Is There a British Colour Bar? by Bert Hardy, 1949

West Indian men play snooker in a colonial hostel in London

“The British colour bar, one might say, is invisible, but like Wells’ invisible man it is hard and real to touch,” wrote Richard Kee in “Is There a British Colour Bar?” in Picture Post (July 2, 1949). The magazine was curious about the race relations in the post-war Britain and having sent Kee and the photographer Bert Hardy to document conditions in Tiger Bay, London’s East End and Liverpool’s South End, the answer to its provocative question was a resoundingly ‘yes’.

A colour bar banning non-white boxers from competition was only recently dissolved in 1947 (with Dick Turpin becoming Britain’s first Black boxing champion the following year) and across the British society, from pubs all the way to the palace, a de facto color bar existed. In pubs, workplaces, shops and other commercial premises, non-white customers were banned from using certain rooms and facilities. They were also excluded from certain professions and housing and from serving as officers in the armed services.

Many that Kee interviewed for his article noted that they would have preferred formal and blatant regulations such as those in the United States and South Africa over the insidious segregation in the UK. Hardy’s opening photo was that of Nathaniel Ajayi, formerly a British Prisoner-of-War in
Germany who lived in five European countries. He noted he knew “no European country where the coloured man is treated with more unofficial contempt than in Britain”.

This situation continued until the mid-1960s. In 1963, a bus boycott in Bristol, against a bus company refusing to hire black and Asian workers, brought the issue to the national attention and helped remove the racist ‘colour bar’ in UK workplaces. In 1965, the Race Relations Act was finally passed which made “racial discrimination unlawful in public places”, followed by another three years later which extended the provisions to housing and employment.

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48 thoughts on “Is There a British Colour Bar? by Bert Hardy, 1949

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