As early as the 1960s, Bristol could be considered a multicultural city. There were an estimated 3,000 Bristolians of West Indian origin. But many, if not all, faced racial discrimination on a day-to-day basis━particularly in areas of housing and employment. Not least of all from the Bristol Omnibus Company, which refused to employ Black or Asian bus conductors. A decision that would eventually lead to the Bristol Bus Boycott.
How did the Bristol Bus Boycott start?
To set the stage, the Bristol Omnibus Company was privately-owned and its workers belonged to the Transport and General Workers’ Union (TGWU). In 1955, the local union branch secretly passed a ban on Black or Asian bus conductors and drivers━something that officials refuted at the time. Despite labour shortages on the buses in the early 1960s, however, non-white workers were still denied the opportunity of employment on bus crews in Bristol.
That’s when four local African Caribbean men━Roy Hackett, Owen Henry, Audley Evans and Prince Brown━came together to form the West Indian Development Council. It was their intention to outright prove they were being discriminated against. So, along with the college-educated and highly articulate Paul Stephenson, they set up an interview with the bus company for Guy Reid-Bailey to become a bus conductor.
A young warehouse worker and Boys’ Brigade officer, Guy was more than qualified to fill the vacancy. But when Paul revealed that Guy was West Indian, the interview was immediately called off. The West Indian Development Council had proved the ban was real. Inspired by Rosa Parks in America, the group set about organising a bus boycott in Bristol.
How long did the bus boycott in Bristol last?
On April 30, 1963, the Bristol Bus Boycott began. The group said that none of the city’s West Indian community would any longer use the buses, while many white people also supported the boycott. In fact, support came from all walks of life. Students from Bristol University held a protest march on May 1, while Bristol South East MP, Tony Benn, and former cricketer Learie Constantine also condemned Bristol Omnibus Company.
The boycott would roll on for several months. Until finally a meeting of bus workers voted to end the ban on Black or Asian employees on August 27. The next day, Bristol Omnibus Company’s general manager, Ian Patey, made the announcement ending racial discrimination in employing bus workers. (This was the same day that Martin Luther King made his ‘I Have a Dream’ speech.)
What happened next?
It didn’t take very long for Bristol Omnibus Company to hire its first person of colour. On September 17, Raghbir Singh, a Sikh man, became Bristol’s first non-White bus conductor. A few days after that, the company also hired two Jamaican men and two Pakistani men.
Two years later, Harold Wilson’s Labour government brought in Britain’s first anti-discrimination laws. The UK Parliament passed a Race Relations Act 1963 that made racial discrimination unlawful in public places. In 1968, a second Race Relations Act 1968 extended these protections to include housing and employment. Few doubt that the Bristol Bus Boycott had a huge influence on the introduction of both these bills.
It took until 2013, however, for Unite, the successor of TGWU, to issue an apology and “it was completely unacceptable.” Only last year, in 2022, did the council apologise to Guy Reid-Bailey. It also bestowed all leaders of the Bristol Bus Boycott with Freedom of the City status.