Roy Hackett obituary

In April 1963 Roy Hackett, who has died aged 93, stood in the middle of Fishponds Road in Bristol to block the entrance to the city’s main bus station. His mission, as one of the organisers of the Bristol bus boycott, was to draw attention to the Bristol Omnibus Company’s refusal to employ black and Asian people as conductors and drivers.

The boycott, which Hackett planned with three fellow campaigners, Paul StephensonOwen Henry and Guy Reid-Bailey, lasted for four months until the company caved in. The rigidly enforced colour bar – which had been encouraged and supported by the Transport and General Workers’ Union – was perfectly legal. Hackett’s mobilisation is credited with helping to persuade Harold Wilson’s Labour government to introduce the first piece of anti-racist legislation in Britain: the Race Relations Act of 1965.

Although there were threats to Hackett from some members of the public, there was widespread support for the boycott, including from the local MP Tony Benn and from Wilson, who was then leader of the opposition. Eventually negotiations took place between the bus company, which claimed it did not want to enforce the colour bar, and the TGWU, which had backed it on the basis that it protected jobs for “local” people. The talks led to a vote among bus workers that came out in favour of lifting the edict in late August 1963, and the following month Raghbir Singh became Bristol’s first non-white bus conductor.

Hackett was born in the Trench Town area of Kingston in Jamaica, where he tried various jobs, including working in a drug store, on a coffee plantation and selling insurance, without being able to make a decent living. In 1952, at the age of 24, he decided to move to the UK to seek better opportunities.

Arriving by ship in Liverpool, initially he lived what he described as a “dog’s life”, mainly due to the difficulty in getting a job and the reluctance of so many landlords to provide housing to black people.

When things failed to work out in Liverpool he moved first to Wolverhampton and then to London, where he found a labouring job with the engineering firm Taylor Woodrow.

In 1956 he moved westwards with Taylor Woodrow to become a construction worker helping to build the Hinkley Point power station in Somerset, before switching to the Sir Robert McAlpine company in Llanwern, south Wales. There he worked mainly as a labourer on building sites but also spending time as a “teaboy” in conjunction with the soon-to-be-famous pop star Tom Jones, a lively presence who gently irritated him with his constant singing.

On arriving in Bristol, Hackett was forced to spend his first night in the city sleeping in a doorway after being turned away by a succession of landlords. When he did find lodgings in the St Pauls district it was with a cousin, Irving Williams, sharing a room with him and three other men.

It was in Bristol that Hackett befriended a local black activist, Owen Henry, a travel agent, “who gave me a lot to think about and said we should form something to tackle the council’s attitude towards the black population” – especially in relation to housing and employment.

In 1962 the pair, along with two others, Clifford Drummond and Audley Evan, became founding members of the Commonwealth Coordinated Committee, meeting in the Speedy Bird cafe on Sundays, where they would “drink fish tea and Red Stripe beer and listen to calypso music with a paraffin heater to keep warm”.

With Hackett as public relations officer and Henry as chairman, by 1963 the committee had brought into its orbit Paul Stephenson, a British-born, mixed-heritage social worker who became its president and spokesperson. When Reid-Bailey, then a young member of the CCC, reported that he had applied for a bus conductor job and had been turned down on account of his colour, Stephenson, Hackett, Henry and Bailey decided to spring into action by forming a new body, the West Indian Development Council – and the bus boycott came into being.

Allied to his lifelong work in construction, Hackett remained a fearsome campaigner and continued organising in the community long after the victory of 1963. He maintained his involvement with the CCC, now known as the Bristol West Indian Parents and Friends Association, and through it campaigned for better housing and employment conditions for black people in the city. He and the CCC were also involved in organising the St Pauls festival in Bristol, which began in 1968 and ran for a number of years until it morphed into the annual St Pauls carnival.

A humble man, Hackett was pleased by the level of respect he was accorded in Bristol in his later years, mentioning with pride that his grandson’s school had a picture of him on the wall. He also remained committed to supporting the black community in Bristol, joking that “a lot of young people ask me if I can help them and I always say yes – as long as I can sit in the shade”.

Half a century after the boycott, the union Unite, successor to the TGWU, apologised for its wrongdoing, and the following year, 2014, Hackett and the other surviving organisers attended the unveiling of a commemorative plaque at Bristol bus station. In 2019 a mural featuring him was painted on a wall in the city by the artist Michele Curtis, although the wall collapsed in 2021 and there is a crowdfunder appeal to have it restored. In 2020 Hackett was appointed MBE.

He is survived by three children, Dawn and Clive from his 1959 marriage to Ena, which ended in divorce, and Claudette, from a previous relationship.

• Lurel Roy Hackett, activist, born 19 September 1928; died 3 August 2022

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