Mural of Lorel 'Roy' Hackett on the end wall of a row of terraced houses
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The Story of the Bristol Bus Boycott

Find out why the Bristol bus boycott of 1963 was a major moment in the UK civil rights movement.

The Bristol bus boycott was a 1963 protest over the refusal of the Bristol Omnibus Company to employ non-white people.

A photograph of a commemorative plaque with a painting of 5 black men standing in front of stylised buses. Words read: THE BRISTOL BUS BOYCOTT 1963 / EQUALITY / JUSTICE / THE CAMPAIGN AGAINST RACIAL DISCRIMINATION.
A plaque at Bristol Bus Station commemorating the Bristol Bus Boycott. © Sophie Rhys-Williams.

Following the peaceful boycott, the company overturned their decision. The event marked a significant moment in the UK civil rights movement.

What was the Bristol Bus Boycott?

In 1955, one of the Bristol bus depots, the Bristol Omnibus Company, voted to ban non-white bus drivers and conductors.

This was known as a ‘colour bar’, and it caused uproar in the local black community.

A photograph of a newspaper clipping. The headline reads: 'Our policy stays, says bus chief.'
An article from the Bristol newspaper, the Evening Post, on Tuesday, 30 April 1963. © Bristol Museums.

Partially inspired by Martin Luther King Jr.’s simultaneous civil rights movement in the USA, a group of people, including Paul Stephenson, Owen Henry, and ‘Roy’ Hackett, led a group from the city in protest.

A black and white photograph of a black man standing with his arms outstretched.
Paul Stephenson campaigning in Bristol. © Independent / Alamy Stock Photo.

Stephenson, a naturally good organiser, asked a student called Guy Bailey to apply for a job at the Omnibus Company by phone.

He was well qualified, but after the Company invited him for an interview, Bailey told them he was West Indian. The interview was withdrawn.

A photograph of a mural of a black man, painted on the end of a row of terraced houses.
A mural of Owen Henry, who helped organise the Bristol Bus Boycott, by artist Michele Curtis, in St Pauls, Bristol. © Steve Taylor ARPS / Alamy Stock Photo.

So, Stephenson, Henry, Hackett and others formed a group called the West Indian Development Agency and called a boycott, which began on 30 April 1963.

The bus boycott was a big ask because people had to get to work to earn a living. But the publicity was massive and began to make waves across the country.

A black and white photograph of people marching in protest.
People marching in protest during the Bristol Bus Boycott of 1963. Source: Black History Month.

When the local newspapers, the Evening Post and the Western Daily Press, interviewed the bus company about it, they were open about their discrimination.

A photograph of a newspaper clipping. The headline reads: 'SIR LEARIE JOINS IN COLOUR BAR ISSUE.'
An article from the Bristol newspaper, the Evening Post, on Wednesday, 1 May 1963. Source: Bristol Museums.

The Labour Leader of the Opposition, Harold Wilson, and the local Labour MP, Tony Benn, supported the boycott, as did Learie Constantine, the famous West Indian cricketer and politician.

A month later, the Company conceded and said they would end the ‘colour bar’.

They hired Raghbir Singh as Bristol’s first non-white bus conductor, and he was soon joined by 4 other conductors: Norman Samuels, Norris Edwards, Mohammed Raschid and Abbas Ali.

What was the context?

In 1960s Bristol, as with many cities across the UK, there was widespread racial discrimination.

Following the destruction of the Second World War, the UK Government encouraged and recruited people from Britain’s colonies to help rebuild the ‘mother country’.

A black and white photograph of a ship with many people on board.
The Empire Windrush brought people from the Caribbean to Britain in 1948. © Contraband Collection / Alamy Stock Photo.

1948 saw the arrival of the Empire Windrush, bringing people from the West Indies, particularly Jamaicans, Trinidadians and Barbadians, to Britain. The 1948 Nationality Act granted them British citizenship.

Many of these people had been taught that Britain was their home and wanted to help, settling in towns and cities throughout England, like London, Bristol and Nottingham.

By the early 1960s, Bristol had an estimated 3,000 residents of West Indian origin, some of whom had served in the British military during the Second World War. A large number settled in the city’s area of St Paul’s.

However, many experienced hostility and open discrimination, which was legal in Britain until the Race Relations Act of 1965.

A photograph of a mural showing a busy market scene.
A mural showing a busy market scene in St Paul’s, Bristol. © Historic England Archive. DP035240.

What were the consequences of the Bristol bus boycott?

On August 28 1963, it was announced that there would be no more employment discrimination on the buses in Bristol.

A black and white photograph of 3 men standing next to a bus.
A photograph of Audley Evans, Paul Stephenson and Owen Henry, from the Bristol newspaper, the Evening Post. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

On the same day, the American civil rights activist Martin Luther King Jr. gave his famous ‘I Have a Dream’ speech in Washington DC, USA.

The bus boycott was one of Britain’s earliest and most significant black-led campaigns for equality. It’s recognised as a critical event in changing attitudes towards discrimination.

2 years later, the UK Parliament passed the 1965 Race Relations Act, which made racial discrimination unlawful in public places. The 1968 Race Relations Act extended this to housing and employment.

A photograph of a mural of several people next to a green bus, painted on the end of a row of terraced houses. Words read: 'In honour of the Bristol West Indian Parents & Friends Association.'
A mural of Lorel ‘Roy’ Hackett on the end wall of a row of terraced houses in St Pauls, Bristol. © Steve Taylor ARPS / Alamy Stock Photo.

While it’s unclear whether the boycott led directly to the legislation, it was undoubtedly a contributing factor with a long-lasting effect.

In 2009, Stephenson was appointed an Officer of the Order of the British Empire (OBE) for organising the boycott. Bailey and Hackett were also awarded OBEs.

A photograph of 2 black men standing next to a green bus.
Paul Stephenson with Guy Bailey in 2003 on the 40th anniversary of the Bristol bus Boycott. © Independent / Alamy Stock Photo.

The campaign for equality across race, gender, sexuality and disability continues today.

Listen to our 100 Places podcast on nuclear physics in Manchester and the Bristol bus boycott.

Further reading:

The Bristol Bus Boycott: A watershed moment for Black Britain

1 comment on “The Story of the Bristol Bus Boycott

  1. David Griffiths

    It continues to go strangely unmentioned in accounts of the boycott that the Bristol Omnbius Co was owned by the state, in the form of the Transport Holding Co, successor to the British Transport Commission and part of the post-war nationalisation programme. It seems remarkable now that a colour bar could have been enforced by a public body.

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