The Bristol Bus Boycott of 1963

Audley Evans, Paul Stephenson, and Owen Henry, 1960s

On April 30, 1963, Bristol’s black population protested the Bristol Omnibus Company and the Transportation and General Workers’ Union (TGWU) racist employment practices. By 1963, an estimated 6,000 black people in Bristol. Unlike the hiring and visibility of black bus crews in cities such as Bath and London, Bristol was slow to hire them. The TGWU’s failure to address its discriminatory hiring policy also influenced a 1955 vote that prohibited black bus crews. Although blacks were part of the TGWU, they were primarily relegated to work in maintenance and the canteens. Moreover, by 1958 the black unemployment rate was twice the reported figure of white unemployment in Bristol.

Paul Stephenson, who was born in Essex, England to West African and British parents and an ex-Royal Air Foreman, explored exposing the Omnibus Company’s discriminatory practices. Teaching night classes at the time and knowledgeable of the 1955-1956 Montgomery Bus Boycott in the United States, Stephenson recruited one of best pupils, 18-year-old Guy Baily, and together decided to respond to a vacant bus conductor employment advertisement in the Bristol’s Evening Post. At his interview, the bus manager told Baily, “We do not hire black people.” To confirm this, Stephenson went to the Company’s General Manager, Ian Patey, who affirmed the Omnibus Company’s practices. Roy Hackett, Owen Henry, Audley Evans and Prince Brown formed the West Indian Development Council, a coalition to challenge and publicize the Omnibus Company’s racist policy. On April 29, 1963, the coalition announced that no blacks would ride the bus the subsequent day. The April 30 bus boycott garnered national support and disapproval.

Bristol University students who supported the boycott were harassed and attacked in public. They marched earnestly, however, with placards stating, “EVERY MAN HAS THE RIGHT TO WORK.” Local Labour MP Tony Benn remarked, “I shall stay off the buses, even if I have to find a bike!” Famous Trinidadian cricketer Sir Learie Constantine wrote letters to the Omnibus Company in support of the boycott. Oppositional newspaper headlines such as, “Bristol Bus Crew Back the Boss” and “We Won’t Work with West Indians,” further underscored how divisive the bus boycott was on race.

The bus boycott also revealed white working-class wage earners’ economic fragility and the public’s perception of black masculinity. After months of boycotting, the TGWU in a meeting with 500 bus workers agreed on August 27, 1963 to end the color bar, and Patey publicly announced it “dead” the next day. On September 17, Raghibir Singh, a British-Asian Sikh, became Bristol’s first non-white bus conductor. Soon afterwards Black bus crews were then hired.

The hiring of non-white bus crews, however, did not end discrimination and racism in workspaces and in buses. The 1965 Race Relations Act made “racial discrimination unlawful in public places,” and the 1968 Race Relations Act made racial housing and employment practices illegal. In 2009, Bailey, Hackett and Stephenson were individually awarded the prestigious Order of the British Empire (OBE) medal for organizing the Bristol Bus Boycott. After the TWGU merged with the Unite Union in 2007, they issued an apology in February 2013 for their role in obstructing the hiring of black bus workers in Bristol in 1963.