The modern presence of black representation in British politics is a subject often overlooked and not always treated with the respect it deserves. John Richard Archer is one such figure. In this blog post, Voice4Change England looks back 110 years to the election of London's first local Mayor, John Archer
"It is a great victory such as never been gained before… I am the proud victor. I am a man of colour. Many of the things that have been said about me, however, are absolutely untrue." (John Archer Nov 1913 Daily Express)
MEET JOHN ARCHER
In the part of South London where I grew up namely Wandsworth, which now encompasses Battersea, a former London borough, the name John Archer means a lot.
110 years ago, in 1913, Archer became the first Black man to hold a leading civic position in London. Not only that he was also an important figure in the early development of the Labour Party and a seminal figure in Britain’s nascent Pan-Africanist movement.
Born in Liverpool in 1863 in Blake Street, behind Lime Street Station, Richard Archer, John’s father, was a Barbadian ship’s steward while his mother, Mary Theresa Burns, was Irish.
Although the early days of John’s life remain sketchy and unknown, we do know that that he was a life-long socialist from a sea-faring background. He claimed to have travelled at least three times around the world in his youth, living for a while in the West Indies and North America. He met his Canadian wife, Bertha, in Canada before returning to Britain in his late twenties and settling in South London, near Battersea Park at 55 Brymaer Road in the 1890s. Making a living as a photographer with a studio in Battersea Park Road, he was successful and won many awards and plaudits.
Battersea of the late 19th century was the radical epicentre of London. It was home to Independent Labour radicals such as John Burns, Charlotte Despard and Tom Mann. John Archer soon involved himself in the Battersea Labour League, beginning his political life speaking out against the Boer War, and criticising the lavish spend on Edward VII's coronation. Well-known for his practical approach to social welfare, he was elected to the Wandsworth Union Board of Guardians in 1906, eventually being elected as a Councillor.
John Archer was nominated as a Progressive candidate for Mayor in Battersea in November 1913 by a 167,000 strong, predominantly white electorate. The press, confused by the notion of dual racial heritage in Liverpool, thought that he was Burmese and were surprised at his command of the English language.
Elected by his fellow Councillors by the narrowest of margins, 40 votes to 39, the impact was not just felt in South London, it reverberated nationally and was reported internationally.
Black American writer and activist, W. E. B. Dubois, writing about John Archer in The Crisis, the official journal of the NAACP noted that he “…fears no man, and brooks no insult because of the race to which he is proud to belong.”
John had to confront a good deal of racist push back from the press. One newspaper, the Southwestern Star, stated:
"It is not meet that the white man should be governed and controlled by a man of colour. It has always been that the white man ruled and it must always be so. lf not, goodbye to the prestige of Great Britain.”
However, the Daily Express provided John with a platform to respond…
"It is a great victory such as never been gained before… I am the proud victor. I am a man of colour. Many of the things that have been said about me, however, are absolutely untrue."
I have a brother, but I should have to have several for us to be born in as many places as we have been said to have been born in… I am the son of a man born in the West Indian Islands. I was born in England, in a little obscure village never heard of until now - the City of Liverpool. I am Lancastrian born and bred My mother - well, she was my mother. My mother was not born in Rangoon. She was not Burmese. She belonged to one of the grandest races on the face of the earth. My mother was an Irishwoman. So, there is not so much of the foreigner about me after all.”
(John was being sarcastic, as Liverpool was the second largest city of England at the time).
Sailor, photographer, local politician, and orator; John was quintessentially, a renaissance man.
His name was a byword for diligence in local council affairs. The list of public offices he held was significant covering areas of public health, poverty, education, finance, pay etc.
The entry of Britain into the first world war sparked a major turning point in his political thinking. Shifting his view along with many others in municipal politics firmly to the left. When he defended his council seat in 1919, he did so as a Labour candidate.
By 1931 he would sit as the Deputy Labour Leader on Battersea Council. Throughout, he continued to push for the betterment of his fellow human beings. A Governor of Battersea Polytechnic, President of the Nine Elms Swimming Club, John Archer was one of the country’s first successful campaigners for the introduction of the minimum wages in the public sector - 32 shillings a week for council workers.
In 1922, Archer gave up his council seat to act as Labour Party election agent for Shapurji Saklatvala, a Communist Party activist standing for Parliament in North Battersea. He convinced the Labour Party to endorse Saklatvala, who was duly elected – one of the first Indian MPs in Britain. He and Saklatvala continued to work together, winning again in 1924 until the Communist and Labour parties split fully over the General Stike of 1926 and the increasing Moscow control of the Communist Party . In the 1929 General Election, Archer switched his support to the official Labour candidate, who beat Saklatvala in a bitter contest.
Amid all these achievements perhaps his most important contribution to civil society was his work as a Pan-Africanist. He strongly believed in a common bond between black people everywhere. He was a close friend of the classical musician Samuel Coleridge Taylor, the composer of ‘Hiawatha’. Both were black activists and members of the African Association, formed in 1897 by black students from all over the world. He and Samuel were elected as representatives to the first Pan-African Conference at Westminster in July 1900. It was organised by Henry Sylvester Williams, a Trinidadian, in response to the primitive depiction of Africans at the Paris International Trade Fair held the same year.
Archer's prestige in London black circles continued to grow and strengthen and enabled him to be chosen as the president of the African Progress Union (APU) set up in Autumn 1918. The APU was a network of black people from various parts of Africa, the Caribbean and the US, mostly students or recent ex-students.
Its aims were to “promote the general welfare of Africans and Afro-Peoples”; to spread “knowledge of the history and achievements of Africans and Afro-Peoples past and present”; and to create “a public sentiment in favour of brotherhood in the broadest sense”. In 1919 it set up a residential and social club for black activists to stay and meet up in London. A precursor to the hugely influential West African Students Union (WASU) of Solanke, Nkrumah, Kenyatta; leaders of the post-war independence movements in Africa.
In June 1919 Archer led an APU delegation to his hometown of Liverpool to discuss the “race riots” that had roiled the city that month. This was part of a wave of violence against ethnic minorities and migrants that swept many British seaports in 1919 – in addition to Liverpool, Glasgow, Hull, South Shields, East London and several parts of South Wales. A noxious tradition of working-class and even trade union agitation against ethnic minority and foreign workers interacted with post-war unemployment and housing shortages to produce a nationwide chain of racist explosions.
As Sean Creighton, a South London Labour movement historian and expert on Archer states:
John Archer was, at least for a period, clearly part of the radical left of Britain’s then very powerful Labour movement. Oddly, however, he does not seem to have talked very much at all about socialism. He was not a Marxist or a revolutionary....He knew which side of the political argument he was on: against injustice whether on racial or class grounds, and the importance of local government in the creating of a fairer society that could help meet a wide range of needs that society was not providing for the majority of people."
Peter Fryer the author of the brilliant classic book ‘Staying Power’ records that when Archer died in July 1932 at the age of 68, he left behind an extraordinary level of public service to the local community. Noting that his remarkable contribution to Pan-Africanism was emphasised in a speech made at the inaugural meeting of the African Progress Union a few after the end of the First World War.
"The People in this country are sadly ignorant with reference to the darker races and our object is to show them that we have given up the idea of becoming hewers of wood and drawers of water, that we claim our rightful place within this Empire. That if we are good enough to be brought to fight the wars of this country, we are good enough to receive the benefits of the country. One of the objects of this association is to demand – not ask, demand; it will be ‘demand all the time that I am your President. I am not asking for anything; I am out demanding.”
Today, in 2023, I gaze across at the English Heritage Blue Plaque that sits on the wall outside 55 Brymaer Road. It stands alongside John Archer's House in Battersea Reach and aligns with a portrait of the great man on the wall of Liverpool City Hall, where he has since been reclaimed again as one of their own. These landmarks are testimonies to the longstanding impact of John Richard Archer, Mayor of Battersea
John Archer's intellect and fiery determination marked him out as an outstanding municipal leader and campaigner for social justice before and during the inter- war years.
His story is an enduring symbol of resilience and a marker for British social change.
Let’s all raise a toast to John Archer on November 10th, in honour of the 110th anniversary of his election as Mayor.