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.'


Friday, 12 April 2013

What Can Be Done About the Bankruptcy of Croydon Politics?

‘a lot of people are scared of Dudley Mead et al’

This quote is from an email I received commenting on my examination of the finances of Fairfield Halls on Inside Croydon: Mead is the leading Tory Councillor on the Halls Board.

This comment suggests that something is rotten in the political culture operating in Croydon. I am not the only one to think so. Susan Oliver has written a piece for Inside Croydon in which she says: ‘When the council’s budget meeting was broadcast on Croydon Radio, I could only listen for about 45 minutes. That’s all I could stomach. After that, I read the tweets and was glad there were heartier souls who could digest the vitriol and produce a newsfeed that I could swallow.’ Steven Downes, Inside Croydon’s editor has previously posted a critical piece commenting on the emergency meeting of the Council on the Libraries.

That rottenness of the political culture in Croydon is much wider and deeper than the way in which Tories and Labour behave. It also the form of deep suspicion between  different activists  about each other’s motives and links. The recent row over the West Croydon Community Forum reported by Inside Croydon is perhaps one of the worst examples of how that can play out publicly that I have heard for some time. (
‘More spin that my mum's washing machine. Read this and tell me that the’ Citizen ‘is not a Glee Club front for the council.’

was the email comment sent to me about the Croydon Citizen posting by Brian Lancaster, General Secretary of the Croydon Natural History and Scientific Society, explaining the success of the campaign to save the Local Studies Library and Archives from drastic cuts and the promises made by Tory Councillor Tim Pollard.

I immediately read it and came to a different conclusion, and have posted the following response:

‘This is a timely posting. It reminds Cllr Pollard that he has to deliver on his promises and that he is being watched. If he fails to deliver on the detail then there more lobbying will be needed. It is a useful reminder that campaigning can be effective; small victories can be achieved even in the midst of serious damage being done across the board to Council services and the incompetence (Library tendering) and waste of money (e.g. furniture & fittings of new HQ) that continues to happen. The Local Studies Fair on Saturday 20 April should provide a good opportunity to bring those attending up to-date with any further news on the reorganisation.’

I sent this to my email correspondent with the additional comment: ‘As a good piece of tactics; reminding people what has been promised, and letting Pollard know that he is being watched. As I said in my previous comments on Pollard’s promises, the proof will be in the detail.’

Of course there can be differences of interpretation. My email correspondent suggests that Pollard’s ‘promise is a massive denudation of the provision, presented as some sort of triumph. Pyrrhic doesn't even begin to describe it.’ My view is that ‘It may not be. And lobbying on detail can still happen. Its not the end of the process.’

My correspondent also suggested that because I  haven't been in Croydon very long, I am ‘less familiar with the operating practices of our beloved council.’ That’s right. But that means I am not burdened by the legacy of its past, and can bring different perspectives based on experience elsewhere.

Meanwhile Jonny Rose of the Croydon Tech City group has posted on Croydon Citizen his own thoughts on what he calls Croydon’s ‘chattering classes’.

‘… the various strong personalities and tribalism amongst Croydon’s martyrs threatens to undo much of the promising good work that is emerging through an inability to collaborate across agendas and ideology.

If the social, cultural and economic realm of Croydon is to improve under the current national climate, then we are all going to have to get involved and get connected. Bottom-up regeneration does not happen through bloody-minded dogmatism (FYI, martyrs), nor does it manifest ex nihilo through noncommittal fence-sitting (FYI, satyrs).

The New Croydon has no place for either martyrs or satyrs.’

Another email correspondent tells me that ‘having attended a number of council meetings and been shocked by the arrogance and blinkered behaviour of the Council members that the only way to get democracy is to get some independent or third party councillors elected. The polarity at the moment is not healthy and it is impossible to say how different things would be if Labour where in power. Or if they would be any less partisan.’

My email exchanges and the challenge posed by Jonny raise the question of how should people who have been around a long time, and those who are new to Croydon, engage politically, especially if they are neither Conservative or Labour supporters.

My experience in Wandsworth, Lambeth and elsewhere shows that the majority of the time you cannot have influence, but sometimes you can. But more importantly if you do not try you never will have any influence, and even worse things might be done. We usually do not know until much later what effect our activity has had.  If we do not challenge then the arrogance of so-called power of a Council’s ruling party political group will only increase, and Council officers can continue to ignore the concerns of the public.

So how should individuals engage?

We should take up issues that concern us, through writing and emailing Councillors, attending and asking questions at public meetings, signing petitions, and objecting to planning applications.  It is no good people saying the Councillors and Council officers do not listen. They may have a non-listening track record. But if we do not engage they certainly will not hear the alternative view points, and will assume silence means agreement.

We can contribute to debate by writing for Inside Croydon and Croydon Citizen, or posting responses to other people’s writings on these websites. Debate is healthy.

We can contribute by joining single issue campaigns, enetworks, our local residents and community associations, and  we can argue within faith and other organisations for a public stand against the things we disagree with.

We should vote in the local elections in May next year; inc. for minority parties which best represent our views, as a protest against Conservatives and Labour.  

Local organisations should stand up and oppose the things the Council is doing they do not like. They should not be afraid to do so.

Some people prefer to act as individuals. Others prefer to concentrate their efforts in particular organisations. There are strengths and weaknesses in both approaches. The danger is silo thinking, which can only be counteracted by networking and joint activity, as is the approach South Croydon Community Association has taken over trying to influence what happens at Fairfield Halls.

From the tone of the email string above and other emails and face to face discussions I have had in recent weeks, it worries me that those who agree that the political culture in Croydon is bankrupt can be very quick to leap at each other’s throats. I have been privately attacked in a group email for allegedly spreading false information regarding the nature of Laing’s persuading Croydon to re-open the Library tender process.

Of course there have always been disagreements over strategy and tactics and there have been personality clashes in organisations up and down the country. But as one activist emailed me about a particular local organisation: XXX ‘is full of very strong characters, at some stage we all annoy each other, but we are united by a desire for ONE CROYDON with transparent governance that maximises value for money and efficient Government….’

I would add ‘and that protects the most vulnerable of the residents and works to achieve greater equality, opportunity and social justice.’

Perhaps it is time for those who are suspicious of each other, or who have reservations about the way each other works, should have a Chatham House rules gathering to try and sort out real from perceived differences, and agree a joint strategy which can be pursued in different ways.

Do we need a loose alliance? e.g. Croydon for Economic and Social Justice? What do you think?