Thursday, 21 November 2013

English Heritage Unveils John Archer Plaque

(c) English Heritage 2013

On Wednesday 13 November English Heritage unveiled a plaque to John Archer at his former home 55 Brynmaer Rd in Battersea. The actual unveiling was performed by Wandsworth Mayor Angela Graham. I gave a short talk as follows: 

Having been working on John Archer’s biography for a long time and having lobbied for the plaque today, it is a privilege and a challenge to try in a few minutes to convey the main aspects of his life and the essence of the man.

Born in Liverpool in July 1863 to a West Indian ship’s steward and an Irish woman, virtually nothing is known about his life until he is in his 40s, apart from the fact that he and his Black Canadian wife Margaret settled in Battersea in the early 1890s. She is a mystery because her maiden name is not known, nor indeed when and where she died. They had no children.  

What detail we do know comes from 1900 when he attended the Pan African Conference and became a member of the Committee set up to campaign for black rights around the Atlantic. Here at No. 55 John and Margaret looked after the elderly Jane Roberts, widow of the first black President of the independent state of Liberia, in her final years up to her death in January 1914.

By 1906 he had become a professional photographer based on Battersea Park Rd. He was that year as a Councillor for the labour and liberal Progressive Alliance. In the Tory rout of the Alliance in 1909 most Progressives lost their seats, but John was elected again in 1912. While he did not stand again in 1922 he was active in Council affairs particularly on health, welfare and educational issues including at international level. He became an Alderman in 1925 and elected again as a Councillor in 1931.

He had married again in 1923 to Bertha, but by 1931 she had left him for a younger man.
In November 1913 he was made Mayor for a year. He chaired Council and Town’s Meetings, undertook civic duties for local charities and organisations. The last three months were dominated by the start of the First World War. He set up a  relief fund for families whose men had enlisted. His duties increased tremendously so that after his period of office ended the Council and local activists thanked him with special presentations.

He was also a member of the Wandsworth Guardians which administered help to the poor, disabled and elderly. He championed those regarded as ‘undeserving’, shone the light on abuse by officials, and fought cuts in the level of financial support, especially after the War when so many ex-servicemen could not get work.   

In December 1918 he was elected President of the newly formed African Progress Union. He attended both the 1919 and 1921 Pan African Congresses.

He was a key figure in setting up new local Labour organisations when the existing ones fractured in the face of what was regarded as betrayal in May 1926 by Shapurji Saklatvala, the Battersea Party backed Communist MP. As election agent he helped William Sanders replace Saklatvala as MP in 1929.  In his final years John’s premises in Battersea Park Rd where the Nubian Jak plaque is were used as Party offices.

John Archer is there not only an important figure in the story of the Black contribution in Britain but as a black man representing Battersea's white working class in the early part of the 20th Century. 

He was well read, there is evidence that he loved music and he supported local sports activities including swimming. He served as a Trustee of Walter Sinjun School and Battersea Polytechnic. 

What stands out for me about John Archer is that he knew which side of the political argument he was on: against injustice whether on racial or class grounds.

His life resonates with today. He too saw massive cut backs in public spending in the early 1920s and again following the Wall St crash in 1929. Used to being in a political culture where open air mass meetings and demonstrations were part of normal experience, being a strong believer in the public service role of the local Council, and being a supporter of working class access to higher qualifications, I think it is clear what his views and actions would be today.        

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