly bomb-damaged, and it was the only place African Caribbeans could afford to live. Many white Bristolians unjustly blamed the migrants for the poor living conditions. While St Paul’s was still predominantly white, it was widely viewed as a ‘Black’ area.
Colour bar on the buses
There was no law in the UK protecting individuals from racial discrimination in the workplace before the 1965 and 1968 Race Relations Acts. Although Black bus drivers and conductors were employed in some cities, such as London, Wolverhampton, and Manchester, this was not the case in Bristol.
The state-owned Bristol Omnibus Company and the Passenger Group of the Transport and General Workers’ Union (TGWU), which all transport workers, black and white, were required to join, denied that there was a “colour bar”.
However, the bus company only employed black workers in maintenance jobs. Furthermore, The Passenger Group of the TGWU passed a resolution in January 1955 that black workers should not be employed on the buses as drivers or conductors. By the early 1960s, no black or Asian man or woman had ever been hired to work on buses in Bristol despite their efforts to apply for open positions.
In 1961, the Bristol Evening Post exposed the racist policy in a series of articles about the Bristol Omnibus Company, reporting that the bus company refused to hire qualified non-white workers despite a shortage of drivers and conductors. It was revealed that the company had many open positions due to a high turnover rate caused partly by low wages and long hours.
Drivers and conductors depended on these positions remaining vacant. This allowed them to work overtime, putting in the 100+ hour weeks they needed to make just above the average weekly wage in Bristol.
In response to the Bristol Evening Post articles, the regional secretary of the TGWU again denied the existence of a colour bar. He said his staff would not work with ‘coloured labour’ in the depots except as maintenance workers. According to him, Bristol’s Black workers were not qualified for the front-line jobs of drivers and conductors. He also believed it was unsuitable for white female bus conductors to work with Black male drivers. The local council even supported the policy.
Who started the Bristol Bus Boycott?
A Jamaican immigrant named Ena Hackett applied for a job with the Bristol Omnibus Company in 1962 but was rejected even though she met all the requirements. This spurred a group of young black activists, including Roy Hackett (Ena’s husband), Owen Henry, Audley Evans, and Prince Brown, to form the West Indian Development Council (WIDC) to advocate for black rights in Bristol.
The idea for the boycott came about after members of the West Indian Development Council met Paul Stephenson, a university-educated RAF veteran who moved to Bristol in 1962 and was the city’s first black social worker.
Stephenson was inspired by the work of Dr Martin Luther King Jr., Rosa Parks, and other American civil rights activists. In thinking about how to expose Bristol Omnibus’s discriminatory hiring practices on its buses, Stephenson recalled the 1955-1956 Montgomery, Alabama, bus boycott and how it effectively imposed economic pressure on the city, bringing racial discrimination to the national spotlight.
With the help of Guy Bailey, one of Stephenson’s night school students, he devised a plan. Stephenson, who had an Essex accent and couldn’t be identified as black by his accent, called the bus company in response to an advertisement. He explained that one of his students wanted to apply for the job. Eighteen-year-old Guy Bailey possessed all of the job’s qualifications, but when he arrived at the office, the secretary disclosed to her boss that he was a black man, and Bailey was denied the interview.
Boycott the buses
In response, Stephenson got the WIDC to call for a boycott of Bristol’s buses. This was in April 1963.
Stephenson then held a press conference to announce the boycott. Along with boycotting buses, protesters also blocked bus routes, picketed bus depots, and staged blockades to keep buses out of the city centre. Similarly to Dr King’s efforts in Montgomery, the boycott and protests were non-violent, and despite being harassed, no protesters were physically harmed.
At the start of the boycott, the press speculated that a boycott protesting racial discrimination might be justified in Montgomery but not in Bristol. But after hearing Ian Patey’s defence of the bus company’s hiring practices, the press mostly supported Stephenson and the West Indian Development Council’s campaign to expose and eliminate the colour bar. It put pressure on the bus company and the TGWU to end their discriminatory policies.
The local newspapers were suddenly full of impassioned letters for and against the policy. Tempers flared, and the union representing the bus workers attacked Stephenson in the Daily Herald newspaper. They called him irresponsible and dishonest. Stephenson later successfully sued them for libel.
By 1 May 1963, the boycott had attracted international attention and gained new allies, including Bristol University students and Parliament members. Local MP Tony Benn contacted then Labour Opposition leader Harold Wilson, who spoke against the colour bar at an Anti-Apartheid Movement rally in London.
On 2 May, local Labour Party Alderman Henry Hennessey said of the apparent collusion between bus company management and the TGWU over the colour bar. On 3 May, the ruling Labour Group on the city council threatened to expel him, despite his honourable service over the past forty years.
Diplomats from Jamaica and the Caribbean and world-famous cricketer and High Commissioner for Trinidad and Tobago Sir Learie Constantine also supported the boycott.
Despite its support for non-discriminatory hiring practices, the West Indian community did not actively participate in the boycott as a whole. Many hesitated because they were afraid of being attacked or losing their jobs if spotted on television. They also relied on public transportation to get to work. However, some did participate in the boycott and demonstrations, including what may be the first black-led march against racial discrimination in Britain on 6 May 1963.
The boycott drew people’s attention across the country, and the union and bus company faced mounting pressure. On 28 August 1963, the same day that Dr Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his “I Have a Dream” speech in Washington, D.C., Ian Patey declared an end to the Bristol Omnibus Company’s discriminatory hiring policies, announcing, “There will now be complete integration without regard to race, colour, or creed. The only criterion will be the person’s suitability for the job.”
Some conductors and drivers resigned rather than work with non-whites on the buses. Within two weeks, Raghbir Singh, an Indian-born Sikh, became the first non-white bus conductor employed in Bristol.
The success of the Bristol bus boycott did not mean that racial tensions, institutional racism, and inequality in Bristol had ended. But it did pave the way for the UK’s key race relations legislation.
Two years after the boycott, under the leadership of Prime Minister Harold Wilson, a supporter of the boycott, the 1965 Race Relations Act was passed, which outlawed discrimination “on the grounds of colour, race, ethnic or national origins.” This was followed by the Race Relations Act of 1968, which extended the provisions to housing and employment.