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Beating the Colour Bar on the Railways

On this day in 1966, British Rail scrapped the colour bar at Euston Station after a campaign by a black worker, Asquith Xavier, and his union – the win paved the way for the Race Relations Act just two years later.

Asquith Xavier working as a train guard at Euston Station.

On August 15 1966 the colour bar at Euston station and St Pancras goods station was defeated when Asquith Xavier, the West Indian guard initially refused a job, was finally allowed to start work. British Rail announced that after negotiations with local leaders of the National Union of Railwaymen (NUR) no grade would in future be closed on racial grounds anywhere in the London division.

Before this, black workers had been barred from taking jobs as guards and porters at Euston Station and St. Pancras while Irish workers at Paddington were restricted to labouring roles in the goods yard. Similar restrictions applied at other stations. Asquith Xavier was 46 and had come to Britain from Dominica, the largest of the Windward Isles in the eastern Caribbean. He had started work for British Railways in 1956 as a porter, working his way up to rail guard at Marylebone station, where there was no colour bar.

But as far back as June 20th, 1961 Communist Party newspaper The Daily Worker reported that the South Paddington Labour Party had requested that British Rail investigate the ban on the employment of ‘coloured’ workers at Paddington Station. This followed a statement by the Western region staff officer to the press. “All things being equal,” he said, “we prefer taking on white people… they are preferred to coloured people for reasons of intelligence and education.”

Asquith’s own battle began when the Beeching cuts shut the Great Central Line creating a surplus of guards at Marylebone. He had begun to apply for moves to other stations, including Euston. But he received a letter telling him that he had been rejected for the job at Euston because of the ban on ‘coloured men.’ The insulting letter explained coloured people were ‘unsuited to interfacing with the general public.’

Asquith’s workmate Tony Donaghey, a young guard who went on to become president of the Rail, Maritime and Transport (RMT) union, had been given a letter of allocation offering him a guard job at Euston. But he was approached by his NUR branch secretary, Jimmy Prendergast, who asked Donaghey to refuse the offer on the grounds of discrimination.

Tony remembers Jimmy as a respected activist, whose politics and military service history were well known. He had joined the Communist Party in his native Ireland at a very young age and fought the fascists on the streets of Dublin before he enlisted in the International Brigades to fight in the Spanish Civil War.

He came to Britain to find work in the late 1930s and fought Mosley’s Blackshirts at the battle of Cable Street before joining the RAF to fight in the Battle of Britain. Jimmy Prendergast and the Marylebone branch took up Asquith’s case immediately with the British Rail Board and the NUR union as a national issue.

Jimmy also leaked the story to a sympathetic journalist on Fleet Street, resulting in a national scandal which forced BR to relent. A British Rail spokesperson at the time insisted the ban, which had been in place for 12 years, had not been a “real” colour bar but “instigated by the workers out of a desire to protect their jobs.”

The media of the day attempted to paint a picture of a benevolent BR intervening against racist railway workers. But Tony Donaghey is clear that this was simply a myth. “This was a victory for our class and we must challenge the lie peddled that this was something gifted to us by the bosses. The working class cannot be held responsible for the imperialism of their ruling class which creates racism in society, in fact, it was the workers who resisted it.”

“Workers’ attitudes often reflect society,” Donaghey continued, “but that was the general situation in industry – not this false claim that there were ‘racist stations,’ and it was the unions that ultimately fought the colour bar,” he said.

The campaign received national attention and the pressure on Asquith was immense. He was a pioneering figure on whom the hopes of many black British people had begun to rest. He received open and private hostility, including written death threats promising to “slit his throat” and “send him back to the jungle.”

In a scene reminiscent of the civil rights movement in the USA, Asquith had to arrive for his first day of work under police escort. However, he was greeted at Euston by both a British Rail executive and the station committee’s senior trade union representative.

They both shook his hand and gave their commitment to the values of fair treatment and equality on behalf of the company and the workforce. In parliament, the Minister for Transport in the Labour government, Barbara Castle, stressed “the need for vigilance to prevent discrimination, and for every endeavour to resolve these difficulties when they do arise, as in the case that has recently received so much publicity.”

The inquiry into discrimination that followed found that colour bars were in place in several London stations from Camden to Broad Street and BR promised to lift these as well.

Asquith’s victory therefore helped to lead to the 1968 Race Relations Act and the creation of the Commission for Racial Equality. The first Race Relations Act passed in 1965 made it illegal to “refuse anyone access, on racial grounds, to public places such as hotels, pubs, restaurants, cinemas, public transport or any place run by a public authority.” The legislation, however, did not apply to the workplace.

Following the Asquith case, a new Race Relations Act made it illegal to refuse housing, employment or public services to people because of their ethnic background. Presenting it to parliament, then Home Secretary Jim Callaghan said: “The House has rarely faced an issue of greater social significance for our country and our children.”

Although the institutional racism that had developed in Britain in the 1960s was a travesty for those that experienced it, the conditions of the time also allowed for huge steps forward to take place. The fact that Britain’s Railways were run as a public monopoly for the public good allowed a reforming Labour government to act decisively under pressure from a powerful trade union movement.

Today it seems harder than ever to struggle through the invisible but powerful structural racism that still runs through society. Political movements such as Black Lives Matter provide a glimpse of hope in an otherwise demoralising picture.

Too often, these moments of collective optimism erupt in a burst of pent up anger only to be co-opted or sidelined by elites who have no real interest in a change to the status quo. The actions of Asquith Xavier and Jimmy Prendergast point the way towards a stronger, more powerful response to injustice.

Through the organisational strength of the trade union movement prejudice can be challenged and overcome. With recourse to the power of democratically-owned public services, progressive politics can be codified into the workplace, setting new standards for a civilised society; standards that can’t be matched by the ‘woke’ marketing efforts of corporations in a race-to-the-bottom market economy.