The story of the Bristol Bus Boycott and the civil rights activists behind it

Paul Stephenson, pictured at the front, lead the Bristol Bus Boycott in 1963.

During the spring and summer of 1963, civil rights campaigners in Bristol began a movement which would spark change far beyond the city’s limits.

Racism was commonplace and employment discrimination was widespread - so much so, the Bristol Omnibus Company refused to hire black or Asian drivers or conductors.

Frustrated with how little progress was being made in the fight against discrimination, one group of civil rights activists decided to take a stand.

This is the story of the Bristol Bus Boycott - and the people behind it.

What inspired the Bristol Bus Boycott?

In 1961, the Bristol Evening Post exposed the Bristol Omnibus Company had a racist policy which meant it would not hire black and Asian people as drivers or conductors.

Company manager Ian Patey defended the policy, saying his hands were tied as his staff were not willing to work with ‘coloured labour’ except in the depots as maintenance workers.

He also claimed the quality of Bristol’s black workers was too low and he thought it was unsuitable for white female bus conductors to work with black male drivers. Even the local council supported the policy.

Protesters during the Bristol Bus Boycott in 1963. Credit: ITV West Country

In 1963, having been inspired by the activism of Rosa Parks in the US, a group of young West Indian men in Bristol formed an action group to tackle the issue. They were Roy Hackett, Owen Henry, Audley Evans and Prince Brown - and they soon joined forces with Bristol’s first black youth officer Paul Stephenson who became their spokesman.

Mr Stephenson set up a test case, arranging a job interview at the firm for young warehouseman Guy Bailey. When the company discovered he was West Indian, they cancelled the interview.

The activists then held a press conference declaring a boycott of the city’s buses.

When was the Bristol Bus Boycott?

The Bristol Bus Boycott began on 30 April, 1963. It lasted for four months, ending on 28 August that year - the same day as Martin Luther King delivered his iconic I Have a Dream speech.

What was the Bristol Bus Boycott?

The Bristol Bus Boycott saw black and Asian people across the city refuse to use buses, with many white people supporting them throughout the four-month campaign.

Marches and rallies were also staged, with the boycott attracting national attention and highlighting the broader issue of racism in the UK.

People took to the streets to protest Bristol Omnibus Company's policy

What did the Bristol Bus Boycott do?

After four months of the Bristol Bus Boycott, the Bristol Omnibus Company backed down and the ‘colour bar’ was quashed.

The campaign is credited with helping to persuade Harold Wilson’s Labour government to introduce the Race Relations Act of 1965 - the first piece of anti-racist legislation in Britain.

The Act banned racial discrimination in public places and made the promotion of hatred on the grounds of ‘colour, race, or ethnic or national origins' an offence.

Then followed the Race Relations Act 1968, which extended the provisions to employment and housing.

Who are the campaigners behind the Bristol Bus Boycott?

Roy Hackett

Roy Hackett died at the age of 93 Credit: ITV West Country

Roy Hackett MBE was a civil rights leader who was instrumental in setting up the Bristol Bus Boycott. He was also one of the founders of St Pauls Carnival, which is one of the biggest of its kind in Europe.

Roy grew up in Kingston, Jamaica. In 1952, at the age of 24, he travelled to Britain to seek better opportunities as part of the Windrush generation.

He settled in Bristol but faced racism from his very first day in the city when multiple boarding houses turned him away for being black. He spent his first night in Bristol sleeping in a doorway.

  • Watch: Remembering Roy Hackett - a special report from ITV News

In 1962, Roy's wife Ena Hackett applied for a job as a conductor with the Bristol Omnibus Company. Despite being fully qualified, she was rejected. Roy Hackett then set up the action group which started the Bristol Bus Boycott.

Roy was appointed an OBE in 2009 and an MBE in 2020 for his tireless campaigning. A mural of him has also been created in the St Pauls area of Bristol recognising him as one of the Seven Saints of St Pauls.

He died in August 2022 at the age of 93. His funeral was a significant event in Bristol, with hundreds of people lining the streets.

In an interview before his death, Roy described himself as a 'community activist'.

"I never hurt or tried to hurt anyone," he said.

"I never abused anyone, and sometimes when they abused me I said 'well if you were my colour you would understand why I did what I did'."

Paul Stephenson

Paul Stephenson, pictured here at the front, led the campaign

Paul Stephenson was Bristol’s first black youth officer and the face of the Bristol Bus Boycott in the spring and summer of 1963.

As spokesman for the boycott, Paul brought the company’s racist policy to public attention. It eventually attracted support from big names including Prime Minister Harold Wilson, local Labour politician Tony Benn, and famous West Indian cricketer and diplomat Sir Learie Constantine.

In 1964, Paul achieved national fame when he refused to leave the Bay Horse pub in Bristol until he was served. He went on trial on a charge of failing to leave a licensed premises but the case was dismissed and the barman was fired.

Paul's campaigns are regarded to have been instrumental in paving the way for the first Race Relations Act in 1965. He was appointed an OBE in 2009 and was given the freedom of the City of Bristol in 2013.

Owen Henry

Owen Henry was born in Jamaica and later moved to Bristol. He has been described as a "keen observer" who sought to solve problems as he noticed them.

He spearheaded the Bristol Bus Boycott, set up Bristol's first black-owned travel agency, and also worked tirelessly to combat housing discrimination throughout his life.

He died in December 1989 but his legacy in Bristol lives on as he is now known as one of the Seven Saints of St Pauls.

Audley Evans

Audley Evans was one of the organisers of the Bristol Bus Boycott and a key campaigner during the boycott.

Audley was born in Jamaica but relocated to England with his wife Delores. The couple settled in Bristol and he quickly became an active civil rights activist.

He is now known as one of the Seven Saints of St Pauls having helped to set up St Pauls Festival - now known as St Pauls Carnival - in 1967.

Shortly after the first festival, the Evans family left the UK and eventually settled in Florida. Audley continued to campaign there and helped many people, particularly Haitian and Cuban immigrants, by offering them jobs.

Audley Evans died in August 1991.

Prince Brown

Prince Brown was one of the organisers of the Bristol Bus Boycott in 1963 and a key civil rights campaigner.

Alongside the rest of the group, he spearheaded the four-month protest which sparked a grassroots civil rights movement and paved the way for change in Bristol and beyond.

He was awarded the Freedom of the City of Bristol posthumously on 13 December, 2022. It is the highest honour a council can bestow on a citizen. 

Barbara Dettering

Barbara Dettering worked as a social worker in Bristol Credit: ITV West Country

Barbara Dettering worked as a social worker in Bristol and has spent most of her life influencing young children to overcome prejudices and strive to achieve their dreams.

She is one of the founders of St Pauls Carnival and played an important role in the Bristol Bus Boycott campaign.

She worked tirelessly behind the scenes during the boycott, supporting the men spearheading the campaign. She describes herself as one of the "silent diggers", working away in the background to get her point across and change the lives of future generations.

She was also a regular face at protests and marches during the bus boycott.

Guy Bailey

Despite being qualified, Guy Bailey was turned down for a job at Bristol Omnibus Company

The treatment of warehouse worker Guy Bailey by Bristol Omnibus Company is, in part, what sparked the Bristol Bus Boycott.

Paul Stephenson arranged for Guy to interview for a position at the firm in the spring of 1963. When Mr Reid-Bailey arrived for the interview, and staff at the company discovered he was black, he was told all of the positions had been filled. He did not even make it past the reception.

He previously told ITV News: "She said to the manager at the time 'your 2pm appointment is here and he's black' and he then said to her 'tell him that all the vacancies are full'.

"Yet an hour before we phoned up and everything was fine."

This sparked the four-month boycott which eventually saw the company back down.