Wednesday, 17 April 2013

Why John Archer is Important

I have been researching, writing, giving talks and leading walks about John Archer for many years. I am delighted that the Royal Mail has included Archer in its new series of famous Britons:

Royal Mail has used  part of the painting by Paul Clarkson which hangs in Liverpool Town Hall, and which was used on the front cover of Nubian Jak Community Trust's book published at the end of John Archer Role Model Project undertaken in four Wandsworth secondary schools in the winter of 2010/11.  I was involved in that Project.

I am currently working on putting together a programme of events, including talks and walks and publishing a mini-book looking at Archer’s life in its Battersea context. Details are available from me and will be updated in the British Black History EDigest I compile: at
Assessment of John Archer's Importance
Here is my slightly edited assessment of Archer which I gave at the event which followed the unveiling of the Trust’s plaque to Archer on Battersea Park Rd on 15 December 2010, at which the school pupils read out their writings about hi, and performed a song and a dance inspired by his life.  

"The people in this country are sadly ignorant with reference to the darker races ....'

This is what John Archer said in his Presidential address to the African Progress Union in December 1918.

The work of hundreds of community, cultural history activists have been slowly but steadily redressing that balance within contemporary Britain in relation to the Black contribution to the development of Britain over the last 500 plus years. Through its plaque programme in London the Nubian Jak Community Trust makes an important visual contribution.

John Archer is a key figure in the story of the Black contribution in Britain in the early part of the 20thC.
·         He was active in black politics arguing for social justice and more rights within the African and West Indian colonies

·         He represented Battersea's white working class on the Council and the Board of Guardians

·         He championed the rights of the poor, the unemployed and First World War ex-servicemen

·         Originally thought to be the first Black Mayor in Britain he seems certainly to have been the first black Mayor for a Council in London

·         In 1929 he was a Parliamentary Election agent as was another Black British labour movement activist Bill Miller in Plymouth.

But perhaps more important than any of this was his deep anti-racist and progressive outlook. He knew which side of the political argument he was on: against injustice whether on racial or class grounds, the importance of local government in the creating of a fairer society that could help meet a wide range of needs that capitalism was not providing for the majority of people.   

His views began to be shaped when his parents took him as a child to see a play based on the anti-slavery novel Uncle Toms' Cabin, and appear to have been reinforced by his religious faith.  

When he came to Battersea he had a choice to just lead an ordinary life or become politically involved either through the Progressive or the Municipal Alliance or the socialist groups that were critical of the Progressives. He chose the former because it most mirrored his views. He chose to be a supporter of John Burns who been imprisoned for his role in the Bloody Sunday Trafalgar Square free speech demonstration in November 1887. Five years later Burns was Battersea's Member of Parliament, and from the end of 1905 an independent labour member of the Liberal Cabinet through to his resignation in protest at the declaration of war in 1914.  

With the Liberals having split off from the Battersea Progressive Alliance during the War, Archer became a leading figure in the newly formed Battersea Labour Party & Trades Council, which swept into control of the Council in 1919. John appears to have been elected the Labour Leader. He remained a leading figure until his death in 1932. 

But there is another side to John Archer – his personal life about which we know very little. We know he had a brother Arthur and a sister Mary. All we know about Arthur  is that he was in touch because he was able to get down from the Wirral area to be at John's hospital bedside and be with him as he died, and remained for the funeral and presumably to wind up his affairs. From about 1906 John had set up as a commercial photographer first at 208 and then 214 Battersea Park Rd where the plaque is. He would close his shop to attend day time meetings of the Guardians thereby losing business and income.  

He was a good friend of Samuel Coleridge-Taylor, the Black British composer and musician. John regarded his death in 1912 as a great loss to him because of their friendship and to the race. Living with him at the time was Jane Roberts, the widow of the first black President of the independent African Republic of Liberia. He wrote that she was like a granny to Margaret and him, and he found her death in January 1914 difficult to bear. He did not smoke, he did not drink, and seems to have liked swimming. He read and believed in the continuing value of learning.  

When he came to Battersea his wife was Margaret, a black Canadian from Halifax in Nova Scotia. She was his Mayoress. They do not appear to have children, which must have been a great sadness. At some time between the end of 1914 and the end of 1922 she seems to have died, although we cannot find any record of her death. In 1923 now 60 John seems to have re-married.  

Imagine the tensions that must have existed in the relationship. Bertha Elizabeth was nearly 30 years younger.    It is in the following period after the marriage that John tries to reduce his  political activities. However, there are big issues he would have found it difficult to disengage from: the General Election of 1924 when once again he supported the dual Labour/Communist Party member Shapurji Saklatvala as the Parliamentary candidate, the defence of the Battersea Party against the growing pressure from the National Labour Party to ban Communists from membership leading to the Battersea Party being thrown out of the national Party in February 1926, the split after the defeat of the General Strike in May 1926 with Saklatvala following what was seen as his betrayal of Labour, the rebuilding of new Battersea Party organisations leading to Archer being Election Agent in 1929.  

It is 1929 that Bertha last appears in the electoral register. She is then believed by another family living in Battersea to have left Archer and set up with a younger man. Perhaps she could no longer cope with John's absorption in politics. If that is the case then it must have been a devastating blow to John, and may have contributed to his growing bouts of illness leading to his death in July 1932. 

His life resonates with today. He too saw massive cut  backs in public spending in the early 1920s and again when the Great Depression hit and Labour Prime Minister Ramsay MacDonald formed  he National Government in 1931. Used to having been in a political culture where open air masstmeetings and demonstrations were part of normal experience, having been at a demonstration in the 1920s and seeing what he regarded as the outrageous attack by the police on peaceful demonstrators, being a strong believer in the public service role of the local Council, being a supporter of working class access to higher qualifications, I think it is clear what his views and actions would be today.        

But despite his fundamental differences with them and his passionate opposition to the policies they advocated, his Conservative political opponents were magnanimous towards him at his death. 

Their Leader Frank Abbott stated: 'Mr. Archer was very sincere and honest in his convictions and he always stood up for the party he represented.'  

While Councillor Carpenter: 

'said that Mr. Archer was a man of great integrity and sincerity. ....  Although on many occasions he had had most bitter arguments with Mr. Archer he had never sat down without knowing that if they differed in principle they agreed as men.'


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