Thursday, July 28, 2016

Pages from the Past


 by Robin Macgregor

John Archer: Battersea’s Black Progressive and Labour Activist 1863–1932 by Sean Creighton.
London: Historical & Social Action Publications, 2014, pp48. ISBN 978-09927299-1-2.
Copies available from HSAP, 6 Oakhill Road, London SW16 5RG. £4.00 plus 50p P&P.
The author can be contacted at for details of his other publications, which include a history of the Co-operative movement in neighbouring Lambeth. 

Sometimes known as “South Chelsea” on account of refugees fleeing the high property prices in the ultra-rich borough just across the River Thames taking up residency, the London Borough of Battersea, now part of Wandsworth, has a surprisingly interesting labour history.
 It was in Battersea that the first working man to become a cabinet minister, John Burns, was elected as a Labour MP in 1892. He was a member of the Marxist Social Democratic Federation which, although often criticised for its sectarianism, worked with the powerful Trades and Labour Council and with some radical Liberals in a sometimes effective Progressive Alliance that played an important role in municipal politics. Amongst its achievements the Alliance established the first direct labour department to build council houses. These experiments in municipal socialism were of high quality, earning the borough the title of a “municipal mecca”. Later it was the borough that elected Shapurji Saklatvala as a Communist MP in 1922 with Labour Party support, and again in 1924 with Labour Party opposition.
 It is against this background that the biography of John Archer is set out in this pamphlet. Born “in a little obscure village in England probably never heard of until now – the city of Liverpool,” as he put it, the son of a black ship steward and an Irish mother, he arrived in London in the early 1890s. Details of his early career are unclear but by 1907 we find him running a photographer’s business.
 His earliest political career centred round the Pan-African movement, he attended its first conference held in London in 1900, which set up a short-lived Pan-African Association. Although few details of his career in anti-colonial politics are known he also attended the 1919 Paris Pan-African Congress.
            There was strong opposition in Battersea to the Boer War, including naming a street after a Boer general, but we are not told views Archer held. For someone deeply concerned about the well-being of Africans, the choice of Queen Victoria’s Empire or the Boer Republics would not have been an easy one. 
  It is not easy to pigeon-hole his political views. A life-long devoted Catholic, he publicly denounced Spiritualism and opposed vivisection. He was one of Saklatvala’s original supporters when he first stood for Parliament – but when the Labour Party banned Communists from joining the Labour Party he was the election agent for the right-wing Labour candidate who ended Saklatvala’s parliamentary career in the 1929 General election.
            First elected in 1906, he had an on-off career on the local council and Board of Guardians from 1906 until his death, both as an elected councillor and as an Alderman. He was not the first British black person to be elected to municipal or parliamentary office, but he was the best known. On the council he focused on the provision of swimming baths, improving both the wages of municipal workers and the Poor Law.
 His main claim to fame, which earned him a postage stamp and an English Heritage plaque in 2013 (and widespread contemporary press coverage), was a one-year term as Mayor that begun in November 1913.
            The latter part of his mayoralty was dominated by the First World War. Archer clearly supported strongly the war effort, organised a recruitment meeting in September 1914. This fact goes unmentioned in the text but Creighton reproduces the letter calling the meeting, which makes it clear that he considered Germany was a threat to “our existence as a Nation” on which “depends upon the success of the efforts to reinforce our Standing Army”. In a 1918 council debate about war bonuses for council workers in the services he said “he would never have gone to France but added that “there were men who thought it was their duty to go”.
 Sometimes the author unwisely attempts to fill the gaps in the surviving evidence by too much speculation about whom he met and what he might have thought. The bibliography does not include any citations from the Catholic press or the photographic trade press, which could possibly throw further light his life and business career. But these are minor blemishes in an otherwise interesting story.

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