M Shed: Bristol's slave centre past

A colour bar on a city’s buses is one of the embarrassing pieces of history explored in a new museum. David Lister reports

It was an astonishing episode that has been largely forgotten. In 1963, just as the rest of Britain was embarking on a sexual, social and musical revolution, the city of Bristol was fighting a battle that seemed to belong to another age and another country. The city's bus company, with the open connivance of both management and unions, was operating a colour bar. It was not passengers that were the target, but drivers. Not a single black driver was employed, in case the job prospects of white drivers were affected.

The result was a boycott of the buses by local campaigners, which made headlines around the world.

This is one of the narratives that will be recounted in a new £27m museum, M Shed, in the restored Bristol docks. The museum will tell the stories of the city when it opens this Friday, and the stories of Bristol are many, as the objects in the museum will testify.

There will be historic steam locomotives and harbour boats, models and props for the Wallace and Gromit films, a Technics record deck, spray-painted pink, used by the local band Massive Attack, and from a much earlier time there will be tokens used by abolitionists to gain support for the abolition of slavery.

Bristol played a major role in the transatlantic slave trade, though only in very recent times has the city been ready to acknowledge it. Tony Benn, who was a Bristol MP for most of his parliamentary career, told me: "Bristol was a great slave centre, but people never mentioned that. They were ashamed of it."

Benn was also involved in bringing the colour bar on the buses to light, after being approached by a young local activist, Paul Stephenson. He says: "Paul got the idea from the bus boycotts in America. I got involved, which made my own union, the TGWU, a bit cross. And I got on to Harold Wilson and he supported the case. I think what really helped was Wilson. Once the leader of the opposition, soon to be Prime Minister, had embraced the case it made a big difference."

Stephenson, who still lives in Bristol, recalls: "I led the boycott. I saw it not so much as a political fight but as a moral way of how we had now got to see ourselves. I'm afraid that different sections of the leadership of the TGWU caved in to reactionary forces, and the boycott took five months to achieve its aim. What was so ridiculous was that Bath, next door, did not have a colour bar."

Though the boycott has been portrayed as being solely about Afro-Caribbean drivers, in fact the first driver to get a job because of the boycott was a Sikh.

Just how entrenched attitudes were in the city at the time of the boycott is illustrated by Tony Benn recalling that the Bishop of Bristol told him that Stephenson was a "troublemaker." Stephenson, a youth worker when he led the boycott, is now an OBE.

M Shed will display 3,000 Bristol artefacts and stories, showing a city that not only played a role in the slave trade but was also a major industrial centre, with Rolls-Royce and Concorde using it as a base. Now much of that industry has gone, and the city is more a centre for finance and the arts.

The new museum, to which admission will be free, will be notable for its look. Designed by LAB Architecture Studio, which is famous for Melbourne's Federation Square, M Shed will include three permanent galleries, a glazed rooftop extension offering panoramic views across the harbour and a functioning train shed – after all, the museum is housed in landmark 1950s transit sheds.

But it will be just as notable for bringing a city back into contact with its chequered past.

Arts and Entertainment
BBC Three was launched a little over five years ago with the slogan: “Three, is a magic number, yes it is.”

BBC Trust agrees to axe channel from TV in favour of digital move

TV
Arts and Entertainment
British actor Idris Elba is also a DJ and rapper who played Ibiza last summer

film
Arts and Entertainment

books
Arts and Entertainment
Armie Hammer in the new film of ‘The Lone Ranger’

TV
Arts and Entertainment

festivals
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Buying a stairway to Hubbard: the Scientology centre in Los Angeles
film review Chilling inside views on a secretive church
Arts and Entertainment
Jason Williamson, left, and Andrew Fearn of Sleaford Mods
musicYou are nobody in public life until you have been soundly insulted by Sleaford Mods
Arts and Entertainment
Natalie Dew (Jess) in Bend It Like Beckham The Musical
theatreReview: Bend It Like Beckham hits back of the net on opening night
Arts and Entertainment
The young sea-faring Charles Darwin – seen here in an 1809 portrait – is to be portrayed as an Indiana Jones-style adventurer
film
Arts and Entertainment
The audience aimed thousands of Apple’s product units at Taylor Swift throughout the show
musicReview: On stage her manner is natural, her command of space masterful
Arts and Entertainment
Channel 4 is reviving its Chris Evans-hosted Nineties hit TFI Friday

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Harrison Ford plays Indiana Jones in The Last Crusade (1989)

film
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment
A Glastonbury reveller hides under an umbrella at the festival last year

Glastonbury
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment
Miles Morales is to replace Peter Parker as the new Spider-Man

comics
Arts and Entertainment
The sequel to 1993's Jurassic Park, Jurassic World, has stormed into the global record books to score the highest worldwide opening weekend in history.

film
Arts and Entertainment
Odi (Will Tudor)
tvReview: Humans, episode 2
Arts and Entertainment
Can't cope with a Port-A-loo? We've got the solution for you

FestivalsFive ways to avoid the portable toilets

Arts and Entertainment
Some zookeepers have been braver than others in the #jurassiczoo trend

Jurassic WorldThe results are completely brilliant

Arts and Entertainment
An original Miffy illustration
art
Arts and Entertainment
Man of mystery: Ian McKellen as an ageing Sherlock Holmes
film review
Arts and Entertainment
Kitchen set: Yvette Fielding, Patricia Potter, Chesney Hawkes, Sarah Harding and Sheree Murphy
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Chris Evans has been confirmed as the new host of Top Gear
TV
Arts and Entertainment
Top of the class: Iggy Azalea and the catchy ‘Fancy’
music
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    How to stop an asteroid hitting Earth: Would people co-operate to face down a global peril?

    How to stop an asteroid hitting Earth

    Would people cooperate to face a global peril?
    Just one day to find €1.6bn: Greece edges nearer euro exit

    One day to find €1.6bn

    Greece is edging inexorably towards an exit from the euro
    New 'Iron Man' augmented reality technology could help surgeons and firefighters, say scientists

    'Iron Man' augmented reality technology could become reality

    Holographic projections would provide extra information on objects in a person's visual field in real time
    Sugary drinks 'are killing 184,000 adults around the world every year'

    Sugary drinks are killing 184,000 adults around the world every year

    The drinks that should be eliminated from people's diets
    Pride of Place: Historians map out untold LGBT histories of locations throughout UK

    Historians map out untold LGBT histories

    Public are being asked to help improve the map
    Lionel, Patti, Burt and The Who rock Glasto

    Lionel, Patti, Burt and The Who rock Glasto

    This was the year of 24-carat Golden Oldies
    Paris Fashion Week

    Paris Fashion Week

    Thom Browne's scarecrows offer a rare beacon in commercial offerings
    A year of the caliphate:

    Isis, a year of the caliphate

    Who can defeat the so-called 'Islamic State' – and how?
    Marks and Spencer: Can a new team of designers put the spark back into the high-street brand?

    Marks and Spencer

    Can a new team of designers put the spark back into the high-street brand?
    'We haven't invaded France': Italy's Prime Minister 'reclaims' Europe's highest peak

    'We haven't invaded France'

    Italy's Prime Minister 'reclaims' Europe's highest peak
    Isis in Kobani: Why we ignore the worst of the massacres

    Why do we ignore the worst of the massacres?

    The West’s determination not to offend its Sunni allies helps Isis and puts us all at risk, says Patrick Cockburn
    7/7 bombings 10 years on: Four emergency workers who saved lives recall the shocking day that 52 people were killed

    Remembering 7/7 ten years on

    Four emergency workers recall their memories of that day – and reveal how it's affected them ever since
    Humans: Are the scientists developing robots in danger of replicating the hit Channel 4 drama?

    They’re here to help

    We want robots to do our drudge work, and to look enough like us for comfort. But are the scientists developing artificial intelligence in danger of replicating the TV drama Humans?
    Time to lay these myths about the Deep South to rest

    Time to lay these myths about the Deep South to rest

    'Heritage' is a loaded word in the Dixie, but the Charleston killings show how dangerous it is to cling to a deadly past, says Rupert Cornwell
    What exactly does 'one' mean? Court of Appeal passes judgement on thorny mathematical issue

    What exactly does 'one' mean?

    Court of Appeal passes judgement on thorny mathematical issue