The Bristol Bus Boycott

Author: Sarah Saunders

Many of us have heard of Rosa Parks and the Montgomery Bus Boycott in 1955.  But how about Paul Stephenson and the Bristol Bus Boycott of 1963?
In 1964 when Paul Stephenson walked into the Bay Horse pub for a drink, the pub’s manager told him to get out, saying: “We don’t want you Black people in here. You are a nuisance.”
Stephenson refused to leave and the police were called. Eight officers arrived to arrest him.  He was held in the police cells until midnight.
In 1964 in the UK it was perfectly legal to refuse service on the basis of someone’s skin colour and Black and Asian people often found themselves turned away, not just from pubs but from working men’s clubs, housing and jobs.
The arrival of so many officers in a show of force was the police sending a message about upholding the colour bar “they knew I was a civil rights activist”.
Bristol in the early 1960s was home to an estimated 3,000 Commonwealth nationals who had arrived from British Caribbean countries, some who had served in the British military during WWII and some who had arrived in Britain following the war as part of the Windrush generation, invited by the British government to help fill labour shortages and rebuild the economy.
The Bristol Bus Boycott of 1963 arose from the refusal of the Bristol Omnibus Company to employ Black or Asian bus crews in the city.
In common with other British cities, the Black community in Bristol suffered discrimination in housing and employment and encountered racist violence.  At the time, there were no laws to protect against racial discrimination. The Bristol Omnibus Company had been owned by the British government since 1950 and operated through the Transport Holding Company.  Although there was a reported labour shortage on the buses, Black prospective employees were refused work as drivers and conductors.  The colour bar was supported by the Transport and General Workers’ Union (TGWU)
In 1955 the Passenger Group of the TGWU had passed a resolution that “coloured” workers should not be employed as bus crews. Andrew Hake, curator of the Bristol Industrial Mission, recalled that
“The TGWU in the city had said that if one Black man steps on the platform as a conductor, every wheel will stop.”
The West Indian Association acted as a representative body for the Black community, unhappy with their lack of progress in fighting for equality, four young men, Roy Hackett, Owen Henry, Audley Evans and Prince Brown, formed an action group West Indian Development Council and Paul Stephenson, Bristol’s first Black British youth worker decided to set up a test case to prove the colour bar existed by arranging an interview with the bus company.
A young warehouseman and Boys’ Brigade officer, Guy Reid-Baily who came to England from Jamaica in 1961 at the age of 16 lived in Bristol and wanted a job on the buses.
After checking there were jobs available and that Guy had the relevant qualifications, Stephenson phoned the company to secure an interview as a driver in Reid-Bailey’s name.  Stephenson was Black British, having been born in Essex in 1937 the company, assuming his faultless English accent meant he was White invited Reid-Baily for an interview.

When the Bristol Omnibus Company discovered that Reid-Bailey was Black, the interview was immediately cancelled.

Inspired by the refusal of Rosa Parks to give up her seat on a bus in Alabama and the ensuing Montgomery Bus Boycott in the United States in 1955, Paul Stephenson, Guy Reid-Bailey, Henry Owen, Roy Hackett and others organised people in Bristol to boycott the buses.  Stephenson was the protesters’ spokesman.
Their action was announced at a press conference on 29 April 1963. Claiming that none of the city’s West Indians would be using the buses and that many White people supported them.  When reporters questioned the bus company about the boycott, the general manager, Ian Patey, said:
“We don’t employ a mixed labour force as bus crews because we have found from observing other bus companies that the labour supply gets worse if the labour force is mixed.  A company may gain 15 coloured persons and lose through prejudice 30 White people”
“The advent of coloured crews would mean a gradual falling off of White staff. It is true that London Transport employ a large coloured staff. They even have recruitment offices in Jamaica and they subsidise the fares to Britain for their new coloured employees. As a result of this, the amount of White labour dwindles steadily on the London Underground. You won’t get a White man in London to admit it, but which of them will join a service where they may find themselves working under a coloured foreman? … I understand that in London, coloured men have become arrogant and rude, after they have been employed for some months.”
The boycott of the company’s buses by Bristolians turned to attention of the whole country to the racial segregation that was happening.  White Bristolians, the African-Caribbean community and others boycotted the buses by walking or travelling by bike.  They also marched with banners to protest.
Students from Bristol University held a protest march to the bus station and the local headquarters of the TGWU on 1 May, which according to the local press attracted heckling from bus crews as they passed through the city centre.
During the Test between the West Indies and Gloucestershire at the County Ground local members of the Campaign Against Racial Discrimination (CARD) distributed leaflets urging spectators to support the action.
Local MP Tony Benn, Fenner Brockway and former cricketer Learie Constantine condemned the bus company.

Those who stood on the side of equality paid a high price.

Constantine, one of the protesters’ most vocal supporters was at the time serving as High Commissioner for Trinidad and Tobago.  He wrote letters to the bus company and spoke against the colour bar to the press and as a result was removed from his post for getting involved in a ‘local dispute’
On 2 May local Labour Party Alderman Henry Hennessey spoke of the apparent collusion between bus company management and the TGWU over the colour bar, and on 3 May the ruling Labour Group on the city council threatened him with expulsion, despite his 40 years of service.
The local branch of the TGWU refused to meet with a delegation from the West Indian Development Council, and an increasingly bitter war of words was fought out in the local media.
Ron Nethercott, the regional secretary of the Transport and General Workers Union (TGWU) persuaded a local Black West Indian Association and TGWU member, Bill Smith, to sign a statement which called for quiet negotiation to solve the dispute.  It condemned Stephenson for causing potential harm to the city’s Black and Asian population suggesting the protest “undermined racial harmony in the city”. The Bishop of Bristol agreed, despite Stephenson considering him a friend.
The union, the city Labour establishment and the Bishop of Bristol, Oliver Stratford Tomkins, ignored Stephenson and tried to work with Bill Smith of the TGWU to resolve the dispute. Nethercott also launched an attack on Stephenson in the Daily Herald newspaper, calling him “irresponsible and dishonest” leading to an important High Court libel case which awarded Stephenson damages and costs in December 1963.
The Bristol Council of Churches launched a mediation attempt, saying:
“We seriously regret that what may prove an extended racial conflict arising from this issue has apparently been deliberately created by a small group of West Indians professing to be representative. We also deplore the apparent fact that social and economic fears on the part of some White people should have placed the Bristol Bus Company in a position where it is most difficult to fulfil the Christian ideal of race relations.”
This in turn was criticised by Robert Davison, an official at the Jamaican High Commission, who stated that it was
“nonsense to describe a group of West Indians as unrepresentative when no representative West Indian body existed.”
Negotiations between the bus company and the union continued for four months until a mass meeting of 500 bus workers on 27 August brought an end to the colour bar.
On 28 August 1963, the day that Martin Luther King Jr made his famous “I Have a Dream” speech, Ian Patey announced that there would be no more discrimination in employing bus crews.  The Bristol Omnibus Company agreeing to employ Black and Brown staff.
On 17 September, Raghbir Singh, a Sikh, became Bristol’s first non-White bus conductor.  A few days later two Jamaican and two Pakistani men joined him.
Paul Stephenson campaigning in Bristol in 1963. Photograph: Tom Pilston/The Independent/Rex/Shutterstock

The new prime minister, Harold Wilson sent Stephenson a personal telegram to say he would change the law.

In 1965, the United Kingdom Parliament passed the Race Relations Act, which made “racial discrimination unlawful in public places.” This was followed by the Race Relations Act 1968 which made it illegal to refuse housing, employment or public services on the grounds of colour, race, ethnic or national origin.  The Race Relations Act 1976 criminalised racist actions in employment, housing provision of goods and services and education, and established the Commission for Racial Equality, which could support people in industrial tribunals.
Speaking in 2003 Robert Verkaik, Legal Affairs Correspondent for The Independent newspaper, said
“Few doubt that without Mr Stephenson’s efforts it would have been difficult for Harold Wilson’s Labour government to bring in Britain’s first anti-discrimination laws.”
While the activists had been triumphant, it was not without personal cost, Stephenson had lost his job as a supply teacher for being too controversial.  Soon after he moved to Coventry but his high-profile incurred the wrath of the National Front.  The police angered by his support of the Black community’s complaints against them for over-policing, harassment and lack of protection from racist attacks, agreed to send a police car to his home for protection but made sure they parked so that it blocked his drive.  Officers would “stick their fingers up” as they walked by and the Police Federation even passed a vote of no confidence about his role as a community relations officer. When he left for London in 1972, he was told by several policemen that “a big roar of cheers went up around police stations in the city”.
Accusations of being too radical followed Stephenson for years, but he has no regrets

“You can’t have true racial harmony without racial justice. So, you need to be disruptive.”

Paul Stephenson in 2020. Photograph Khai Ackford – The Guardian.
You can read more about Paul Stephenson in his autobiography, Memoirs of a Black Englishman.