Thursday, 13 March 2008

A shameful part of Bristol history.

1963 Bristol Omnibus Company's colour bar against black bus crews

1963 was a quite a tumultuous saw the first woman in space and a rash of political assassinations. MLK marched on Washington and George Wallace stood in that schoolhouse door. It was a year of hope & heartbreak, ripe with the promise of beginnings and scarred by tragic endings.

Alcatraz prison, off San Francisco CA, closes its doors - MI6 turncoat Kim Philby defects to USSR - Profumo sex scandal rocks Britain - Sir Winston Churchill proclaimed honorary U.S. citizen in White House ceremony - Civil Rights leader Medgar Evers assassinated in Mississippi

Meanwhile back in the UK .... There was unrest on Bristol Buses.

On the 30th of April 1963 local West Indian activists publicly exposed Bristol Omnibus Company's long standing colour bar against black bus crews. The bar was perfectly legal, for although an Immigration Act had been passed the year before, no law yet existed against racial segregation or discrimination.

The Bus Company initiated the ban after a union ballot of workers in 1955.

The Passenger Group of the TGW Union in Bristol reportedly passed a resolution in January of that year that coloured workers should not be employed, as bus crews.

Ron Nethercott, the TGWU’s regional secretary, adamantly denied any decision to ban West Indians had been made:

‘...there is no colour bar. We have a lot of coloured members in Bristol, most of them on the labouring side."

Strictly speaking, Nethercott was right. The TGWU as a whole did not operate a colour bar. Indeed, the Quaker owned Fry’s chocolate factory employed several hundred black workers who were bona fide members of Nethercott’s union. But what Nethercott ommited to explain was that the TGWU had not opposed their Passenger Division from passing a colour bar on the buses!

The bus company’s General Manager, Ian Patey was a bit more forthcoming. A few West Indians, he reportedly explained:

"were employed in the garage but this was labouring work in which capacity most employers were prepared to accept them."

Malcolm Smith’s article concluded that a formal colour bar probably did exist on the buses, despite the denials of both union and management.

Sometime in 1962, Ena Hackett, Roy Hackett’s wife, applied for a job as bus conductress and was turned down, despite the reported labour shortage on the buses:

"it always been in the newspaper, the Evening Post that, ‘we cannot run the buses because we haven’t got any staff ‘And at the time my wife had applied for a job on the buses. Unfortunately, it was always, ‘No, we can’t have you.’ Then there was no law against discrimination."

"People tend to forget there were no laws against racism"

‘Mr. Ian Patey of Bristol Omnibus Company. . . said today the company’s policy regarding coloured labour had been clear for years and the action by the West Indians would not make them reconsider their policy.

‘We don’t employ a mixed labour force as bus crews because we have found from observing other bus companies that the labour supply gets worse if the labour force is mixed.’

An Bristol Evening Post editorial pointed out that to justify a colour bar because of the prejudice coloured labour would arouse had ‘an unhappy ring of convenience.’ But the Post was quick to turn on the busmen's union and asked:

"What are trade union leaders doing to get the race virus out of the systems of their ranks and file... The union have had plenty to say about South Africa. They should take a look nearer home.’"

Transport and General Workers’ Union officials did not take kindly to being pilloried in public. They resented Stephenson’s approaching them after the Boycott was announced. They consequently closed ranks, and refused to meet a deputation from the West Indian Development Council.

White liberal opinion was also roused to action by the Press revelations of the colour bar. On the first of May, a hundred or so University students marched on both the bus station and the TGWU headquarters at Transport House.

Nethercott was reportedly ‘furious.’ He told the marchers:

"We don’t want discrimination and we don’t like it. There is no question of a colour bar as far as we are concerned. Without consulting the Regional Committee, I am prepared to say that if there are coloured workers on the buses, our people will accept them".

The union and city officials must have been particularly embarrassed to read that same evening the banner head line in The Bristol Evening Post:


The next morning, the Western Daily Press headline quoted the busmen’s declaration:


Both The Post and the Western Daily Press and the two local television networks made much of rank and file opposition to Nethercott’s ‘no colour bar’ stand. According to one report:

"Bristol’s busmen made it clear yesterday that they do not want to work with West Indians. They heckled a procession of anti-colour bar marchers as it passed through the city centre. And bus driver Ted Neale told me last night: ‘The Transport and General Workers’ Union is wrong in thinking we will support the West Indians.’ ‘Mr. Ron Nethercott is barking up the wrong tree in thinking there is no opposition over employing coloured labour.’ ‘If it came to a paper vote I think the majority of the bus crew members would reject the move".

As Bristol bus crews apparently dug in their heels, the big guns of The Labour Party rolled in.

Tony Benn, then M.P. for Bristol South East, declared his support for the boycott of Bristol buses:

"I shall stay off the buses, even if I have to find a bike!"

Fenner Brockway, Labour M.P. for Eton and Slough, prepared to table a question about the colour bar to the Tory Transport Minister.

And most newsworthy of all, the leader of the Labour Opposition, had been rallied, by Benn, to the cause. On the 2nd of May, The Post headlines proclaimed:


Wilson, it seemed, had told an anti-apartheid rally in London that:

"The last example of the colour bar (in Britain) is now being operated by the Bristol Omnibus Company".

This admittedly over-optimistic assessment did not obscure the fact that Wilson lent his full support for the boycott.

The story had gone truly ‘national’:

‘I’m glad that so many Bristolians are supporting the campaign to get it abolished. We wish them every success.

Even with the City Council there was the odd left wing renegade ready to make trouble. On the 2nd of May, that redoubtable old lefty, the Alderman Henry Hennessey spoke out against the collusion he alleged existed between the company and the union over the colour bar.

Hennessey’s remarks must have been particularly mortifying as he was a member of the Joint Transport Committee. The very next day, this veteran socialist, who had served on the Council for over 40 years, faced expulsion from his own Labour Group within the Council."

The official reason was his outspoken remarks about housing policy. But the timing of this threat against him makes one suspect that his remarks on race must have also angered his increasingly right wing Labour colleagues.

The response of the Eastville bus crews to all this was to threaten a walk out if black labour was employed and to withhold their voluntary contribution to Labour Party Funds as a protest against yesterday’s intervention by Mr. Harold Wilson and Mr.A.W. Benn.

And what of the Press itself ? The Western Daily Press wanted it both ways. The colour bar might be ‘shocking, disgusting and degrading,’ according to an early editorial, but why not impose a bit of racial segregation to put things right ?

‘White men will never take kindly to working under coloured men.
This is wrong but it is inescapable. The solution obviously is to have sections in which coloured and white folk work apart so that the coloured man has a fair chance of promotion.’

Public sentiment had been further inflamed that Wednesday, the 3rd of May, when local television covered the story.’ Busmen and buswomen were interviewed and their views were, for the most part, unashamedly hostile to the introduction of black personnel. The blatantly racist sentiments that were broadcast must have shocked many viewers.

Ron Nethercott, by this time, felt himself to be a man under siege. As he saw it, the West Indians and the Media were pulling him one way, the busmen another.

Worst of all, his union colleagues seemed content to leave him to face the hostilities on his own.

"If felt very lonely. . . I had nowhere to turn, nowhere to go for advice. The only advice I was getting was from anonymous filthy abusive letters and from the Press."

Nethercott by now seemed to be responding to mounting pressure against the colour bar.

He told The New Statesman that:

"He had reached a stage in negotiations with the main West Indian Association in the city and with his own members on the buses when it would soon be possible to approach the company even though there were still white people looking for bus jobs"

He went on to add:

"And this is something I could never get the Press to understand, ... that it was not about a racial problem it was about bad conditions on the buses, it was about low pay.. . If we’d have had an influx of additional crew, albeit Irish, Canadian, French, German, English!, the resentment would still be there.
It wasn’t a matter of coloured people, it was a matter of taking away people’s ability to earn overtime to live! And this wretched thing! (The dispute). Nobody wanted to hear this point of view... Basically this was a problem of people’s conditions of work. Low paid bussmen . . . were very badly paid... and the two or three pounds extra they were getting in terms of overtime was the difference between living . . . and existing."

By this line of thinking, it becomes apparent that busmen and women at the Lawrence Hill and Eastville Depots in East Bristol would have felt particularly threatened by West Indian workers because, as most West Indians lived in the St. Paul’s and Easton areas, they would have been assigned to those depots. Between 1960 to 1963, the West Indian population in Bristol had doubled to around 7,000 people to form a very conspicuous pool of reserve labour.’

On the other hand, there was a severe labour shortage on the buses in 1963, due to an alarmingly high turnover rate:

"Now we had a branch of 2,000 strong, drivers and conductors. Our changeover of staff was working out on average at 600 per year, so you can appreciate that in three years we had a complete changeover of staff And that was going on for years even when I came out of the Army, colossal. Now it was (such) a state of affairs that buses were coming off the road."

And as Jim Cheek, who was a shop steward at the Brislington depot in 1963 points out:

"people were fearful of an influx of people from elsewhere, (on the grounds it) would be reducing their earnings potential... But it was unfounded of course, because we’ve always had a massive turnover of staff and even with the Labour market today, we’re still drivers short."

Mr. F. James wrote to the Bristol Evening Post during the colour bar dispute:

"In the late thirties, I happened to be one of a large number of Welshmen who through no fault of their own were forced reluctantly to leave their homes and find employment elsewhere. Most of us settled for Bristol for obvious geographical reasons. By and large we were received very unfavourably, partly because of our accent, but mainly because the Bristolian felt that he and he alone was entitled to work in Bristol.

Now comes the question of coloured people obtaining employment on buses. Personally I am convinced that colour has very little bearing on the case as far as the Bristolian is concerned. It is simply the fact that these coloured people are ‘outsiders.’ Where as in the thirties, the excuse was accent, today it is colour.

Ron Nethercott, fiercely loyal to his Bristol members, admits on questioning that there might have been more than economic worries behind the bus workers’ attitude to black labour, but he refuses to call it ‘prejudice’.

‘I’m not prepared to say they the busmen were prejudiced. I’m prepared to say people were probably fearful of something they didn’t understand in the sense it was a new dimension of their life.. . Basically it came down. . . to this great fear of their living standards being affected."

To cut a very long story short.. the union and the company negotiated, not an end to the colour bar, but the institution of a racial quota? Could this be why more than two years after the end of the dispute, there were only four drivers and 39 conductors from ethnic minorities, less than two 1/2% of Bristol’s total bus crew?...or was it due to the difficulty of finding suitable black candidates? If candidates were in such short supply, why did another employee of the Company assert that the quota was raised to 6% by the early 70s?.

Qualifications for conductors were:

A head for figures, a knowledge of the city and good references.
These would be required of coloured applicants the same as white.

The Bristol Bus Company later told reporters well before any Bristol applicants had been interviewed that a ‘large percentage of the latter (i.e. coloured applicants) . . . were often found unsuitable’. ??

Bristol’s first ‘coloured’ conductor - Raghbir Singh.

For a start, Singh was not West Indian and perhaps it was thought that hiring an Indian rather than a West Indian would cock a symbolic snook at the West Indian Development Council. Be that as it may, Singh certainly had a head for figures, having studied maths along with geography, English, art and history at college in the Punjab.

He had come to England in 1959 whilst in his 30s, largely to ensure his children secured ‘a good English education.’ He settled with a friend in Bristol, because it was a university town and used the capital he had from his shoe business in Amritsar to buy a part interest in a house in Clifton.

Then he brought over his wife and children, working first as a building labourer in Redcliffe, then as a machinist in Eastville and finally as a semi-skilled fitter in Stapleton. Singh decided to apply for the post of bus conductor even though it meant a substantial cut in wages:

"I wanted to see how true they are in this saying.., whether they give this job to the ethnic minorities.., let us see how they fulfill their promises. But they liked me and I liked them.’

Singh’s appointment, reported, in at least one newspaper in India was a landmark indeed. For, ironically, the Company appointed a man who wore a turban. The right of Sikh busmen to wear beards and turbans had resulted in a number of racially inspired disputes in the Midlands.

But here was Bristol inadvertently, one suspects, helping to blaze the trail for religious freedom:

‘Last night,’ a wide eyed Western Daily Press revealed "He (Singh) was wearing a blue turban. ‘It goes with my uniform. If I wear a brown suit I have on a brown turban"

A few days after Singh’s arrival, four more black conductors took their places on Bristol’s buses. Norman Samuels and Norris Edwards were Jamaicans; Mohammed Raschid and Abbas All were from Pakistan.

The white driver who took on Norris Edwards as his conductor, did so, his wife later explained, because no one else at the depot would work with him. The driver’s attitude was initially one of resignation rather than enthusiasm though he soon grew friendly with Norris:

"In any case, I thought, well it’s got to come, it might as well be me, got to live with it, can’t stop it."

There was, so far as one can gather from the evidence available, no outburst of organized open hostility on the part of the white bus crews towards the black ones. According to one conductress:

"We never worried if they were black, white, coloured or what, we never took any notice. . . I think they were more or less accepted after the first couple of weeks".

But as one Lawrence Hill busman remembers:

"There was that little resentment that was against the coloured people. Every job, any job there was that resentment; it was entirely foreign to our nature. You see, you now have grown up where coloured people are accepted. But we weren’t".

‘There was,’ this same busman says, ‘the odd incident between someone who was violently
anti-coloured,’ for example:

"They’d talk disparagingly about them didn’t (they). . . in the canteen.’ Or, ‘They might hear occasionally the word ‘nigger’ used but very rarely.., but invariably that was done amongst ourselves... They’d (other white crews) do it jokingly sometime."

One white conductress recalls:

"You went in for your meals but you never sat with them. Well, you just didn’t did you, just sat with the other women and had our tea and the (white) men sat with the (white) men.. . But you don’t know what to talk about with them, do you".

A woman who came on to the Eastville depot in 1964 confirmed that:

"There was a lot of conductresses wouldn’t work with them (‘coloureds’) at all. They used to change over with me. ‘Cause I never bothered, you know, if he was coloured, he was coloured".

And another conductress admitted:

"I know the first time l ever worked with a coloured fellow, I was a bit nervous, ‘cause it was a late turn. But he was very nice. West Indian, I think".

While some white drivers were friendly and polite, others reportedly sent their black conductors to Coventry. One Jamaican conductor of the time remembers his driver sitting in his cab during the stopovers reading his paper and never addressing a word to him. The sense of hurt and exclusion such incidents must have caused those who suffered them was simply not taken in by the white bus crews.

The general view among the white bus crew seemed to be that the ‘coloured crews’ (or ‘darkies’) settled without too much ‘fuss or bother.’

As time passed, black bus crews were increasingly accepted, and it was resented when black crews did not adapt more wholeheartedly to the subculture of the buses.

‘Tim Spring’, who organised social events at one depot, resented what he perceived to be the lack of participation by black crews in such events. He felt that.... if there was any bar at all put up, it was done by the black people, and not us.’

‘Mrs. Regent’, a conductress at the time had a more sympathetic interpretation:

"They didn’t mix as much with the whites?"

Mrs. Regent.: ‘No, I think they kept themselves apart a bit.

Course I suppose more or less that was a bit of being on the nervous side you know. Didn’t know perhaps how they would be accepted.’

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