The Bristol Bus Boycott of 1963

The boycott drew national attention to racial discrimination in Britain, and the campaign was supported by national politicians, with interventions being made by church groups and the High Commissioner for Trinidad and Tobago.

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 of Bristol, England.

In common with other British cities, there was widespread racial discrimination in housing and employment at that time against “coloureds”. Led by youth worker Paul Stephenson and the West Indian Development Council, the boycott of the company’s buses by Bristolians lasted for four months until the company backed down and overturned the colour bar.

The boycott drew national attention to racial discrimination in Britain, and the campaign was supported by national politicians, with interventions being made by church groups and the High Commissioner for Trinidad and Tobago. The Bristol Bus Boycott was considered by some to have been influential in the passing of the Race Relations Act 1965 which made “racial discrimination unlawful in public places” and the Race Relations Act 1968, which extended the provisions to employment and housing.


Bristol in the early 1960s had an estimated 3,000 residents of West Indian origin, some who had served in the British military during World War II and some who had emigrated to Britain more recently. A large number lived in the area around City Road in St Pauls. They suffered discrimination in housing and employment, and some encountered violence from Teddy Boy gangs of white British youths. This community set up their own churches and associations, including the West Indian Association, which began to act as a representative body.

One of their foremost grievances was the colour bar operated by the Bristol Omnibus Company, which had been a nationalised company 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 bus crews, although they were employed in lower paid positions in workshops and canteens. The Bristol Evening Post and the Western Daily Press both ran series on the colour bar, which was blamed by company management on the Transport and General Workers’ Union (TGWU), which represented bus workers. Local union officials denied that there was any colour bar, but 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 bus workers’ concern, apart from racism, was that a new competitive source of labour could reduce their earnings. Pay was low and workers relied on overtime to get a good wage. One shop steward said, “people were fearful of an influx of people from elsewhere (on the grounds it) would be reducing their earnings potential.”

Four young West Indian men, Roy Hackett, Owen Henry, Audley Evans and Prince Brown, formed an action group, later to be called the West Indian Development Council. They were unhappy with the lack of progress in fighting discrimination by the West Indian Association. Owen Henry had met Paul Stephenson, whose father was from West Africa, and who had been to college. The group decided that the articulate Stephenson would be their spokesman. Stephenson set up a test case to prove the colour bar existed by arranging an interview with the bus company for Guy Bailey, a young warehouseman and Boys’ Brigade officer. When Stephenson told the company that Bailey was West Indian, the interview was 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, the activists decided on a bus boycott in Bristol.

Their action was announced at a press conference on 29 April 1955. The following day they claimed that none of the city’s West Indians were using the buses and that many white people supported them In an editorial, the Bristol Evening Post pointed out that the TGWU opposed apartheid in South Africa and asked what trade union leaders were doing to counteract racism in their own ranks. When reporters questioned the bus company about the boycott, the general manager, Ian Patey, said:
“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 to recruitment offices in Jamaica and they subsidise the fares to Britain of 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.”

Bristol Boycott


Students from Bristol University held a protest march to the bus station and the local headquarters of the TGWU on 1 May, which attracted heckling from bus crews as they passed through the city centre, according to the local press. Local MP Tony Benn contacted then Labour Opposition leader Harold Wilson, who spoke out against the colour bar at an Anti-Apartheid Movement rally in London. 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. On 3 May, the ruling Labour Group on the city council threatened him with expulsion, despite his honourable service of over forty years.

Tony Benn, Fenner Brockway and former cricketer Learie Constantine also condemned the bus company. Constantine was then serving as High Commissioner for Trinidad and Tobago. Constantine wrote letters to the bus company and Stephenson and spoke out against the colour bar to reporters when he attended the cricket match between the West Indies and Gloucestershire at the County Ground, which took place from the 4th to 7 May. The West Indies team refused to publicly support the boycott, saying that sport and politics did not mix. During the game, local members of the Campaign Against Racial Discrimination (CARD) distributed leaflets urging spectators to support the action.

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, South West Regional Secretary of the union, persuaded a local black 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. Nethercott launched an attack on Stephenson in the Daily Herald newspaper, calling him dishonest and irresponsible. This led to a libel case in the High Court, 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.”

At a May Day rally, held on Sunday 6 May in Eastville, local Trades Council members publicly criticised the TGWU. On the same day Paul Stephenson had organised a demonstration march to St Mary Redcliffe church, but there was a poor turnout. Some local West Indians said they should not ripple the water and, according to Roy Hackett, they may have feared victimisation. The dispute led to what has been described as one of the largest mailbags that the Bristol Evening Post had ever received, with contributors writing in support of both sides of the issue.


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. Learie Constantine continued with his support for the campaign, meeting with the Lord Mayor of Bristol and Frank Cousins, leader of the Transport and General Workers Union. In addition, he went to the Bristol Omnibus Company’s parent, the Transport Holding Company, and persuaded them to send officials to talk with the union. The company chairman told Constantine that racial discrimination was not company policy. Negotiations between the bus company and the union continued for several months until a mass meeting of 500 bus workers agreed on 27 August to end the colour bar. On 28 August 1963 Ian Patey announced that there would be no more discrimination in employing bus crews. It was on the same day that Martin Luther King made his famous “I Have a Dream” speech at the March on Washington. 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.


In 1965, the United Kingdom Parliament passed a Race Relations Act, which made “racial discrimination unlawful in public places.” This was followed by the Race Relations Act 1968 which extended the provisions to housing and employment. The enactment of this legislation has been cited by some as having been influenced by the Bristol bus boycott. 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.” In 2003, as part of Black History Month, BBC Radio 4 broadcast a programme about the boycott.

Unite, the successor to the Transport and General Workers Union, issued an apology in February 2013. Laurence Faircloth, the union’s South West secretary said of the union’s stance at the time, “It was completely unacceptable. I can well accept the sense of injustice and pain that has been felt because [of] what happened in Bristol all those years ago.”

In 2009, Stephenson was awarded the OBE for his part in organising the bus boycott. Bailey and Hackett were also awarded OBEs.



Wow really interesting ! Can’t believe we didn’t learn about this in school smh

Found myself walking around Bristol Cathedral. After looking at the Conscientious Objectors exhibit, I was glad I watched the old HTV film of black people featured. The old racist views are on show. 1960’s bus drivers talking about why they don’t agree with employing black or brown drivers. In today’s world racism is always in the background – the eyes, cough, ‘smile’, intelligentsia summing up of this and that – “why can’t we all live together”…drivel. Here it is up front and you know where you stand with the views expressed, without the furious eyes and angry mouths spewing. This is the old, stale, quiet, backroom, side of mouth to the masses racism that is really dangerous. Now these side of mouth masses feel like it is time to rise up, since the Brexit vote sold them £350 million lies.

I didn’t learn anything at school about black history either. I wonder if I can persuade my mum to visit. I think my god-mother is in one of the films!

Please be kind, fair and modernized.

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In Britain we often learn about the history of race discrimination in the USA, but the history of race discrimination here in Britain tends to get ignored. The case of discrimination by the bus company in Bristol and its white crews should I think be more widely known and should be included in the school curriculum right across Britain.

thank you for this. it helped me with my homework!

As an exiled Bristolian, I am ashamed of the attitude of Bristol Omnibus Company in the 1960’s.
Nowadays, because of the reluctance of British born people to accept employment “on the buses”, bus companies employ people from all ethnicities!!!

I agree, we should learn more about discrimination in our own country. It may not have been so overt a part of everyday life here as it was in the USA, but that doesn’t mean that it didn’t exist in the UK. Discrimination still exists throughout our society: we need only look at th e way our government has wrongly deported or deprived of their legal rights to see this As an adopted Bristolian, I am proud of the part that my city played in making it possible to pass this country’s first anti-discrimination laws. I still feel sad that over half a century on there are still those who do not understand that all human beings are equal. The names and actions of Stephenson, Hackett and their fellow activists should be more widely known, not just in Bristol, but in the whole of the UK.

This article was very interesting and eye-opening. They really should teach about this in more schools nowadays!

This really helped with my homework and helped me generate improve on starting interesting conversations with my Dad

The secret of success is to work harder than others every day

can someone explain what were the consequences of this, struggling with my homework ;/

It is telling that the Bristol Council of Churches complained about “…a small group of West Indians professing to be representative”. They did not use the word uppity, as they might have in the USA, but the message is the same: protest, of course, that is your right, but not like that…

The second paragraph of the ‘Boycott’ section says that the action was announced on 29th April 1955 but should read 1963?
Best wishes.

I can remember this too.being 3 years of age my mother used to take me down to the centre from our house opposite southmead hospital most day we didn’t and the next and the next.I remember asking ‘ mummy why aren’t we going on the bus today” we’re not going on them until they employ black people on them’ or words to that effect…this was no metropolitan elite candyfloss but real sacrifice for good…while dad was at work as a teacher in henbury driving the only car mum was really marooned in southmead with a demanding 3 year old instead of shopping in the department stores of broadmead which she loved.
I hated bristol then and we moved to Haywards heath sussex in 1965 and at my primary school I had three black/brown friends all adopted by white families and living in a place called bentswood the equivalent of southmead.not one at my local primary school in southmead.
I never was aware of seeing or talking to black people in southmead and if the council had housed a black family there in 1963 they would have been lynched by a mob and the house burnt out.
I’m glad that rotten stupid statue is toppled.
It now needs to be rescued and put up in a proper museum of slavery telling the proper story and not some sanitised version to please sensitive white peoples comfort zones…
Here in France I remember seeing an expo on french colonial history in paris with huge grafic pictures of Africans with the caption ‘ we France did this then’ and then captions of cooperation collaboration ‘ we try to do this now’.
Had a big effect on me.until the UK can do this without apportioning blame for historic wrongs on current generations it will remain in a bad space.

anyone mind helping me as i need help fidnding out the consequences?

Heard this mentioned on Any Questions so decided to find out more as I’d forgotten about it. Wow! Great respect to those who participated and stood their ground and got things changed. A statue depicting this on the now empty plinth in Bristol would be the perfect tribute to them and reminder of bristol’s history.

This event should be depicted by a statue on the now empty plinth in Bristol. This is british and Bristolian history and an event to be memorialised.

Thank you for this. Anyone interested may like to follow and support The Black Curriculum which is pushing relentlessly for the National Curriculum to include obligatory teaching of Black History in schools.

“Their action was announced at a press conference on 29 April 1955.”

I think this is incorrect. Surely it was 1963?

Otherwise thank you for an enlightened article

That was then. This is now. I deplore the fact that there was institutionalised racism and am amazed at how the perpetrators got away with it. Society at that time clearly held a different stance. My father was about then. Not sure what he thought about it because it never came up in conversation, but I must say this. Whatever my father did, whatever society did, it was not me. I will not apologise because times were different.
You cannot pull down statues, riot in the streets, take a knee (especially when you hold up a fist) and expect history to be rewritten
We must all be judged by what comes next, not by what history we have.
Amongst the worst that history has to offer are religions. Any religions. They caused more suffering and pain than all the racists in the world put together. Should we smash religion because it has a flawed history? Should we despise Germany and Japan for world wars. The decendents of the Mongols, have they got to pay for their atrocities? And what about the Barbary Coast slave traders? Black Africans raiding Europe for years?
Move on folks. Nobody will win this looking backwards.


Nearly 69 and proud of my “home town”. I was completely unaware of this. Yes, I was only 11 at the time, but surely it should have been covered in school, certainly more relevant than Normal Cathederals and Viking forts. How do we know what we don’t know?

A sad episode in our history, thankfully we have moved on.

That’s bloody awful, but I do remember Asian conductor’s on London buses, my brothers best friend was from Pakistan I don’t remember anyone being rasist to his family at all.

A sad episode’s in our history, although I never experienced any racism thankfully we have moved on

Thank you extremely much. This helped me during class in Six Form. Now my teachers think I’m one of the smartest 😀

so good :)))))))))))))))))))))))))))))))))))))))))))))))))))))))))))))))))))))))))))))))))))))))))))

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