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50 Years: The Bristol Bus Boycott

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Authored by Nishah Malik
Published on 30th April, 2023 4 min read

50 Years: The Bristol Bus Boycott

Today (30/04/2023) marks 50 years since the start of the Bristol Bus Boycott in 1963. The boycott marks a significant event in the history of the civil rights movement in the UK. The boycott, which lasted between April to August 1963, was a protest against the employment policies of the Bristol Omnibus Company, after they refused to hire Black and Asian bus drivers and conductors.

Following post-War immigration, in the early 1960s Bristol was the home to an estimated 3000 people of Caribbean origin. Unfortunately immigrants faced, and still continue to face, a great deal of backlash and discrimination in British society. In particular, in the later half of the 20th century there was widespread racial discrimination in housing and employment and many were also targets of violent racist attacks. British society were extremely hostile towards immigrants and streets were often flooded with “Keep Britain White” signs.

The Bristol Omnibus Company was the largest bus company in Bristol, operating over 600 buses and employing over 4,000 staff. The bus company had a strict policy where they refused to hire Black or Asian people. Despite their being labour shortages in the bus company, people of colour were still refused jobs, further highlighting the extent of racial hatred within British society in the 60s. This policy was not unique to Bristol, as many companies had similar discriminatory practices in Britain. 

In April 1963, a group of students from the University of Bristol formed the West Indian Development Council (WIDC) to fight against discrimination and racism in the city. The WIDC organised a protest outside the offices of the Bristol Omnibus Company, demanding that the company hire Black and Asian drivers and conductors. The protest was peaceful, but the police were called to disperse the demonstrators.

Inspired by the similar struggles for racial justice in the United States, the WIDC organised a boycott of the company's buses. They called on the Black and Asian communities to stop using the services of the Bristol Omnibus Company until the discriminatory employment policies were changed. The boycott was supported by a wide variety of organisations, including trade unions, churches, and community groups. It also received support both on a national and international level, with Prime Minister Harold Wilson, politician Tony Benn and West Indian cricketer and diplomat Sir Learie Constantine all lending their support to the campaign. 

The boycott affected the company’s revenue and reputation greatly. The Bristol Omnibus Company initially refused to negotiate with the WIDC, but as the boycott continued, the pressure mounted and the company finally agreed to meet with the WIDC representatives. After several meetings, the company agreed to change its employment policies and to hire Black and Asian drivers and conductors. 

The boycott ended in August 1963, and the Bristol Omnibus Company became one of the first major employers in the UK to adopt an equal opportunities policy. In September 1963 the bus company hired their first bus conductor of colour, Sikh graduate Raghbir Singh. Singh was followed by Norman Samuels and Norris Edwards from Jamaica and Mohammed Raschid and Abbas Ali from Pakistan. This was a landmark victory for race relations in the UK. 

The Bristol Bus Boycott was a turning point in the struggle against discrimination and racism in the UK. The boycott also inspired similar protests in other cities, such as London and Birmingham, which led to the adoption of equal opportunities policies by other employers. While the success of the campaign did not eradicate racial tensions and institutional racism, it did help to pave the way for the Race Relations Acts of 1965 and 1968. 

The Bristol Bus Boycott is remembered as a significant event in the history of civil rights in the UK. It is a reminder of the importance of standing up against discrimination and racism, and of the power of collective action to bring about change. Today, on its 50th anniversary, it is important to reflect how far we have come as a society and recognise of the tremendous strength of ordinary individuals and their fight against racial injustice. It is a day to recognise how people of colour have positively shaped British society, while also reflecting on what else needs to be done to achieve full racial equality in Britain. 

Authored by Nishah Malik

Nishah Malik

Nishah Malik is Collections Editor at British Online Archives. Nishah gained a Masters in History from the University of Derby in 2020. Her research interests centre around South Asian culture and heritage, as well as the history and experiences of the South Asian diaspora. She also has a keen interest in women's history.

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