Nuclear Physics in Manchester and the Bristol Bus Boycott
This is a transcript of episode 40 of our podcast series A History of England in 100 Places. Join Dr Suzannah Lipscomb, Celia Richardson, Billy Reading, Norma Gregory and Madge Dresser as we end our journey through the history of power, protest & progress in England.
A History of England in 100 Places is sponsored by Ecclesiastical
This is a Historic England podcast sponsored by Ecclesiastical Insurance Group.
Welcome to Irreplaceable: A History of England in 100 Places. I'm your host, Dr Suzannah Lipscomb, a historian based at the University of Roehampton. In these programmes we're exploring 100 locations selected by ten different judges from thousands of nominations sent in by you. Each of these remarkable sites represents a pivotal or a pioneering development in the history of England or has a special story to tell about our country. In this episode we're continuing our journey through the Power, Protest & Progress category, as chosen from your nominations by David Olusoga.
Today we're looking particularly at the theme of progress. To explore these locations I'm joined by Celia Richardson; the historian, Norma Gregory; and Billy Reading. Welcome to you all. Our ninth location in this category of Power, Protest & Progress encapsulates in a way both power and progress. Just over 100 years ago Ernest Rutherford first successfully split the atom, as we say, in the physics lab in the University of Manchester and so nuclear physics was born. Now, we've already looked at the theme of Science & Discovery earlier in this series but this site, as witness to both power and progress, fully deserves to be in this top ten.
Manchester University's Rutherford Building was originally known as the physical laboratories. When built, they were among the largest and best equipped laboratories in the world. So, what do we know about Ernest Rutherford, known as the father of nuclear physics?
Well, in early work he discovered the concept of radioactive half-life and proved that radioactivity involved the nuclear transmutation of one chemical element to another and he performed his early work at McGill University in Canada. When he was awarded the Nobel Prize in chemistry in 1908 for his investigations into the disintegration of the elements and the chemistry of radioactive substances, he was the first Canadian and Oceanian Nobel Laureate, which is quite an achievement, and he led the Manchester laboratory from 1907 to 1919 before leaving to work in Cambridge.
And when we started this campaign, we stood outside the Rutherford Laboratory in Manchester and we asked a lot of local people where was the atom split and they mostly answered California and some of them answered Cambridge, which I think is forgivable, given that Rutherford did move on to Cambridge. But, yeah, I mean, what an extraordinary thing to have happened.
And I think we've said a few times one of the important things about place in Britain is that an event in a place gives rise to further events in that place. And I think actually the north west of England has been so important in industry, in the Industrial Revolution, and things that actually involve the STEM subjects, which was, you know, what's going on here. You've got a laboratory, you've got something going on, you've got a scientific process and, of course, it was going to happen in the north west of England where the scientific processes that have, you know, caused all sorts of reactions around the world took place.
What about this lab itself was important in witnessing this pivotal moment? So, I mean, Billy, we thought a bit about architecture and form. Do you think that the design of this lab was crucial to the work that was going on in it?
It was remarkably well designed and well equipped. It was really carefully planned with a system of ventilation designed to exclude dust as far as possible from all the rooms and especially from instrument cases. Many of the rooms were supplied with water, with gas and steam for experimental purposes and with compressed air conveyed by a series of pipes which were differently coloured to enable them to be easily distinguished.
So, it's all about design facilitating results. In fact, recognising the importance of this, in 2016 the University of Manchester have renamed the building the Rutherford Building, in honour of its famous former resident. Let's talk a bit more about Rutherford's works because his works were, of course, the reason the lab is on the list. Let's think about this idea of splitting the atom because we want to be clear that what we're talking about is not the process of nuclear fission that was discovered later in the 1930s. Rutherford wanted to know what was inside a single atom and so became the first person to create an artificial nuclear reaction in the labs at the university.
We shouldn't confuse what happened with the process of nuclear fission that was discovered later in the 1930s. Essentially what we've got going on now is that Rutherford and his team became the first in history to initiate an artificial nuclear reaction. We now know that the hydrogen nucleus submitted was actually a subatomic particle now called a proton and so what they were doing was they were bombarding nitrogen with alpha particles from a radioactive source and so Rutherford became the first person to initiate a nuclear reaction. Essentially this discovery created the modern field of nuclear physics in Manchester. And it has had extraordinary consequences and ramifications, hasn't it?
Absolutely, and, as you say, we mustn't confuse it with nuclear fission but Rutherford himself was very, very well aware of the possible consequences of the sort of discovery that he was involved in. So, in 1916, aware of the power of his own investigations, aware of the power that his investigations could unleash, he publicly stated that he hoped mankind wouldn't work out how to extract the energy from the nucleus until man was living at peace with his neighbour. And, well, we know what happened at the end of the Second World War.
His experiments with nuclear reaction changed the world forever. It began the move towards nuclear power and the atomic bombs that devastated Hiroshima and Nagasaki in World War II. But it also allowed us to develop things like cancer-fighting radiotherapy. One of my close family members has had radioactive iodine treatment- incredibly successful, developed I think in the 1950s. It's quite an old treatment and it's still, you know, proving brilliant in the fight against cancer. So, there are shades to this one, aren't there?
As has one of mine. So, we have much to thank Rutherford for. And I think it's extraordinary that something so important happened at this site and, as you were saying Celia, people just don't know about it.
Yeah, I think once we start talking about nuclear physics, people start thinking, really, about other people and other places. And, you know, now of course, we have CERN in Switzerland; we've got, you know, really big research laboratories in other countries and possibly people don't think about a humble laboratory in Manchester where it all began. But it's still there, you can see it, it has a blue plaque on the wall with Ernest Rutherford's name on it! But, yes, people don't know it's there and they don't think of Manchester as the birthplace of nuclear physics.
The progress made in Manchester by Rutherford was truly ground-breaking in the field of science and health. But our next and final location also marks a real breakthrough and progress, in this case, towards equal rights and race relations in the UK. The Bristol bus boycott of 1963 is an event in British history of which many people may not be aware. It arose from the refusal of the Bristol Omnibus Company to employ non-white people in bus crews in Bristol. Here, as with many cities across the UK at the time, there was widespread racial discrimination against people of colour. Enough was enough for a group of young black people from the city led by Paul Stephenson, a first generation West Indian.
Inspired by Martin Luther King's civil rights movement in the United States, he led a peaceful boycott of the company's buses until the bus company backed down and overturned their colour bar. Bristol in the early 1960s had an estimated 3,000 residents of West Indian origin, some of whom had served in the British military during the Second World War and some of whom had emigrated to Britain more recently. A large number of them lived in the area around City Road in St Paul's. We picked up the story of the boycott with historian, Dr Madge Dresser.
Well, we're in the St Paul's area of Bristol, which was historically the place, in the 1950s and 60s, where immigrants, particularly people from the Jamaican and later the Asian communities came and we're right in front of a mural that's just been recently done by Michele Curtis, a young black British artist, of Owen Henry. Owen Henry was one of a number of people who organised the first black-led campaign against the colour bar in Britain. It was called the Bristol Bus Boycott and it happened in 1963.
There was a labour shortage after the Blitz in Britain. People came over here, they had been recruited, and when they came they didn't get the warmest reception in the world, particularly after '58 and the Notting Hill riots, and they were looking for work but they were very frustrated because they couldn't get work on the buses. There was open discrimination. I guess people forget that in 1963 it was perfectly legal to say, "don't want you because you're black or you're Irish" or what have you. A friend of Owen Henry's, Roy Hackett was a co-organiser of the bus boycott, his wife applied to be a bus conductress and she was just refused.
They knew there was a shortage of labour and what happened was the bus drivers, the white bus drivers, were very worried about foreign labour undercutting their skills and, you know, they saw it as economic competition but there was also a racialist element. They'd been raised in schools where you had Empire Day and looked upon, you know, black people as, you know, inferior and so what happened was in the 50s one of the bus depots, the bus drivers themselves and the local transport and general workers branch voted to ban black bus drivers and conductors.
Into Bristol in the early 60s a young man of part West African, part English origin, Paul Stephenson, came and he was very canny. He was a naturally good organiser and he got Guy Bailey, another local guy who was 18 - he was a Boys' Brigade member, he was, you know, a churchgoer - to apply for a job by phone and they said, yes, come for an interview and then he let them know he was West Indian and the interview was withdrawn and so Paul had a case. So, what happened was that Paul Stephenson and Owen Henry and others, like Roy Hackett, they formed a ginger group called the West Indian Development Agency and this was a direct action group and so this new agency, they called a boycott.
When the Evening Post and the Western Daily Press went to interview the bus company about it, they were just open about it- "of course we discriminate", you know, "we don't want coloureds". It was as open as that in those days. It just seems amazing now. People had to get to work, they had to earn their living, so a bus boycott was a big ask. But really it was the publicity, which Paul Stephenson was so brilliant at getting, that began to make waves because everyone from Harold Wilson to Sir Larry Constantine, the famous diplomat and cricketer who lost his job by his political involvement in siding with the bus boycott people, they all got involved and it splashed into the national press.
By August the company kind of relented and said that they would end the colour bar. Now, whether they did or whether they kept a quiet quota is another question but I guess the important thing was it began to change the culture within the country. Now, whether it directly led to the first race relations legislation in '65 and then in '68 is a moot point; I think it was a contributing factor. But it was really important as one of the earliest black-led campaigns in Britain.
Norma, what was Britain like for black people in the 1950s and 60s and how did we get to the state of having a colour bar instigated by the Bristol Omnibus Company?
Well, it's well documented that the history of people of African descent, black people, in Britain starts thousands of years ago. I mean, David Olusoga's work into black British history, books by Paul Gilroy, Trevor Phillips, there's a lot of literature, a lot fantastic research that's been done documenting the social history of blacks in Britain. But this one particular kind of episode really starts from the 20th Century. June 22nd, 1948 we see Empire Windrush, which is basically a ship containing people from the West Indies, mainly Jamaicans but there were Trinidadians, Barbadians on there, there were all sorts of people from all over the West Indies.
They were invited to Britain to help rebuild the country following World War II, so following the bombing and all the kind of...there was a lack of men, really, since in World War II and World War I many men were killed, and it was up to many people from the colonies to come and help rebuild the country. So, coming to Britain they had to find work and they wanted to find work, they wanted to help their mother country because they were taught in the Caribbean that Britain was their home, was their mother land, and the 1948 Nationality Act granted them citizenship, all the people from the colonies. So, they were British, they felt they were British and they were helping to build the country.
So, many people from the Caribbean and the African colonies, they came to England and they dispersed throughout the country. Many lived in Bristol, Nottingham, where I was born. My father came in 1962, my mother followed him in '65 and they had a big family and settled here. But Bristol was a key place where many people came.
Many of the white British people living here felt uncomfortable with the influx at that time, so it kind of helped to build the flames of racism, really, seeing so many people around and doing jobs which normally, you know, their fathers or their parents have done, like, for instance, coal mining or working on the trains or the buses. So, you had this kind of pressure pot cooking, really, of racism. And this story in Bristol, I mean, it's fascinating what happened there.
Where does the Bristol Omnibus Company come into this?
They were a government company run in Bristol and they operated a colour bar. That was basically the practice of not allowing black or Asian people to become part of the bus crews, basically conductors or drivers. So, they basically said no to any kind of people that were non-white to do these particular jobs.
It is extraordinary, isn't it? There's a need for labour and yet, of course, racism is so entrenched that they're refusing positions. So, what's the reaction? What happens?
Well, the local union, the Transport and General Workers Union, they actually believe that having coloured workers would be a problem. So, you'd have thought that they would have fought against it but they actually thought that it wasn't right at that time, believing that every wheel would stop if they had black or Asian staff. So, with that, really, they had a real kind of uproar in the black community and we had activists actually step up and say, no, that's not right and one of these was Paul Stephenson.
So, Stephenson, who had a father from West Africa, he decided to try and test the system and see if he could prove racial discrimination, didn't he? How did he do it?
He set up an interview for one of his friends, a young man called Guy Bailey, to try and apply for a job. And he was well-qualified, he was a student and an able person to do this job- he had an interview and went to the interview and was told that he wouldn't be getting this job as the company didn't employ black people. So, this really sparked off a big protest in the city. Students from the university supported the protest march that went on; local MP, Tony Benn, he declared that he would stay off the buses and use his bike instead.
So, it was actually a massive event that promoted changefrom that. And going on at the same time was demonstrations in America as well. Obviously you've got Martin Luther King standing up and protesting against the bus systems in America with the refusal of Rosa Parks being... not being allowed to sit on the buses as well.
So, in fact, we've got a sort of... recreating a bus boycott in Bristol just as you're seeing a boycott in Alabama in the United States because of what had happened to Rosa Parks. And there is absolutely that sort of parallel, of course, with what's going on with Martin Luther King. So, there's this boycott, there's a claim that none of the city's West Indians would use the buses and many white people would support them. And was the boycott successful?
Yes, it was. August 28th, 1963 it was announced that there would be no more discrimination on the buses and it was very much at a similar time to Martin Luther King's famous speech in Washington. It really did change things and it did promote equality. I mean, we... I believe we're still a long way off there but, you know, it was a massive step forward.
What happened as a result of the bus boycott in the long term? What changes have we seen since 1963, when this happened?
Well, two years later the UK Parliament passed the Race Relations Act which made racial discrimination unlawful in public places and this was followed by the Race Relations Act of 1968 which extended this from public places to housing and employment and the enactment of this legislation's been cited by some as having been influenced by the Bristol bus boycott and I think it's probably difficult to overestimate how much this has affected other forms of discrimination, how much it's helped all sorts of groups to advance their minority rights, basically. So, hugely important, really, and does seem to have had a very profound and long-lasting effect.
I mean, it's a crucial moment in having that in legislation to... that you cannot discriminate in public and then later in private places to say that. That had to be said at some point and it had to be fought for. And Stephenson himself, what happened to him?
Order of the British Empire. He was appointed an Officer of the Order of the British Empire in 2009, which is actually very recent, when you think about it, for his part in organising the bus boycott and Bailey and Hackett were also awarded OBEs.
And he's still going strong.
Yes, he is. He's 83 now and he's a very well-respected and celebrated person in Bristol. He's a very famous name that everyone knows in Bristol and around the country as well.
Paul, if you're listening, we salute you.
As a result of the actions of this small group of determined men, race relations in the country began to change, though slowly. They ensured that progress was made and they peacefully, determinedly campaigned for every person's right, no matter what their colour, to be treated equally and fairly. This campaign for equality across race, gender, sexuality and disability continues today, of course.
So, there you have it. What an end to this category of Power, Protest & Progress and, indeed, to this series.
This was the final podcast in Irreplaceable: A History of England in 100 Places. Every episode is now available to download as a podcast. Thank you to my guests, Celia Richardson, Norma Gregory and Billy Reading and, of course, our judge for this category, David Olusoga, for joining me on these last few podcasts.
Keep on talking about important places on your doorstep using the hashtag 100 Places, that's the number 100. I'm Suzannah Lipscomb and thank you for joining us throughout this series. If you want to stay in touch, you can sign up to Historic England's newsletter by visiting historicengland.org.uk/newsletter.
This is a Historic England podcast sponsored by Ecclesiastical Insurance Group. When it feels irreplaceable, trust Ecclesiastical.