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What was the Colour Bar?

Pubs throughout the country used to operate a colour bar which meant that black and Asian drinkers were forced to drink in separate rooms or not be served at all. Evidence of this racist practice was met with fierce opposition in the 1950s and 1960s and was finally made illegal after a highprofile campaign by anti-racist groups, such as the Indian Workers Association, which attracted the attention of US civil rights leader Malcolm X, who visit a segregated pub in Smethwick in 1965.

David Jesudason

David is a freelance journalist published by BBC Culture, Guardian, Pellicle and Oct.co s As a British-Asian campaigner for racial equality David seeks transformative narratives through writing about beer. 

 

What was the Colour Bar?

Pubs throughout the country used to operate a colour bar which meant that black and Asian drinkers were forced to drink in separate rooms or not be served at all. Evidence of this racist practice was met with fierce opposition in the 1950s and 1960s and was finally made illegal after a highprofile campaign by anti-racist groups, such as the Indian Workers Association, which attracted the attention of US civil rights leader Malcolm X, who visit a segregated pub in Smethwick in 1965.

David Jesudason

David is a freelance journalist, BBC Culture, Guardian, Pellicle. David seeks transformative narratives through writing about beer. 

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A chance of better days

When Avtar Singh Jouhl arrived in the UK from India in the late 1950s he was taken to the Wagon and Horses in Smethwick. The pub had two smoking rooms, two public bars, and an assembly room. He opened the door to one of the smoking rooms saw that there were only white drinkers there and was told by his friend: the “Gaffer doesn’t let us drink in that room.”

Jouhl was like many of the thousand workers from Britain’s former colonies who were told stories that life in this country was an opportunity. A chance of better days. Instead they faced racial segregation in the workplace, in shops and most commonly in pubs. This was the colour bar and it operated in Smethwick, London, Manchester and Scotland – it was a part of everyday life for all non-white drinkers.  

When Avtar Singh Jouhl arrived in the UK from India in the late 1950s he was taken to the Wagon and Horses in Smethwick. The pub had two smoking rooms, two public bars, and an assembly room. He opened the door to one of the smoking rooms saw that there were only white drinkers there and was told by his friend: the “Gaffer doesn’t let us drink in that room.”

Jouhl was like many of the thousand workers from Britain’s former colonies who were told stories that life in this country was an opportunity. A chance of better days. Instead they faced racial segregation in the workplace, in shops and most commonly in pubs. This was the colour bar and it operated in Smethwick, London, Manchester and Scotland – it was a part of everyday life for all non-white drinkers.  

This racial segregation was often claimed by landlords to be based on ‘squalor’ but this was disproved by Dr Dhani Prem who worked in Smethwick as a GP and wrote in the 1965 that “several doctors and teachers have tried to gain admission but they were refused. No one can accuse the doctors and teachers of squalor”. 

To ‘break the colour bar’ protests were staged up and down the country which involved people of colour entering pubs and taking note of when they were barred. The evidence was used when landlords’ licences came up for renewal and led to pubs being taken over by the communities that were marginalised by their racist practices. That’s why Britain has a rich heritage of Desi pubs – Anglo-Indian pubs – and pubs with black landlords.

This racial segregation was often claimed by landlords to be based on ‘squalor’ but this was disproved by Dr Dhani Prem who worked in Smethwick as a GP and wrote in the 1965 that “several doctors and teachers have tried to gain admission but they were refused. No one can accuse the doctors and teachers of squalor”. 

To ‘break the colour bar’ protests were staged up and down the country which involved people of colour entering pubs and taking note of when they were barred. The evidence was used when landlords’ licences came up for renewal and led to pubs being taken over by the communities that were marginalised by their racist practices. That’s why Britain has a rich heritage of Desi pubs – Anglo-Indian pubs – and pubs with black landlords. 

The First Black Landlords

In some cases, these first landlords of colour were met with a hostile reception and in Brixton the Coach and Horses, run by Oliver ‘George’ Berry, London’s first black licensee, was reportedly burned down by the National Front in 1965. Elsewhere it was common for non-white landlords to protect themselves with baseball bats and endure racism from their punters. 

Alanna Lauder’s parents met in the Atlantic pub, on Atlantic Road in Brixton where her white mother, Valerie Lauder, was working as a bartender aged 18 and her Jamaica-born father Tony Waller was a drinker in 1960.  

“The first time my mother noticed my father,” she says. “Was during an altercation between the landlord who was insisting he and his friend Uncle Peter couldn’t be in the saloon bar which was whites only.” 

The First Black Landlords

In some cases, these first landlords of colour were met with a hostile reception and in Brixton the Coach and Horses, run by Oliver ‘George’ Berry, London’s first black licensee, was reportedly burned down by the National Front in 1965. Elsewhere it was common for non-white landlords to protect themselves with baseball bats and endure racism from their punters. 

Alanna Lauder’s parents met in the Atlantic pub, on Atlantic Road in Brixton where her white mother, Valerie Lauder, was working as a bartender aged 18 and her Jamaica-born father Tony Waller was a drinker in 1960.  

“The first time my mother noticed my father,” she says. “Was during an altercation between the landlord who was insisting he and his friend Uncle Peter couldn’t be in the saloon bar which was whites only.” 

Waller went on to become a landlord himself of the Enterprise and the Angel both on Coldharbour Lane, Brixton and the Golden Anchor in nearby Nunhead. But during this visit to the Atlantic he was turfed out and Valerie was sacked for protesting. 

“They waited for her,” Lauder says. “Because they wanted to tell her to get her job back but my mum wasn’t that sort of person. My parents then had a tough time. They spent a lot of time in Soho because you could go there unmolested – they even had a dog set on them at the Tiger on Camberwell Green.” 

Waller went on to become a landlord himself of the Enterprise and the Angel both on Coldharbour Lane, Brixton and the Golden Anchor in nearby Nunhead. But during this visit to the Atlantic he was turfed out and Valerie was sacked for protesting. 

“They waited for her,” Lauder says. “Because they wanted to tell her to get her job back but my mum wasn’t that sort of person. My parents then had a tough time. They spent a lot of time in Soho because you could go there unmolested – they even had a dog set on them at the Tiger on Camberwell Green.” 

Malcolm X Visit

Luckily, a few cases earned national attention, like when the mayor of Lewisham was barred from the Dartmouth Arms in Forest Hill after he visited the south-east London pub with a black friend. But controversy over the colour bar exploded when Malcolm X was taken to the Blue Gates pub by Jouhl and other members of the Indian Workers Association.   

The US civil rights leader was refused service and went back to America claiming that conditions in the UK were worse than in Harlem, New York. His visit on February 1965 to Smethwick, though, was a turning point in the legality of the colour bar and it was soon outlawed by legislation.  

Malcolm X Visit

Luckily, a few cases earned national attention, like when the mayor of Lewisham was barred from the Dartmouth Arms in Forest Hill after he visited the south-east London pub with a black friend. But controversy over the colour bar exploded when Malcolm X was taken to the Blue Gates pub by Jouhl and other members of the Indian Workers Association.   

The US civil rights leader was refused service and went back to America claiming that conditions in the UK were worse than in Harlem, New York. His visit on February 1965 to Smethwick, though, was a turning point in the legality of the colour bar and it was soon outlawed by legislation.  

This, of course, didn’t lead to an end of racism in pubs and segregation continued unofficially. Growing up in Bedfordshire (I was born here in the late 1970s to a father of Indian origin and a Malay mum) separate Black, white, and Asian pubs were a common part of my drinking culture. All pubs in my home town of Dunstable were ‘white’ and places where I had to be on guard if I had the courage to enter on my own. It could be different if I went into a pub with a group of white friends but I never would go to these pubs within a group of Asian friends as the dynamic meant we would be seen “as a gang” and viewed with the upmost suspicion.  

In fact, the first time I visited a pub – the Crown in Dunstable – as soon as I entered, I was met with racist abuse and taunted for being a ‘mini-cab’ driver. The colour bar may have ended in the 1960s but it feels like its racist roots are still with us and in some areas of the country prejudice against drinkers of colour is still an everyday part of life.  

This, of course, didn’t lead to an end of racism in pubs and segregation continued unofficially. Growing up in Bedfordshire (I was born here in the late 1970s to a father of Indian origin and a Malay mum) separate Black, white, and Asian pubs were a common part of my drinking culture. All pubs in my home town of Dunstable were ‘white’ and places where I had to be on guard if I had the courage to enter on my own. It could be different if I went into a pub with a group of white friends but I never would go to these pubs within a group of Asian friends as the dynamic meant we would be seen “as a gang” and viewed with the upmost suspicion.  

In fact, the first time I visited a pub – the Crown in Dunstable – as soon as I entered, I was met with racist abuse and taunted for being a ‘mini-cab’ driver. The colour bar may have ended in the 1960s but it feels like its racist roots are still with us and in some areas of the country prejudice against drinkers of colour is still an everyday part of life.  

Britain’s Secret History

Why is this? According to Empireland: How Imperialism Has Shaped Modern Britain by Sathnam Sanghera, it’s because the colour bar and racism were an imperial import and was firmly embedded in our cultural DNA. Colonialists, who separated people into castes and colours, operated segregation in colonies, like India, and then this philosophy became a domestic secret policy – while our politicians were decrying South African apartheid the colour bar was all the rage in the UK. 

The various people I’ve spoken to about the colour bar, including university graduates, were shocked to discover its prior existence so if this is a revelation to you then you’re not alone. But it’s not something we should forget. In fact, we could teach it in schools and inform pupils about the horrors of the past so we can build a better future. It’s up to the next generation of publicans to ensure their pubs are a welcoming place for all.  

Britain’s Secret History

Why is this? According to Empireland: How Imperialism Has Shaped Modern Britain by Sathnam Sanghera, it’s because the colour bar and racism were an imperial import and was firmly embedded in our cultural DNA. Colonialists, who separated people into castes and colours, operated segregation in colonies, like India, and then this philosophy became a domestic secret policy – while our politicians were decrying South African apartheid the colour bar was all the rage in the UK. 

The various people I’ve spoken to about the colour bar, including university graduates, were shocked to discover its prior existence so if this is a revelation to you then you’re not alone. But it’s not something we should forget. In fact, we could teach it in schools and inform pupils about the horrors of the past so we can build a better future. It’s up to the next generation of publicans to ensure their pubs are a welcoming place for all.  

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